It has been 50 years since I was a Yankee student at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C. The day I arrived, as a tender freshman, a 20-foot banner hung from the front of my dorm that said, “Forget? — Hell!” I had never been any farther south than Washington DC. I didn’t know what that meant until someone told me. The South has a long memory — at least for a grudge.
I have since come to love the American South, and have lived in it longer than I have lived in any other region of the country. I don’t share its politics, but I was at a Quaker college and its values were those I shared. I studied hard — not really true: I took lots of courses and wanted to learn everything, but I can’t say with any honesty that I was a hardworking student. I read constantly, but not always those things required for my courses.
One day, another student, Big Jim McLarty, said, “I’m going hiking in the Smokies next week. Wanna come?” The Great Smoky Mountains National Park strides the boundary between North Carolina and Tennessee with some of the highest peaks east of the Rockies. The Appalachian Trail balances on the top of its ridges. Big Jim wanted to hike the central portion of the range, to Ice Water Springs.
Big Jim was the son of a noted Methodist minister from Asheville, and the baby brother of the actress whose stage name was Eileen Fulton. (Birth name: Margaret Elizabeth McLarty). For 50 years, she was a fixture on the soap opera, As the World Turns, where she played Lisa Miller Hughes Eldridge Shea Colman McColl Mitchell Grimaldi Chedwyn, wife of six husbands, divorced three times, widowed four times, participant in more than 30 love affairs and victim of amnesia, kidnapping, hysterical pregnancy and auto accidents.
Big Jim had a “stage name,” too. He was the Nunny (more properly, The Noney.) When he first came to Guilford, he had to fill out a form with personal information and in the box for “church preference,” he wrote: “None.” It caused a kerfuffle at the time (We’re talking the late ’60s in the South, where there is a church on every other street corner) and he became known for his freethinking answer. (I came a few years later, and when I had to answer the same question — church preference — I put down: “Gothic.”)
Anyway, The Noney said just to pack sleeping bags. He would bring the food for the trip. “I have lots of stuff left over from earlier camping trips,” he said.
And so, we drove up U.S. 421, U.S. 64 and U.S. 70 to Asheville, where we stopped at The Noney’s ancestral home to pick up his gear and then drove down past Maggie Valley and Lake Junaluska to the Smokies. The sunny day turned cloudy and The Noney explained that the mountains sometimes make their own weather. This was a new concept to me and I was suitably amazed. Nothing like that happened in New Jersey, where I grew up. The turnpike never made its own weather, although perhaps the Monsanto plant did.
We parked in Newfound Gap and began the hike about three miles north on the Appalachian Trail and stopped for the night at a lean-to at Ice Water Springs.
The woods were thick around us, but you could see parts of Tennessee to the west. There was a wooden lean-to in a clearing. It had eight bunks along its back wall, in double decker, and with a chain link fence across its front.
“Are there bears?” I asked, with some thought to my own safety. We didn’t have any bears in New Jersey. My only experience with a real bear had been at the Bronx Zoo. Other than that, there was Yogi Bear on TV and when I was an infant, a giant stuffed panda bear. But there were actual bears in these woods.
“Don’t worry,” said The Noney. “You just treat ’em like a big dumb dog.” This pretty well capsulized The Noney’s approach to life in general. He was one of those sparkly people that nothing bad ever touches — or who remain unaware that bad things are even a possibility.
It remained overcast and by late afternoon, I was standing just outside the lean-to making photographs, when a bear crossed the path about 30 feet away. It spotted me, hesitated a moment and then charged. It lumbered (as bears do) straight at me and got to within a few feet of me before turning away and running off into the woods. Big Dumb Dog. Big Dumb Me — I stood there and took a photo of the bear charging. Maybe it wasn’t the biggest bear in the woods, but it was big enough. And I snapped the shutter instead of ducking.
Come dinner time and the dusk, and The Noney scrounged around in his knapsack and pulled out a handful of tinfoil bags, looking for a dehydrated dinner. But there was nothing but dehydrated strawberry milkshakes. “I guess I must have already used up all my dinners,” he said. We were hungry after a day’s hiking and bruin-dodging, but the cupboards were bare. Lucky for us, some other campers in the lean-to were generous and offered us some of their food. The Noney just laughed it off.
And so, in the middle of the night, sleeping behind the wire-mesh fencing that protected the lean-to inhabitants from the creatures of the woods (although not from the mice), a noise woke me up. The knapsacks hanging on the wall were rocking back and forth, the fencing was jangling. A bear — rather larger than the one I photographed — was attempting to steal our bindle, reaching between the fencing and the wall, stretching out its paw to get the goodies. It was pitch dark. I didn’t know what to do.
Then The Noney flew from his sleeping bag as if he were shot from a cannon, and screaming at the top of his lungs with his arms flailing, running toward the bear. The bear was stopped short and the half-dozen campers in the other bunks were jerked awake not knowing what all the noise was about. The Noney screamed and flailed; the bear withdrew judiciously and everyone else’s flashlights turned on. The Noney stood in the spotlight and smiled. “Big dumb dog.”