Several streams run through Cades Cove of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the one we stopped at to let Levi dip in his feet was shallow and clear and textured with brown rocks and moss-covered roots. The old trees nearby stood bent over and had flaky bark and were still bald. The stream smelled like the air before a spring rain and sounded lively and light like the folk band at our campsite: the retired old men who perform at the concession stand where you can buy bundled firewood, bug spray, and marshmallows. For pure enjoyment and nothing more, these men who wear “Proud Veteran” hats and pins play the banjo, mandolin, and string bass made out of a five-gallon bucket and broomstick. They do this at dusk, when the air is cool and the moon that looks like a fingernail is just starting to cut through the sky. The youngest of the old men works the cash register but is more attentive to his music than his customers, which is fine because while he may not love his job, you can see in his saggy face that holds the green glowing eyes and hear in the delicate way he strums his banjo that he loves his music deeply, and that love spreads to his watching and listening customers who soon forget they came to the stand for anything but to hear.
The stream bordered a big, pale, hard-grass field, and across this field, up the brown-green mountainside, a black bear and her cubs were pawing through the earth for berries, roots, and bugs. A line of cars with heads and cameras sticking out the windows was stopped on Cades Cove Loop because of the bears. I was glad to be out of the traffic for a little while, even if the bears looked like ants through the binoculars. You don’t come to the woods to get stuck in traffic. And bears should be given their space.
A pileated woodpecker went to work on the overhead sycamore, the red flag of feathers on his head waving wildly as his jackhammer beak, fast and rhythmic and loud, beat into the bark. Sunlight draped over the mountains, field, and stream. Earlier at camp, while Levi was still asleep in the tent and Caleb and I sat sipping coffee by the fire in the fresh morning cold, yellow threads of sun were weaving through the branches and leaves, embroidering the ground with bright dashes and dots.
“Camping is magical,” I said, my hands wrapped around my warm titanium mug, “because it slows down time.”
Caleb stirred the fire with a long stick. “It makes you feel you’re where you belong.”
In the stream two minnows rushed by chasing each other, having what looked like fun. I pulled off Levi’s sandals and double cuffed his jeans. Caleb took Levi’s hand and led him into the stream. I crouched to touch the water. Bubbly and cold, kissed by sun. Levi shrieked and splashed and tried to squirm free from Caleb’s hold to sit down in the water. The two geese that had been sunning on the smooth-stone bank honked furiously at us then waddled away. A man and woman came down the overgrown path from the road and stopped near us. The woman had a big smile and bigger hair. The man wore a white t-shirt tucked into crisp jean shorts.
“What a cutie. Wouldya look at him, Jim,” said the woman, pointing to Levi as he kicked and yelled. She stomped into the water with her boots on. “Think it’s safe to drink, Jim?”
“It’s running, and I don’t see no houses around,” the man called from the bank. “Go ‘head, hun. Take you a swig.”
The woman dipped her hands in the water then brought them to her lips.
“I wouldn’t tell you to drink it if it was stagnant,” said the man. “But this here water’s running good.”
“Tastes good too,” said the woman. “Better than Aquafina. You try it, Jim.”
And he did. In this light and lively place, the man took him a swig.