Put together the poles. Slip them through their respective sleeves on the fabric, then into the grommets on either side. It stands shakily erect. Stake out the tags at the back; then in front. Fling the flysheet over it all. Use lengths of rope to stake out its four corners, then two more at the side.
Takes me twenty minutes, my knees are damp and muddy from kneeling on the grass, I have my little two-man tent up for the first time in years. Fling my mat inside, unpack the sleeping bag, and just like that, I'm ready for the night. Ready for the solitude -- I'm the only camper in this huge campground! -- for the darkness, for the night sky. For the adrenaline rush this tent always induces in me, memories of nights spent in it in all kinds of places. Tonight, I'm in Land Between the Lakes, the sprawling park on the Tennessee/Kentucky border. What memories will I have, tomorrow?
What attracted me to Land Between the Lakes was the chance to see bald eagles. Scratch that: what really attracted me was the time I drove through, nearly twenty years ago. I remember an almost surreal beauty, especially at dusk as mist and herons alike hovered above the lakes -- really, wide stretches of rivers -- that run on either side of this long finger of land.
Still, this time eagles were a definite draw. Several of these magnificent birds winter here, and park rangers organize trips to see them. All the way from India, I signed up on the phone for the last such trip for the winter. Then car trouble in North Carolina delayed me by two days. So much for the eagles.
But when I finally got there one evening, I saw the same beauty again that I remembered from twenty years ago, and disappointment over the eagles dissipated fast. But plenty of other birds. Some ghostlike in their homeward flight through the evening mist; a duck family staying late on the water, moving imperceptibly over the ripples.
Next morning at dawn, I am ready ... not for eagles, but for bison. Give up one American icon and find another, is what I always say. And a small history lesson helps me understand.
Kentucky and Tennessee used to be a vast stretch of prairie. Until as recently as a couple of hundred years ago, vast herds of bison (also referred to, though incorrectly, as "buffalo") wandered this area. They would swim across the rivers and graze in what is now this park. As signs here tell me, the animals
- "etched their tracks into the gentle hills between the rivers. ... [T]hunderous migrations of bison and elk eroded paths that many of our current highways follow today."
In the time of the herds, the only humans about were native Americans. They killed bison for meat and skins, but always in sustainable numbers. Periodically, they also burned patches of the encroaching forests, keeping the grasslands alive. But in the 1700s, another kind of human began appearing on the prairie. This one came with what he called civilization: in this case, guns and an insatiable appetite for meat and money, fur and more.
Civilized white man forced the native people out of these areas, drove them further west and eventually into near-oblivion. And the real slaughter of buffalo began. The animals were a fabulous source of all kinds of goodies, according to another sign in the park:
- "[They] provided an abundant supply of meat. Hides and bones were used to fashion clothing, robes, blankets and tools. Buffalo were also killed for their market value. Traders made handsome profits selling tongue and tallow, meat and hides."
This sunny morning, I drive slowly into the prairie. Signs urge me to stay in the car if the animals approach within 200 feet, because while they may appear tame and slow -- which they do -- they are really wild, unpredictable, dangerous -- and fast when provoked. I'm not looking to test the veracity of all that, so I stay in the car. Round a curve and across a small stream, I am suddenly in the middle of the bison. One is no more than ten feet from my window. Almost near enough to touch.
What surprises me is how soothing it is, here. When I turn off my engine and my ears get tuned to the quiet, all I hear are occasional birds -- no bald eagles -- and a sound that I initially think must be the wind gusting through the trees. But it's no wind. It is the gentle munching of the animal nearest me, munch munch graze graze, across the prairie one mouthful at a time. The sound grows on me, calms me, nearly hypnotizes me. I could listen all day.
Before I fully succumb to that temptation, I fire up my car and move on. Much later, I think, why not succumb? What is it about my life that has persuaded me that it's a waste of time to listen all day to a bison chewing grass? After all, I drove hundreds of miles to get here, along a path first laid down by this animal's ancestors. Seeing bison up close and learning their history are, as far as I'm concerned, excellent reasons to visit Land Between the Lakes. So why didn't I stay?
Then again, while driving in the park, I run into one, then another, then several more ... cemeteries. The Lee Cemetery, the Smith, Nickell, Paradise, Catholic, Woodson-Chapel, Pinegar, Cassity, Higgins, Jenny Ridge and Newton ... why so many?
Nickell sprawls over a gentle rise beside the road, and I stop to read epitaphs, always a good way to spend an hour or two. 110 years too late, I feel tiny pang of sorrow for Pearl, dead in 1897 before her fourth birthday:
- "Sweet little Pearl unto Earth a little while was given.
She plumed her wings for flight,
And soared away to heaven."
- "She was. But words are wanting to say what.
Think what a wife should be and she was that."
Later, I follow a trail through the stretch of forest at the northern end of the park. Beautiful vistas of the lake, cool breeze, carpet of leaves underfoot. Every now and then, I stop to listen. This time, it is indeed the wind through the trees. No munching bison, no other sound. Me, my panting, my footfalls and the breeze. I could get used to this.
And little rectangular blue tags, nailed on tree-trunks, that show me the way. Despite the vistas and the quiet, I'm really paying attention to the tags, though not just because I want to know how to find the trail through the tall trees. Turns out people have recognized the potential, graffiti-wise, of these tags. Yes: predecessors in these parts have put sharp implements to efficient use, scraping off the blue to leave intriguing messages that enliven my progress. "Nathan is Dumb" is the first I notice, followed immediately by "I [heart] Mary". Just as I'm speculating about a possible love triangle involving Nathan, Mary and an anonymous sign-scraper, I see this in wiggly capitals: "HOT GUY ON BIKE!"
Did a hot guy really bike along this trail? Was he the sign-scraper with an animus for Nathan and a thing for Mary? And did he follow a once-bison-pounded path on his bike, to get here?
Imponderables, as always. But that night, that night ...
Dinner is at a elegant establishment -- even wi-fied so I am elegantly web-surfing all through my meal -- just outside the park where they serve me perfectly ghastly spaghetti and meatballs. (Aside: why is it so rare to find that simple dish done well? These folks used what looked like vermicelli and for the balls, what tasted like leather). So I'm mildly dissatisfied when I return to the tent. Besides, it's cold; and, to my teeth-chattering astonishment, the flysheet and tent are fairly sodden with dew. Already, by 9pm.
When I switch off the car lights, it's as if someone has thrown a great thick blanket over the world. A blanket with a myriad tiny gleaming spots and one gleaming fingernail-like crescent over at that corner seen through the bare trees. Outside, it is below freezing already, and dropping -- but by now I'm getting into the spirit of this. Old friends in the sky, after all. The Great Bear towering above the bare trees, the North Star that it points to, good solid Orion, faithful Sirius, and so many more stars. I'm shivering yes, but I feel somehow connected to the familiar by these twinklers, a comforting thought when I'm so alone.
Lower myself into the tent, take off sandals, rig up the torch to hang above me. Sit wrapped in my sleeping bag, read for a while by torchlight. Eventually I worm fully into the bag, reach up to turn off the torch and again, it's suddenly dark. More than that, it's suddenly quiet. (Ever notice how light sometimes seems to fill your ears?) Even quieter than a bison munching.
I'm snug in my bag, despite the cold and wet. Twice in the night I wake, unzip the tent flap and the flysheet. Just lying there I'm looking straight up at a sky filled with stars like I haven't seen in many city years. My head slowly turns into what I'm sure is a block of ice. But above is such a spectacular sight that I don't even think about ice.
What was it I expected to see, here at Land Between the Lakes? Have I already forgotten? Oh yes, bald eagles. So yes, I had to substitute that with Mary and Nathan, a glorious star show, America's grave, 32 bison and this night in my tent that's bone-chilling yet exhilarating.
Hey, does it look like I'm complaining?
And I remember the bison that crossed the road slowly in front of me, stopping at one point. Tiny beady eyes. I could swear he was watching me, as intently as I watched him. Do bison remember their history too?