Scott A. Singleton

Around the Lake

“I wondered how time would have marred this unique, this holy spot—the coves and streams, the hills that the sun set behind, the camps and the paths behind the camps.” — E.B. White, “Once More to the Lake”

I visited the lake before I was born. My mom was pregnant with me, so I was there, waiting on my time—benefiting from the fresh mountain air. I have returned every year since, often more than once. The slow road to the top of Grassy Mountain, each turn and fork, became engrained in my memory at a young age, like the roads of my neighborhood in Kennesaw, Georgia. I often stared, slightly scared of the height, out the window of my dad’s blue Ford F-150, our red canoe strapped to the top, as we made our way to the lake. When we would arrive, I would look at the unchanged lake, unchanged and steady, and wonder if any time had really passed.

In late June, the desire to see the lake—to breathe its air—seized me, and I packed up my car and drove north with my wife, Lucia. The drive from our home in Kennesaw follows I-575 to 515, past the Bargain Barn and Wal-Mart. In downtown Ellijay, we take a right on 52 and drive west to Gates Chapel Road. Before the Gates Chapel turn is a gas station, the closest store to the campground and the last chance for more ice for the cooler or any other forgotten items. At the end of Gates Chapel, the pavement ends and the climb begins. The drive is divided between paved and gravel road, an hour or so for each.

Lake Conasauga rests on a mountaintop in north Georgia, hidden away in the Chattahoochee National Forest next to the Cohutta Wilderness. The 19-acre lake remains the highest in the state, and I return out of necessity as much as anything else. I go back when I feel suffocated, not only from a brim-filled life, but simply from lack of sufficient air. The air is rich up there. It is filled with hickory, pine, and silence. It knows a silence the city cannot. The city—with its constant humming, whirring, and rushing—is incapable of silence. It is as impossible as the accurate translation of a sentence from one language to another.

Silence is the first thing I notice when I step out of the car. The drive, though peaceful, is loud compared to the calm of the woods. The car engine, the strong rush of the wind, the words of a preacher on the radio, all these things stop at the lake. The rain begins shortly after we select our campsite. It rains often during the summer, usually with little warning. We quickly set up our two-person backpacking tent under a tree, trying to keep the inside dry before we put the rainfly on. We get in the tent, toss our muddy boots into the vestibule, and listen as the water collides with the tent canvas.

Water, of course, gives life to the woods. I have often found that the most remarkable result of the rain is the immediacy of new life. It is everywhere, as if the woods were suddenly baptized. The leaves and grass find a deeper green and flash with speckled drops of water and the creeks swell and pour cold water into the lake. The intensity of the green sometimes reaches such a brightness, it appears the other colors, the gray stones and the brown pine straw, must have adopted the color—perhaps out of some newly awakened desire.

When the rain stops, we unzip the tent and step out. The unzipping of the tent, more than nearly any other sound, brings memories with the force of a thunderclap—my dad getting up early to boil water for coffee, the retreat into an afternoon nap to avoid a sudden rain storm. It is a sacred sound, reserved for sacred moments—a glissando that reveals a slow, rugged song. This song is suddenly interrupted by the campground host, shouting at me from the road about not having my tent within the gravel pad.

Later on near a small fire, the woods still glistening from the rain, my wife and I talk about having children while we prepare chili and drink beer. Our campsite setup is simple—a tent, two small chairs around the fire ring, and a hammock between two trees past the picnic table.

“I know we’ve already talked about it,” she says, “but do you want a boy or a girl first?”  

“A boy, I think.”

Then I say something about not having any control over such things. The conversation highlights the unyielding influence of the silence of the place. Words are not interruptions to the peaceful stillness; they are strengthened by it. Two words can be sufficient, instead of many. Here, silence is not an issue of absence, not as darkness is the absence of light. It is more of how black, appearing to lack color, is the result of all color. It is as Thoreau said: “Silence is audible to all men, at all times, and in all places. Creation has not displaced her, but is her visible framework and foil.”

After dinner, we clean the plates and pans with the water pump at the top of the hill then follow the path down to the lake. The campground is crowded, and our campsite is in the upper loop, away from the water. As we slowly approach the lake, the setting sun reveals a range of purple and orange, reflected with greater brilliance by the water as two fishermen in a canoe drift near the opposite shore. Their lines lazily rest on the water. After taking a few pictures, we turn left and follow the shore to the trail. While walking around the lake, I continue our conversation from dinner.

“Let’s talk about a timeline. How long should we wait?”

Her face lights up. “I don’t know. I want to wait a little, but not that long.”

It’s about more than making a timeline, I think to myself. I want to initiate, to give her permission to look at the future with joy. When we have children, I want them to love this place. I love this place because my dad does. He showed me how. The gravel road up the mountain and through the campground, the pine straw path, the unchanging lake. The same gravel road where I practiced walking, many years before, with small, hesitant steps in red Reeboks, arms outstretched in celebration. Yes, I want my children to love these things. I want them to know truth and grace too, but maybe I’ll start with the pine straw path. These things, I know, are beyond my control, even the lake. Their hearts are not yet beating, but I think about what they will love.

In the 1940s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built the lake, carving out a road up the mountain through the wilderness. Necessity drove the building of the lake. Not necessity of silence or the songs of bullfrogs and crickets, but of work and progress. I wish such forces didn’t drive the construction of lakes on mountaintops. I want the lake to have always been an overflow of a divine fountain, not the product of human hands. The lake may be the result of human dealings, but it has been filled and sustained by something else. But what did this place look like before? Before the filling of the lake and the hauling in of picnic tables and fire rings. Conasauga is a Cherokee word that means grass. The Cherokee, though once here, are now gone from this place, like the grass of the field. On the path, I look at the rain soaked grass, fully alive, and wonder if the Cherokee had their own transience in mind when they named this place.

We cross a bridge and come up on the picnic shelter before the swimming hole. The lake has a certain level of wildness to it, a wildness that is tamed by the presence of picnic tables and bathrooms. Yet this wildness is not a lack of control, but a strange feeling of complete control—not possessed by the visitor, but the place itself. The unruliness of the city, on the other hand, lacks control. Control, order, peace. These feelings, mysterious and wonderful, terrify those who have grown accustomed to chaos and noise. They leave no place for an alternative. For them, silence is a foreign, unbearable sound in another tongue. For some, silence is a foreign yet welcomed language, whispers from some unvisited holy country.

We arrive at the swimming hole, which marks the halfway point on the path, and walk out onto the new metal dock. Our steps make harsh echoes that travel across the water and back. Only a few changes have been made since my first visit, which makes the new things seem more alien than they might elsewhere. The most notable change is the replacement of the old wooden dock. In its time, it extended thirty feet from the shore into the swimming area. It offered a peninsula of refuge and warmth from the cold lake water. During the summer, my friends and I would fight on the dock, tossing opponents into the water and defending the sacred ground. It was the battleground of kings. The dethroned king tossed in the water from behind—the new king scrambling, soaking wet, around the dock. Yes, we were kings, showing our power by throwing everybody else in the water and laughing the way only kings ignorant of their mortality can. We carved our names into the old wood, joining hundreds of older names with older stories.

The wooden dock now rests at the bottom of the lake, replaced by a smaller metal dock. The former dock was the strong sentry of the lake, the new one huddles close to the shore, scared of the open water. They say the foundation rotted away. It had to be done. It couldn’t last. The new dock, nervously floating on the water rather than resting, will last longer; this is true, but it holds neither the warmth of the sun’s rays nor our names. Not mine. Not my father’s. My children will not carve their names into it or claim it as their kingdom.  Although not visible, our names, carved in with our dull pocket knifes, now rest on the lake floor.

We continue to walk and by the time we arrive back at our campsite, the temperature has dropped ten degrees. The fire is reduced to faintly glowing embers that brighten with a draft of wind then darken like a dying heart. I pick up a nearby stick, crouch down near the remains of the fire, and flick a few of the coals with a snap of my wrist. The ephemeral embers fly, like shooting stars, into the sides of the metal fire ring and disappear. I collect more wood for the fire; the gold flames grow rapidly. The woods, in new ways, come alive at night as the crickets and bullfrogs form their peaceful chorus.

Near midnight, we leave the warmth of the fire and walk down the same path to the lake with our headlamps casting dim light that bounces around on the ground. When the path levels out, we turn right and walk onto the flat grass-covered dam. We rest on the ground and stare up at the stars. The Milky Way stretches from the tops of the trees behind us to the lake, and the dark water reflects the small lights. I look at the same stars I looked at as a boy, in the same place, and wonder about what has changed. Once, on the dam, I stood upright and looked at the ground, resting my neck from looking at the stars, when a bright meteor, so close I could see the fire consuming it, lit up the path—quickly and brilliantly—and I looked up to see the tail end, filling the night sky with orange and red and leaving suddenly.

Thinking about the meteor, I tell Lucia that we are looking into the past. I explain that the night sky holds a moment that is already gone. Some of the distant suns could have exploded already, but we don’t know it yet. At such distances, even light needs time. We look at the stars, in the growing silence, and wait for the light to arrive. 

Scott A. Singleton

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