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  • Dusk was in full bloom when, on the last Sunday in October, I turned down the road toward Mousetail Landing State Park. Though the friend who recommended the park told me about the lower campground sites on the Tennessee River--temporary river-front property, just $12 per night--I decided to check out the main campground first. The drive in took just long enough to tip dusk to dark. I still had a tent to set up and dinner to cook so, the upper campground it was.

    There was a travel trailer two campsites to the left and, to the right, seven hunter-fisher guys, their tents and travel trailers in a tight circle. Every now and again, a few of them would drive off and, minutes later, gunshots would sound. I guess they were playing with new toys. It was cool out but, at Mousetail, they stop stocking the firewood stacks after the summer season ends. The night's warmth would have to come courtesy of fingerless gloves, my earflap hat, hot tea, miso soup, and bourbon. Not the worst fate in the world.

    It was a decent night. Nothing spectacular. Just fine. At times, fine does the job. But, the next morning, I knew that fine had to go. There was just one night of camping left of my seven-month road and ferry trip from NJ to AK and back again. I wanted one of the spots on the Tennessee River that my friend had raved about. I pulled up my tent stakes, repacked my car, and drove to the lower campground.
  • Just as I finished hammering the rain flap stakes into the ground, a red pick-up truck pulled up. The driver rolled down the passenger window. He was late 60s, bright white hair.

    "You alone? It's too cold for camping," he said. "Aren't you scared?"

    I ignored the last question. I'd answered that same thing in 22 states, at campsites and at coffee shop counters and while filling my gas tank. ("New Jersey plates! You're a long way from home.") I hated the question. I was never scared until somebody asked me if I was scared. That always got me annoyed; did they ask it of guys?

    I assured him that, yes, I knew it would get cold but I had the right gear, "but do you have any idea where I can buy some firewood?"

    There was a slight chance the guy who stocked the campground during the season might but, really, he doubted it. We talked a bit more, he rolled up his window, and drove off.
  • I spent the day hiking...
  • ...watched three little pigs make a break for it...
  • ...and then I ate some catfish. Hushpuppies, too.
  • I drove 60 miles searching for firewood, stopping into every gas station, market, and farm stand. No luck.

    But I had riverfront property and a good meal planned, and tomorrow I would be on my way to see friends in Nashville. The afternoon had already pushed way beyond fine. And I still had fingerless gloves, my earflap hat, hot tea, miso soup, and bourbon.

    So the stack of wood caught me off guard. It was piled neatly by my picnic table. It was more than a stack, really. There was enough firewood for two nights. Maybe three.
  • There was kindling, too.
  • I started crying. Right there, by myself, at a campsite on the Tennessee River. The sky was turning pink.

    A few minutes later, a ranger stopped by on his evening rounds. No, he told me, he hadn't left the stack of wood. Yes, we agreed, there are some good people in the world.
  • Wish I had told the white-haired man that, no, I wasn't scared. No reason to worry.
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