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  • Writer's pictureJohn Ellington

The Real Gems of Appalachia

Updated: Jan 2

Close your eyes and pretend like it's March of 2020. What were you doing? Who were you with? Where were you? Most of us don't like to think about that time period. COVID had shut the world down, isolating us from friends and family and eliminating the possibility for social interactions.

I, myself, was finishing veterinary school, having only two remaining elective clinical rotations. In an effort to keep staff and students safe, the University of Georgia decided all fourth-year students with enough credits to graduate would forgo any remaining elective rotations. I remember getting the email while I was on a farm call for a blocked goat that couldn't urinate. I looked up from my phone at the farmer and said, "Well, it looks like I'm volunteering now."

Just like that, our four years of veterinary school came to an uninspiring end, as if someone forgot to write the season finale of Grey's Anatomy or Scrubs. Classmates scattered, retreating with haste to their hometowns, most never to be seen again. No closure after the most formative years of our lives. Our graduation was a Zoom slideshow presentation. But what could you do? It's just the way it had to be.

Always looking to steal the bad from a situation, I came up with the idea of "Cabintine". While the rest of the world was stuck in quarantine watching Trump's never ending "updates" on COVID, wearing masks around family members, and cowering in fear, I decided to take a vacation to my favorite place on Earth, somewhere my soul yearns to dwell. You guessed it--The Smoky Mountains. Dogs and friends in tow, we set a course for a cabin my parents owned near Waynesville, North Carolina.

Two days later, Chris Kimbrell and I were stepping out of my truck at the trailhead of ********** Valley, or Lonesome Valley, as it's called in Whispering Winds.

In an effort to keep wild places wild, I will not say where exactly my novel is set, other than near Brevard

A warm spring morning welcomed us with the soul-reviving vivacity of nature, untarnished by Fox News and CNN. While society crumbled, relationships strained, stock markets crashed, and people generally lost their minds (the ones that had minds to begin with), Chris and I entered a world that had persisted, largely unchanged, for thousands of years. Once the gravel parking lot was out of view, it felt like COVID never existed. That's the beauty of fly fishing though. Whether its COVID, a stressful job, financial trouble, etc., it always stays at the trailhead. Fishing is so mentally engaging and stimulating that it legitimately doesn't allow you to think about anything but nature and God.

The moist spring soil softly exhaled under our feet as we slowly meandered down the root-covered trail. Birds that had been sleeping in the canopy just a few short hours before began rejoicing in the arrival of a new day. Occasional shadows from clouds passed overhead, but the sky was mostly clear, allowing our skin to soak up the warming rays of the sun. In my novel I write several times about a particular Eastern white pine tree that sits at the edge of the trail in Lonesome Valley. This tree really exists (and gave me permission to use it in my novel) and Chris and I passed under its reaching limbs, noting how welcoming it looks. I really wish trees could talk. This pine has watched over everyone who has ever taken this trail and its stories would be worth listening to.

We passed over a small wooden bridge and took a side trail to the left, pursuing the sound of falling water that was layered over the breeze. As I thought about what flies I would use, I started to hope that we would actually find brook trout. I had only been to this valley a handful of times and had moderate success, but I'd never brought a friend. I had convinced Chris this is where we should fish, and I didn't want to get skunked.

Fortunately, when we stepped over the brim of rocks at the back edge of the waterfall pool, we saw splash after splash at the water's surface near the banks. The pool was filled with trout. The air was also thick with small, dainty mayflies. Heart pounding, I frantically put my rod together and started tying on an Adam's dry fly that looked similar to the insects floating around my legs. Minutes later, Chris and I had both already netted brookies, all with red pinpoints over pale blue halos against a dark green canvas, topographic lines breaking free and dancing along their spines. We stopped counting after about twenty. When the sun started sinking lower on the horizon, we trudged back to our vehicles and started heading towards a warm, cozy mountain cabin deep in the woods where COVID couldn't find us. Three days turned into two weeks before we finally felt obligated to visit our families.

This story is much like the story of Walker and Chris fishing in my novel. Memories like this, and the profound appreciation of the natural world inspired much of what I wrote.

Some people fly fish so they can catch big fish and experience a rush of adrenaline. They chase rainbows and browns with 5 and 6wt fly rods on big rivers. After massive false casts, they send their flies thirty yards out into a swirling current, all while standing in a boat or waist deep in the stream. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy doing that as well. However, I am happiest when I am crawling on my hands and knees through a tunnel of rhododendron only to spot a single six-inch fish that if I'm lucky I can bow-and-arrow cast towards without spooking. Brook trout. Those are the real gems of Appalachia.

Disclaimer for those of you starting to get worried. I did not write a fishing book. There are parts where fishing is involved. HUGE difference

Hope you enjoyed. Till next time...


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