Put five city slickers in canoes on an Appalachian lake and have them camp in an isolated hillbilly ghost town abandoned after the TVA dammed up its river and somebody is going to joke about squealing like a pig. It's such a given I actually spent a few weeks scouring eBay for a vintage black life vest like the one Burt Reynolds wore so that my contribution to the inevitable comedy would be subtly sartorial rather than explicit. See, I feel the same way about hillbilly clichés that I do about ghosts and leprechauns. They may not actually exist, but why say too much to tempt their wrath?
We didn't see any other hikers once we left the river and set up camp. We were in the most isolated part of the national park, many miles from the nearest road. There were four other empty campsites and we joked to the member of our party whose bachelor-week this was that the next site over had been reserved for a Hawaiian Tropic bikini spokesmodel retreat. Sadly, the bikini team hadn't shown before dusk, and a few guys who had no business fishing had lost a few lures and caught no fish. They drank rye and tequila and joked about white lightning and aggressive bears (both of the ursine and human varieties) and as they quieted down in front of their fire out in the darkness a barred owl attacked something that screamed like a woman while it died.
In the night I heard footsteps, either a bear, or a witch, or one of my friends returning from a piss. At dawn I woke to see two strange men staring at our campsite from a comfortable distance. When they saw me watching they turned and walked to the most distant campsite and I heard a pulley sing while they raised their packs up on the bear line. They had been wearing full camouflage. We hiked a few miles up the stream that day, fishing halfheartedly as we went. We didn't see those mysterious men along the creek, though later when we took our canoes out to go swimming in the warm, green water of Lake Fontana we saw their small skiff tied to a tree.
That night we returned to camp and while thinking about starting a fire the men walked over to our campsite with their hands full in front of them. When they got closer I realized they were carrying thin paper plates mottled with grease stacked between layers of food. "Y'all hungry?" one of them asked in the sort of deep drawl we Northerners sometimes struggle to believe is actually real. "We got a whole lot a hushpuppies here. Some taters and trout, too." They noticed our fishing poles. "Any luck?" they asked and my friend who caught a small-mouth bass regaled that small glory.
"We didn't catch anything worth eating," one of us finally admitted.
"Well, we got about eight trout we ain't gonna eat and you're welcome to 'em," one guy said, and true to his word they brought over a bag full of the lovely rainbow trout we'd been struggling to catch all day. We tried to offer them something in return, unopened lures and fishing line, but they wouldn't take any of it. "If we're too loud tonight," I said. "Please let us know." But it turned out they were already on their way back to their boat, then home.
The forest is so indifferent you grow fearful. Vulnerable. Ignorant. We'd been joking around all week about hillbillies and cornholing, and then the first two good old boys we come across in the woods treat us with the mercy of Jesus Christ, quite literally, and we don't even have to listen to any parables.
The trout stared blankly at me while my friend filleted them on a stump, and I was grateful for the oil and batter he'd packed in his massive plastic tubs. The fish were delicious.