My flight from Dubai left me jet lagged but my weariness didn’t dampen my excitement. I was back in Virginia, this time for an extended summer stay. As Jeff and I negotiated the narrow curves on route 626, the familiar silhouette of Smith Mountain came into view. No matter where I travel, Smith Mountain Lake feels most like home. This old mountain lake and I were melded together during the most impressionable years of my life. As I looked out over the water, I thought about my dad, and the reasons why this area has become such an important part of my life.
My grandfather was a Boy Scout leader, and when my father was a young boy, they hiked the falls on the Roanoke River near Smith Mountain Gorge. The lake was later formed when the Roanoke and Blackwater rivers were dammed at the gorge in 1963. My dad loved the area so when land near the lake went up for sale, he bought an acre across from the mountain. It was a beautiful piece of property. It sat atop a hill with a stunning view of the water and the old mountain—it’s rounded form a solitary remnant of the great Blue Ridge Mountains before they give way to the Piedmont.
I remember my daddy working tirelessly on our lot to tame its wildness. He used a sickle, a shovel and an axe to clear the brush and lay a neat gravel driveway. There was a lone, tiny cedar tree he took particular care to save. It looked like the one in Charlie Brown’s Christmas. Today it towers majestically on top of the hill, a sentinel to remind me of the passing years. He planted red maples in the back and a row of pine trees along the border near the road. He carefully measured the distance between each pine, making sure it was exactly the same. They were perfectly spaced, a testament to my dad’s penchant for symmetry and order. Through his hard work and enviable green thumb, our lot was slowly transformed into a meticulously landscaped piece of real estate.
Dad would hitch his StarCraft camper to our big green Ford Ltd Station wagon (the kind with the wood paneling on the side) and haul it and all of us to the lake on the weekends. He also had a sleek new blue and white Glastron powerboat that he kept at the dock in our development. I think he saw all of these things as necessary for recreation and to escape the pressures of his business. I know it was a lot of hard work for my mom. But for us kids it was a recipe for fun and adventure.
My dad put very few restrictions on us in our youth. My sisters and I spent hours wandering through the woods near our place. We would traverse old roadbeds that were part of farms in the area before the lake enveloped the hollows of Franklin and Pittsylvania counties. We would slip into the neighbor’s field and pick corn next to a big green water tower that stood nearby. One of my most vivid memories is snatching hard green apples from trees by the side of the road; scared to death we’d get in trouble. Then we would make sure they were worm free before subjecting ourselves to their lip puckering sourness.
In the back of the property, my dad built us an oversized swing set made of steel pipe. He hung the seats from long pieces of heavy chain. I think we had the highest swings ever made. We would pump until it felt like we could reach the sky, then jump out and fly across the grass, trying in futility to stay on our feet.
Most of the time though, we were in the water. For hours on end we swam, even bathed and washed our hair in the lake. By summer’s end my hair would bleach white from the sun and my skin would turn brown enough to make that portion of my Native American heritage believable.
Sometimes we would take the boat and ride up to the dam where the water was really deep. Dad would say, “lets swim here, the water is warmer”. I was petrified. There were “Warning Keep Out” signs everywhere and my young imagination would envision us getting sucked up by the concrete structure in some terrible fashion. Other times we would anchor in a quiet cove to have lunch and jump in the water to cool off. Occasionally we would go on longer trips to see friends, up the Roanoke River past Hales Ford Bridge to the train trestle and then make our way back again. I loved to sit in the front of the boat with my hair flying in the wind and the warm sun on my back. My sister and I would pretend we were driving. I delighted in the speed and the noise of the boat as it powered through the water. Eventually the steady hum of the engine would hypnotize me and my eyes would start to droop. I would fall asleep on a beach towel in the floor of the boat, waking only when we slowed to dock.
Daddy was incredibly coordinated and agile. He taught himself to water ski, eventually mastering slalom skiing from the deck of the dock without getting wet. It was an amazing sight. When I was very little, I would ride piggyback while he skied. I tell you I was hanging on for dear life but I loved it and I was never afraid. It’s crazy to think about doing something like that now. He taught me to water ski when I was eight years. He put me on a tiny set of training skis, plopped me in the water and shouted, “lean back and let the boat pull you up!” I mustered my courage and did what he said. I was small, kind of the runt of my family, and so it didn’t take me long to master it.
Looking back I realize my dad had a real spirit of fun and adventure, and a bit of a wild streak. I am thankful to him for giving me such a unique experience growing up. It was the bohemian life of a “lake rat” and I treasure it. It is natural to yearn for the things we know and love from childhood. Most seek in vain but I am fortunate. I have stumbled upon it. The same philosophy of life at the lake continues with my own family. They know it well. When SML calls our name, we are “lake rats” together.
Happy Father’s Day daddy and thank you for letting me be a “lake rat”.