Trailside Talk: A Last Ride With Dad

Trailside Talk: A Last Ride With Dad

Mike Hembree

Story by Mike Hembree

In his later years, my father showed considerable interest in things of his past: his service in World War II, the first car he owned (a Chevrolet, of course), and the cattle he raised, largely as a hobby.

For most of his 87 years, he talked little of the past, particularly avoiding the war years. Like many of his generation—the one appropriately called the greatest—he thought he simply had a job to do, got it done, and came home.

That changed as he got older, however, and he wanted the rest of the family to know more about his experiences. He also wanted to repeat some of them, to stir memories of the good times and to once more see places he had discovered with younger eyes.

Mike Hembree and his father, Wilburn Hembree
Mike Hembree and his father, Wilburn Hembree. Courtesy of Mike Hembree.

This brought us back to the Smokies. He wanted to ride the mountain roads again, to see the deer and maybe a bear and to watch the gristmills turn, which fascinated him back in the day.

He was long past his safe driving age, so I drove him to the park on a summer day. We went through Cherokee, where he remembered wading in the Oconaluftee and using a Brownie camera to snap a photo of me and one of the roadside “chiefs.” He recognized the Pink Motel, where he had stayed years earlier on trips with his grandchildren, trips designed to recreate a part of his past when the kid in the backseat was me, the one seeing the mountains for the first time.

We drove through Cades Cove, a favorite spot, and the animals responded as if on cue. Three miles into the loop, a bear and her two cubs ambled out of tall grass just beyond the fencing, pausing long enough to be particularly photogenic. We saw wild turkeys, a raccoon, and on the back half of the loop road, more deer than we could count.

On the way home, we stopped at Newfound Gap. My father was never a hiker and was moving slowly at that late point in his life, but we walked into the woods about a quarter mile so we could say we hiked the Appalachian Trail together.

It was a grand day, one like many other families have enjoyed in America’s favorite national park. This one was extra special. My dad had shown me the Smokies 50 years earlier. I was proud to show them to him in this other time.

It was our last trip together.

We miss him on Father’s Day, and every other day.

Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist and the author of 14 books. He has visited 26 national parks and hopes to add many more to that list.

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