This began as a quest of sorts. Actually, a quest of mythical proportions, because I had visited the Reelfoot Lake
area only once, at night as a small child, and had only a memory of a dark, murky place with very strange relatives in a very strange house. I don't recall there being any color whatsoever, save for gray and black. It's an eerie memory that has been slightly unsettling most of my life.
I had also heard stories about Reelfoot over the years from my father, who grew up there as a child in the tiny town of Samburg. There were stories about my great-grandfather, who was married to a Cherokee Indian. The legend goes that he was out on the lake, fishing from a boat, when he was struck by lightning and instantly decapitated. My grandparents, during the Depression, operated some kind of little catfish shack on the lake. When people had no money for food, they occasionally came in and ordered hot water, then sat and mixed it with ketchup to make tomato soup - a free meal that my grandparents, though very poor themselves, were happy to provide. There were tall tales about the infamous Lake Club, a rough-and-tumble roadhouse where barroom brawls were the nightly entertainment. It seems that I was related to the folks who owned that as well.
Until this past fall, I had never been back to Reelfoot Lake, just a two-hour drive north of Memphis, never had any contact with the cousins who still live there. To be perfectly honest, I believe something in me was scared to go there. I had only the memory and a mental image of a very mysterious place.
When I got there I found just that - and much, much more.
My good friend and I arrive on an unseasonably chilly Saturday night, and check into our tiny cabin at the Cypress Point Resort on the lake in Tiptonville, Tennessee. It has no place to eat, so we head across the street to the restaurant at the Blue Bank Resort. (There are plenty of "resorts" at Reelfoot, but don't get any ideas about lounging around while white-jacketed men bring you drinks; this is fishin' and huntin' territory and accommodations, for the most part, are pretty simple).
What we get is a fairly nondescript meal of fried frog legs and fried quail. The only standout is the green-bean casserole that comes in a big bowl as a family-style side dish. It's a mixture of fresh, not-cooked-to-a-limpy-death pole beans, chopped in small pieces and mixed with smoked bacon and cheeses, and it's delicious.
Our waitress is very friendly, answering all of my weird questions about my family - including one cousin I actually knew years ago and am looking for, and have been told by everyone I've talked with that he is less than sane these days. By the end of the meal she is sitting at our table running down a list of which joints might be open tonight. Unfortunately, the Lake Club closed many years ago, but its reputation lives on; everyone I ask about it describes it as "real rough." We want to investigate what's there now, but are tired, and instead take a few moonlit photos from the pier/boat launch that extends from the parking lot of our motel into the water. The lake looks dank, dark, somewhat swampy and dangerous, with the strong cold wind whipping at the black water, creating fairly torrid whitecaps that are illuminated by the moon. My quest is quickly bordering on validating my vague memory.
The next morning, however, the sky is a classic, deep October blue. The water near the shore is the rich green color of Cerignola olives, which fades into cobalt-blue in the distance. The clouds seem to have purple shadows, and the needlelike leaves on some of the cypress trees have just started to throw down with fall colors. It is savagely beautiful, and I am surprised at the contrast from my childhood impression, and from the night before.
At 8:30 a.m., I find my way to the coffee machine in the resort's clubhouse, and meet Jeremy, who will be taking my photographer friend and me on a guided boat tour of the lake later in the afternoon. Decked out in a thick camouflage jumpsuit, he is watching wrestling on a small wall-mounted television and I join him. Three fishermen drinking Budweisers come in to shoot a game of pool before they take off for the day's catch. I ask Jeremy about the cousin I'm looking for, and get a similar response from everyone else I've asked: "He's crazier than a run-overed dog." He then adds, "Man, I don't know about you, but you're from the weirdest damn family that ever lived on this lake."
Just as the wrestling match is at full-tilt violence, Jeremy points to the window, looking out toward the cypress grove that shades the boat launch and very matter-of-factly says, "Look 'ere." When I glance up, I see a bald eagle
sailing from the sky into the top of one of the trees. It's the first time I've ever seen one out of captivity, and I am fairly awe-struck. It's one of the reasons I'm here, because Reelfoot is a well-known home to both migrating eagles and resident eagles, birds that build nests weighing up to 4,000 pounds and who mate while falling rapidly from very high altitudes. In fact, the months of December and January are peak eagle-watching times at Reelfoot. When hundreds of shiny little martins flutter in like a hailstorm and line themselves along the wires hanging over the parking lot, I have even more hope for the day.
With some time to kill before our afternoon lake tour, we head down the road to check out Samburg, which has a few motels, restaurants, some old houses, and plenty of manufactured housing. There's not enough charm to hold us here for long, so we head up another road, and find ourselves lost in Kentucky, ending up at the dead end of a gravel road in a field that is bordered by a tiny finger of the lake. The water is milky green with algae, but it looks like a beautiful carpet dotted with lily pads that surround one lone cypress tree that has already turned a fiery orange. We could stay here for hours, but decide we'd better find our way back to the resort for the lake tour. We are a little apprehensive about not being equipped for the cold and the wind, but once back we hesitantly ask Jeremy if he really feels like taking us out. He's all for it and we set out.
Reelfoot is indeed a dangerous lake. Because it is basically a flooded forest caused by the great earthquake of 1811-1812 - when the land cracked open and the Mississippi River dumped its water over some 15,000 acres - there are huge stumps in the lake. If you don't know the water, it's easy to slam the bottom of your boat into them repeatedly. Part of this navigational treachery, too, is that Reelfoot is so shallow, averaging just five to seven feet deep and nowhere more than 20. Because Jeremy has been giving lake tours since he was "little bitty," he knows the water, knows where most of the large stumps are. But the lake continually changes, as trees that were once above the water snap off and leave new obstacles below, and Jeremy says he has respect for that. "Once you lose respect for the lake and take it for granted," he says, "you're in big trouble."
The water is so rough today that we have to launch at a point several miles north of the motel, where it's not quite as choppy. And for the next two hours, we are in a world I never knew existed. Once out in the lake, we stop for awhile in the middle of what seems to be acres of lily pads that rise from the water like leafy chartreuse satellite dishes. Some of them are four feet high - taller than I am sitting in the boat, and they seem to own the water from which they grow. Puffs of clouds are still floating through the October sky and another bald eagle sails overhead until out of sight, the sun shining all the way on his stark white head.
It's difficult to leave, but from here, we inch our way through a cluster of immense cypress trees, where the only sounds are that of the water flapping against the boat and thousands of birds singing in the tops of the trees. It's the kind of moment to which only the prose of John James Audubon could do justice. In his journal, he describes the earthquake that created Reelfoot Lake. In fact, I think I know how my naturalist/artist childhood hero must have felt during his travels in this area in the early-nineteenth century, when he lived not far away in Henderson, Kentucky.
As we cruise closer to the bank of an island that's home to several duck blinds, dozens of white egrets and blue herons emerge from their hiding places in the trees, showing off their imposing wingspans as they careen against the backdrop of their natural habitat and fly elsewhere to places not invaded by the sound of a boat motor. There are no other humans in sight. The scene is so raw, so beautifully prehistoric in feeling, it's as if we are special guests invited to witness the very dawn of creation.
I don't know exactly what I came looking for at Reelfoot Lake. I knew I wanted to see the eagles, and I was just a little nervous about finding a parcel of my family heritage that has been shrouded in mystery for most of my 41 years. I never found the reportedly whacked-out cousin, but after the lake tour we did locate his brother, whom I'd never met - a man in his 70s who is sweet but nonetheless has the Reelfoot wild card in his demeanor. He and his wife opened their home to us with warmth, love, venison stew, and lots of family I would never have known existed. He told me some stories about my late relatives, showed me his paintings, and hugged me when we left.
I may have even more questions now about Reelfoot Lake and my lineage there than I had before. Unfortunately, my father is no longer here to answer them. But the natural beauty I found at this little spot on the earth makes me think that I may just meet up with him in some other world someday and have a long, long talk. Nothing like this place could ever have happened by accident or the hand of man.
[Note: This article was first published in Memphis Magazine