In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself within a dark woods where the straight way was lost. —Dante Alighieri, The Inferno
In Appalachia, there’s no straight way to travel. Laurel hell grows thick, and the only way to navigate it is to put your feet in a streambed and follow every meander and oxbow of the creek.
Native rhododendron, the true laurel in any laurel hell, always wins. These shrubs thrive where water flows generously. Along runs and seeps, over narrow streambeds hidden by earth and stone. Their limbs reach well over fifteen feet, thicker than any child’s leg and snaking in every direction. Pliant and possessed of a preternatural strength, they push back, as if offended to find you wandering among them.
The going is slow and treacherous. In summer months, when entering one of these labyrinths, you cease to walk. You must instead hunch and twist and climb your way forward, squatting and straddling and falling ass-over-teakettle, catching a thigh or calf, a bewildered foot tangled and dangling awkwardly.
Your gear snags. Your hat is knocked from your head again and again. Exposed flesh is scratched and bruised. A timber rattler buzzes somewhere you can’t see, but know is near. Your lips curse the curse of this place, this circle of ungodly woods to which you’ve been consigned for your simple desire—(lust is the more honest word)—for wild fish, for the chance to find yourself far from a maddening crowd of anglers.
This past spring, I was forced to enter one of these hells because the creek I fished was barred by an enormous red oak that had fallen in a winter ice storm, crushing black birch and beech trees, knocking the crown of a hemlock to the floor, an impenetrable logjam that made ascending the streambed impossible.
I could have turned around, but it was May and the fishing was good. I remembered a pool just upstream where I’d caught a 15-inch wild brown the previous fall, an enormous fish for a stream no wider than
a king mattress.
I turned my hat backwards, placed the rod in my left hand, tip pointed in the direction I’d come from, and picked a path through the rhododendron—a good thirty yards to circumnavigate. I was forced to my knees, crawling beneath a web of branches. I tripped. I fell. I rose again into the thick consternation of it all.
All the while I could see mayflies ahead of me at the edge of the grove, fluttering above the pool where trout were surfacing. It provided a good reason to keep crawling, to bend and contort and hurry a bit, helping me forget how frustrated I was.
When at last I emerged, I said a prayer of thanks, then tried to draw my rod forward, to turn the tip toward the business of that pool where fish still rose. It wouldn’t budge.
I looked back to undo my mistake only to be confronted with the hideous sight of lime-green line extending backwards, then vanishing toward the point where I’d begun.
Reel unreeled, desire unraveled, the curse of a quiet disc-drag. It looked as if a squirrel had taken my line in its mouth and carried it the way squirrels travel: for a time on the ground, then a leap to a lower branch, a scamper skyward, then across with another leap to a higher branch. A pattern of aimlessness, matching the tangled mess of my own mind as I considered what would be required to retrieve it.
Somewhere overhead a woodpecker let loose its laughing call. And like Dante, I found myself within a dark woods, my fly lost, stuck to some bit of devilish bark in a laurel hell.
TODD DAVIS hunts and fishes near his home along the Allegheny Front. He’s a professor of Environmental Studies at Penn State and the author of seven books of poetry, most recently Coffin Honey and Native Species, both published by Michigan State University Press.