By: John Carlson—
A couple weeks ago, Nancy and I, plus some fellow Lutheran friends, drove south from Muncie to a place called Muddy Pond.
Here are the directions: First, drive to Dale Hollow in Tennessee. Having never driven to Dale Hollow in Tennessee, nor Dale Hollow in Kentucky, for that matter, I rode shotgun in one car, along with four others. Another four of us rode in a second car, for a total party of nine. We included Rosanna, Carol, Sue, Becky and Nancy. As for us guys, there was one Dick and three – count ‘em – Johns.
Anyway, what you do first is, make sure you’re up drinking coffee on the porch of your woodsy cabin before the sun tops the horizon. That way you can watch it paint the sky with a peachy glow over the mountains you are about to traverse, while it illuminates the clouds thickly filling the valleys below.
Trust me, it’s a sight.
Driving a twisty road toward the Dairy Queen out on the highway, you then hang a left on an even twistier two-lane when Siri on GPS says to. Soon you are climbing through gorgeously rugged country past a variety of houses, which somehow reflect the character of this rock-solid land and the folks inhabiting it. Judging from whom you’ve met so far, these houses belong to friendly, salt-of-the-earth folks who’d be happy to help you out of a jam. For a certified flatlander, the farther you wind your way up into the mountains, the more comforting that notion becomes.
You’re constantly going up and down and left and right, navigating stretches of towering forest occasionally pierced by shafts of sunlight. The farther back into these beautiful boonies Siri directs you, the more some disturbing stories you’ve heard come to mind. You know the ones. Stories about Siri directing boneheaded city slickers like you way out into the middle of nowhere, with nothing to eat for weeks but tadpoles and their car’s seat cushions.
So you’re already nervous. Listening to music by Jennie DeVoe and Eric Clapton helps calm you. But then you get to the switchbacks and all you can think is, oh Lordy. They are a dizzying series of cutbacks so steep and tight, Daniel Boone would have had trouble negotiating them, and he was driving a mule. Your tires spin. They kick up gravel. The views down some mountainsides make you pucker in places besides your lips. But after what seems hours, your driver – John – announces you’re through the last one. Gratefully noting the forest is thinning, you soon spot the signs: Muddy Pond.
It beats me if Muddy Pond is a town, though it might be. It has a volunteer fire department. It also has some bustling shops. Leather shops. Woodworking shops. A general store or two. One of your party – it was John, I think – walks into a shop. When he walks back out, he’s bearing freshly baked, half-inch thick cookies, both peanut butter and molasses. Biting into a molasses cookie, you ponder those poor, lost schmucks you imagined a few miles back, and think how much better this cookie tastes than a seat cushion would. Jotting some notes at a table, you also spot the dusty, oblong pumpkins at your feet. A sign announces they are “Cushaw Pumpkins, the Tennessee Sweet Potato Pie pumpkins.” You fantasize about what the person who baked your molasses cookie could do with those babies.
Somewhere along the way, you also discover Muddy Pond is a Mennonite settlement. The sales ladies’ long dresses and headwear hint at this. So does the hand-printed sign on the front of one store: “For the Lord is good, his mercy is everlasting and his truth endureth to all generations. Psalm 100, 5.”
But commerce thrives alongside the Good Book. The leather shops are busy. You can buy holsters for firearms and holsters for pocketknives. There must be a couple thousand belts hanging on display, if you dare try one on after three straight days of pizzas, muffins and nachos. There are real leather-covered horse collars, too. No doubt many a horseless wife has bought one to hang on a wall as a joke, or maybe a warning, to her husband.
Just down the road is a sorghum mill, operated by a long-bearded gentleman. He’s a dead ringer for Rip Van Winkle, I’m told. With American bourbon country so nearby, though, PappyVan Winkle might be a more germane reference. Outside another store, a sweet mutt named Lucy rests on her haunches, staring fixedly into your eyes, until you feed her pinches of the fried apple pie you just bought.
Accidentally drop a dollop of its apple filling on the ground, though, and Lucy ignores it, leveling an accusatory look that seems to ask, “What am I? A dog?”
At another store, a surprise awaits. Pawing through a basket reveals bars of Debbie’s Handmade Soap, produced here in Muncie on South Walnut Street. Speaking of Muncie connections, you’re reminded you only learned of Muddy Pond two nights earlier. That was when Cindy Garrett Linn walked into a restaurant where your group was dining, and asked if Nancy happened to be Nancy. Like Debbie’s soap, Cindy hails from Muncie, but has a long family history – a noble history, really – down here. She’s related to World War One doughboy Sgt. Alvin York, the famous infantryman whose heroics earned him a Medal of Honor, plus depiction in a Hollywood movie by the legendary Gary Cooper.
Turns out back in the day, Cindy’s son, David Smith, was one of Nancy’s favorite telecommunications students at Ball State.
Small world. That’s a palatable thought to reflect on finally in Troyer’s Café, where the cute girls behind the counter serve delicious sandwiches. I failed to keep track of what Rosanna, Carol, Sue, Becky and Nancy ordered. But the guys? John ordered ham. John, on the other hand, ordered roast beef. And as for John? He, meaning I, ordered Lebanon bologna. Come to think of it, so did Dick.
In sandwiches, cookies and every other respect, Muddy Pond is a tasty place.
A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three. John’s columns appear on Muncie Journal every Friday.