Return to Dennis Cove

By Sam Watson

Driving up the winding switchbacks from Hampton toward Dennis Cove earlier this month, I was flooded with memories of my father negotiating those tight curves a half century ago, before the road was paved.

The roots, rocks and ruts bounced my young siblings and me around in the back of Dad’s 1968 Scout as he towed our popup camper all the way up Pond Mountain. That old Scout was equipped with just metal benches in the back, so it was quite a ride in those days. It was a fun rollercoaster for us kids — not so much for our mother, whose fear of heights gripped her through each narrow turn.

It was a trip we often made in my youth. We camped in the small primitive U.S. Forest Service campground that sits in a bend of the Laurel Fork Creek on a regular basis, sometimes for a whole week. Dad would even commute to and from Tennessee Eastman in Kingsport from the campground while we played in the woods and the creek.

Hiking and camping made their way into our DNA as a result. Despite the lack of bathrooms and electricity, Dennis Cove was a utopian retreat for my older sister, younger brother and me, as we were embedded in a playground no human could build. Life was best while roasting hot dogs and marshmallows around a campfire with the rushing Laurel Fork in our ears, catching rainbow trout from the stream and wading through the swimming hole next to the campground.

That was until a party crew set up what seemed to be a permanent bus in the campground sometime in the mid-1970s. Our peaceful haven was upended by late-night music and carousing. It got so bad that Mom and Dad no longer considered it safe. We continued to camp at other places, but none could match the familiarity of Dennis Cove’s rocks, cascades and hardwood trees.

In recent years we have renewed the camping tradition with family trips to such places as Mount Rogers in Southwest Virginia and Bear Den on North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway. Although Mom is no longer with us, Dad is still going strong at 80, and he camps and hikes right alongside us.

So this fall, with an urge to relive our childhood, it was time to get back to Dennis Cove and share the experience with new members of our family. Although at least 40 years had passed since I had been beyond the trailhead to Laurel Falls, that next stretch of road was like driving on my own block. As if on autopilot, I made the turn into the campground, despite the construction of a new bridge over the creek. I immediately knew I was back in my favorite environment.

Save for the addition of tent pads covered with horse chat, the campsites were just as I remembered them, especially one backed by a short berm near the trail to the swimming hole. My brother, and I spent countless hours playing on that berm — waging wars on bugs and building little forts with fallen sticks. I even recognized the spot on another campsite where my brother was attacked by a hostile blue jay protecting its nest.

The outhouse had been replaced by twin bathrooms, each with a flush toilet and sink. Still, there were no showers, hot water or electrical outlets. Any extensive bathing would have to be in the cold creek. Cooking would remain over gas burners and hot coals.

Sadly, our brother was unable to join us because of a brief illness, but Dad, my sister and her husband had set up their sites by the time I pulled in. We were to be joined the following day by two of their three sons and the oldest son’s wife. An Army captain, the oldest had been stationed in Germany, so I had not seen the couple in more than three years.

Soon after setting up my tent, we ventured down to that beloved swimming hole. Wow, was it smaller and shallower than it was from a 10-year-old’s perspective, but the massive limestone rocks around it were just as imposing. The view upstream seemed locked in time.

As we waited for the others to arrive the next morning from Indiana and Georgia, my sister and I hiked up the trail that borders the creek and made it to what had been the first crossing. The log footbridge was long gone, though, and only the steel cable remained. The bright yellow leaves made the short walk worthwhile, but the real treat was the enormous mountain laurels bordering the trail. The creek is named the Laurel Fork for good reason.

Joined by her husband after lunch, we took on the nearby steep trail toward Coon Den Falls, a place not as entrenched in our memories. My 56-year-old body didn’t know that climb at all nor did it want to. Nonetheless I persevered as my chest thumped and thighs screamed. Once we spotted the falls, which emerge from a narrow crevice in the mountainside’s rocks, both Elaine and I realized we had been there before.

Just as we made our way back into the campground, my nephews finally arrived. We caught up around the campfire as we grilled hamburgers and hot dogs. As feared, we felt raindrops sprinkling in just before dark. What we didn’t know was that the remnants of Hurricane Delta would park over Pond Mountain all night and through the next day, dumping a torrent of rain onto Dennis Cove and our tents. Hiking down to Laurel Falls was off the agenda.

The campground was filled with standing pools of water, and we were all soaked to the bone. Thus our hopes of sharing the full experience were dashed. With no end to the rain in sight, we cut the trip by a day and packed up our tents. We made our way to Dad’s house in Kingsport, where we made the foil hobo pack meals intended for the campfire and cooked them in the oven. They just didn’t taste the same somehow.

We got just enough of a taste of Dennis Cove, though, to know we had indeed been home again. Plans are in the works for another trip up that winding road when the campground reopens in the spring.