The first time I walked into Tabanero Cigars the sweet earthy smell of cigars transported me back to an October from my childhood.
It was my grandfather’s seventieth birthday. To celebrate my uncles planned a fishing trip up to a cabin in the mountains. There had been other fishing trips to the lake in the Smokeys. But this one was different. For one thing, it was my grandfather’s milestone birthday and that reason both my uncles, my father, and my how older cousins were all going. The other thing: I had just turned twelve, so I was going too. This would be my first journey into the world of men.
It was not disappointing.
The trip began at my grandfather’s house. Whenever there was a special occasion he made sausages. His parents were from the old world and that’s what they did. He would buy the meat directly from the butcher shop, grind it himself, pack it into those tubes, and there you had it – sausage. It was a vegetarian’s ‘wurst’ nightmare: bratwurst, knackwurst, wienerwurst… We all helped to pack those meats into coolers with dry ice. We loaded up the rented van with the food coolers, beverages, equipment, and suitcases. We said our goodbyes and we seven ‘men’ were off to the mountains for a four day weekend adventure.
The trip was five hours of slowly ascending the Great Smoky Mountains. It was an easy trip because I thought of my younger cousins and sister sitting in a classrooms. In my mind they would be hearing the rain tapping against the windows and look out into gloomy distance wishing they could be an adventurer too. Even back then, I wonder at the fairness of my female cousins exclusion from this grand gathering of masculinity. The thought didn’t linger in my heart because I looked around at my older cousins, my uncles, my father, and my grandfather and thought, “I am a man.” My whole body filled with warmth at the thought of belonging. My smile lasted throughout the winding path up the mountain. It was alive with the colors of autumn, which we vibrant in spite of the gray skies. The whole trip I was mostly quiet being the neophyte in this fellowship of men.
We arrived at the log cabin. The cabin was actually made of logs and in my adolescent mind it seemed something right out of the Old West. In reality, we weren’t anywhere near the Old West -geographically or otherwise. Our cabin had electricity and indoor plumbing; something Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp never experienced. It would also be difficult to imagine those two gunslingers on a fishing trip.
Everything was unloaded, everyone claimed their space, and I alone unfurled a sleeping bag on the floor. The cabin only had bedding for six and sleeping on the floor was supposed to be good for my character. I didn’t mind because I was there. I belonged.
The strongest memories of the trip were nights around the fire. It was only a hundred yards from the cabin, but it seemed a thousand miles and hundreds of years from anything we knew. It was a little space with an L-shaped rock wall behind it, the lake almost out of sight down below it, and the open air before it. We would arrive just before sunset. One uncle filled with round pit with ready-made logs, while my other uncle got the fire started. The flames leapt high to meet the the falling sun. My father set up the metal rack and set the coffee brewing. We sat on large rocks arranged in a loose horseshoe that afford each of us a view of the setting sun. My father passed out the metal mugs and my grandfather poured the deep umber liquid into each. This was bare knuckles coffee. There was no cream or sugar. Pumpkin Spice was part of this universe.
It tasted awful to me then, but I didn’t care. This was how men drank coffee and I was now a man. Plus, it smelled wonderful. There I was – with these men – at this place – in silence – watching the sun slowly roll down the mountain into the darkness.
And then cigars. When the sun had been replaced with stars, my oldest uncle produced five cigars. They were passed around skipping over me and the next youngest cousin. I watched as each man handled their cigar as if they were sacred. With ritualistic motion, each man cut and lit his cigars. In silence they drew slowly and released a twisting cloud of rich gray smoke. I was aware of the dancing fire, the glimmering stars, and the whirl of the smoke. All these I knew and loved. Then the silence was broken by stories.
It was there in mountains amidst the circle of men smoking cigars and drinking coffee that I knew I was part of something bigger than myself. And I knew that I belonged.
My first time at Tabanero Cigars those memories returned. Watching men and women in the shop smoking cigars, talking, and laughing – I knew that those days on the mountain can be found again.