[Insert cliche blogger sentence about how I’ve been thinking about blogging but haven’t written recently.]
I’ve been in the US for five-plus weeks, visiting with family and friends for the holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years. Aside from the coincidence and wanting to be part of our traditional celebrations, I wanted to invest time and energy in our relationships. As my uncle aptly pointed out, gathering with fourteen people on Christmas Day doesn’t create space for much more than hi-merry-christmas-nice-to-see-you-have-a-good-year. So, between miscellaneous work projects, wrapping gifts, baking cookies and other treats, and maintaining good sleep, I’ve done my best to make time to be with my loved ones and reached out to friends who I don’t speak to often.
Brandon and I met in fifth grade. Over the course of school activities, Boy Scouts, working together at his parents’ South American-inspired fruit drink shop, and whatever teenage friends can imagine, we pursued countless adventures. My memory recalls lots of laughter, bouts of “what did we get ourselves into, and how do we get out?” scenarios, and the occasional harmless prank to see who amongst our crew was most gullible. It was an easy “yes” when I called Brandon to catch up, and he suggested that I join him for part of his roadtrip from Texas to DC. From Nashville, we could take a one-night, two-day drive to Dollywood and Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Though I’ve visited every United State and I’d explored the muddy mountains near Gatlinburg some 22-23 years ago, this adventure would bring me to changed turf with new memories and lessons to learn.
A few factors made me skeptically curious about this terrain: hearing the experiences of another high school friend living and working in rural West Virginia, the conclusions in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election (the mainstream media, national polls, and social media dialogue forgot about a huge portion of America), the ongoing and multitudinous debates about the meaning and appropriateness of memorializing Confederate iconography (the Rebel flag, statues of Confederates, etc). With a rising trend in hate crimes and a legally unresolved growth in gun-deaths, the land of comfort-food correlates to the land where I don’t feel so comfortable. The south-east United States follows a philosophy I’ve long spoken about Nashville, where much of my family lives: it’s interesting to visit but I could never live there.
I hold no doubt that I carry an “outsider” mentality. As Appalachian writer Joshua Wilkey asserts, “the single worst mistake outsiders can make when attempting to interpret the actions of voters in Appalachia is to assume that they are simply too dumb to know any better. This is not the case.” I’m humbled to acknowledge that I fight “lesser” thoughts of people who don’t speak “proper” English, and I know I’m isolated from understanding most US-Americans’ way of life, their priorities, needs, and beliefs. While I will continue a life abroad, perhaps a goal for me in the lead-up to November 2020 would be to focus on gaining perspective of the diversity of the United States and challenging the pervasive privilege of caucasian men, of which I am one. I frequently think, “at least I’m not straight, so that I have some understanding of the minority identity.”
Realizing that we both did little research and set low expectations for Dollywood, I tuned Brandon’s car radio into the Dolly Parton’s America podcast, which chronicles national culture and modern dilemmas through the lens of Appalachia’s standout celebrity. Between interviews recounting Dolly’s “give God the glory, but I’ll take the cash” philosophy and local students explaining why they and their parents practiced speaking to eliminate their so-called Hill Billy accents, we exited I-40 in Knoxville and caught the first sign of perplexion. “Turn left on Whites School Road,” Google’s Map voice announced. “Did she say White Skull or White School?,” we simultaneously asked aloud. Either way – and unfortunately the Internet can’t legitimize or disprove my fear – I’m intimidated by a public endorsement that seems to honor the white race.
Scenes from the road:
Meanwhile, we queued more than an hour in a string of gas-guzzling vehicles to enter the Dollywood parking lot, then skipped the subsequent wait for a shuttle ride by opting to walk a meager mile to the ticket stands at the park entrance. I wondered what my mass-public-transit-minded European friends would think about this arrival… this whole experience. I noticed the orange-clad family of Tennessee Vols fans and their uncle with the confederate flag jacket pile out of a caution-yellow-hued Hummer, the Amish-appareled family, and the obvious prevalence (39.8% in 2016) of obesity that plagues the United States. I know that we humans see what we seek, but I can’t get the health epidemic out of my mind when I return from Europe and visit public places.
We paid the $88 park entrance fee and followed the throngs of adults and children who took advantage of an unseasonably warm weekend day between Christmas and New Years. From first sight, I was very impressed at the polish of the Dixie/country (and slightly more reasonably priced) version of Disney World, complete with musical and theatrical shows, roller coasters, restaurants with ridiculous wait times, and cultural exhibitions, such as the (Bald) Eagle Mountain Sanctuary. Yes, I guess this is my ignorance: believing that these people and this place would be “less,” because of whatever stereotypes I hold and because I’ve not heard anyone in my small social circle recommend Dollywood.
We waited 40 minutes for a $9 loaf of delicious cinnamon bread coated in Paula Deen’s richest butter. We encountered these people in line:
- A middle-aged white female Dollywood expert, who explained that this was actually a short line for the famous cinnamon bread, and that there was an upstairs to this “gristmill” bakery, and that the cinnamon bread was also sold elsewhere in the amusement park
- Another middle-aged white woman who brought her husband and kids on their annual holiday roadtrip, which she mandates must be more than a 12-hour drive from their home in Sioux Falls. She personified the eccentric pixie-cut, call-a-manager mom, who the New York Times calls Karen and I call Carol. By the end of our time in line, we knew her kids names (Brielle, Sam, and Yuria Dixon), the story of her last summer’s vacation (solo-driving – and breaking down – an RV from Amsterdam to Oslo to chase her heritage), and her medical challenges (a rare balance disorder that prevents her from enjoying boats or theme park rides). The only things I’m missing are her own name and the selfie that she took with Brandon and I to “thank” us for the conversation.
- The older (also white) couple behind us in line who felt tired and overwhelmed by the crowd. The wife lovingly exaggerated: “I’m fit ta have a tantrum. The only thang cood be worse ‘s if it ‘s eighty er ninety degrees.”
In my typical tirading fashion, I could go on about our day at Dollywood. I don’t want to complain or critique. I want to elevate the perspective that I gained on the American identity, and I also want to highly recommend a visit to Dollywood, if you have the chance. In addition to celebrating the uniqueness of Dolly Parton’s identity and achievement (check out the Chasing Rainbows museum!), they’ve created an exceptional experience at a reasonable price, combining thrill, indulgent foods, artistic and musical culture, and a beautiful ensemble of Christmas decor. I can only imagine how well they execute their other seasonal festivals and exhibits.
After overnighting in an ideally-outfitted Holiday Inn Express in Knoxville, we woke up early and passed a phone between the beds to discuss what trail we might hike before driving home. Without conclusion, we ventured back toward Dolly’s native Sevierville and on to Gatlinburg to ask for advice at the national park visitors center. After receiving generic advice in Gatlinburg’s tourist office, we dug deeper with a young park ranger and asked for a reasonable day hike with moderate challenge where we wouldn’t be plagued with crowded trails. She suggested driving an hour east to Mt. Sterling, and… we did!
I’m very grateful that we made the Robert-Frost choice. We blasted bluegrass as Brandon curved the Jeep into valleys. As we unknowingly crossed from Tennessee into North Carolina, we passed wooded lots and small country cabins, not ignoring the newly constructed mansions towering at the top of various hillsides, perhaps emblematic of the growing class-division. In our journey to Mt Sterling, two favorite experiences stand in my memory.
We spontaneously agreed to turn an extra bend and spent a few minutes exploring a Zion Church – see Google Maps location – a one-room building on a bald hillside with a cemetery in the rear and two outhouses (Women and Men) on the side. I was enamored by the thick moss and reading the names and ages of the cemetery markers, combined with imagining the intimacy of the religious community that would convene here. By 11 am, there seemed to be no trace of their Sunday services, or perhaps there were no parishioners at a quiet time of year. Maybe everyone was at Dollywood?
Once we reached the trailhead, we meandered on well-marked trails some 2.5 miles to Mt Sterling’s summit and discovered the fire tower that the ranger advised us to look for. What a … scary experience! to climb a series of stairs that decrease in width as the wind increases above the trees. At the top of the tower, we had immaculate views of the surrounding mountain ranges, painted a mix of soft emerald green where the sunlight cast itself and a deep violet-grey where shadows covered the mix of bare deciduous bark and evergreens bows. I was done (ie sufficiently anxious) after a few minutes of photographing, filming, and listening to the wind bang the hinged windows open and closed, with small shards of glass lingering on the rain-soaked, drooping plywood floor.
We enjoyed a late lunch of black bean burgers, which we had bought two hours before at a gas station-restaurant counter in nearby Hartford, Tenn. This, too, felt like a proper perspective of America: two middle-aged women with red-tinged hair prepared styrofoam takeout boxes with sandwiches (burgers or catfish… ham and turkey were out of stock today), fried sides, and coleslaw and graciously commanded guests to hurry and retrieve their orders. The Indian owner took payments at the cash register, adding his own four items (Samosa, Vada Pau, Dabeli, Parotha) to the menu, distributed lottery tickets, and patrolled the Godly prohibition of selling alcohol on Sundays. The shelves stocked Frito-Lay snacks, essential pantry ingredients, sugar-loaded drinks, confederate flag blankets, and an assortment of MAGA/Trump apparel.
Just when I thought I was afraid enough, wondering whether I’d be harassed if I came here as an openly gay men, I spotted a hand-scribed note in Sharpie above the bathroom door: LOVE THY EVERYONE.
Brandon and I scratched the surface of meeting the people of Appalachia. While I’d love to sit for hours and days to live amongst this culture, I admit that I’m afraid to know their beliefs. My fear is probably undue. At least I’ve glimpsed the lives that are invisible to my perspective. These are the people I’ll have in mind as I hear and read politicians debate for the presidency over the coming ten months, and I hope my curiosity can teach me more. These are the people I might learn to love, as I remember that listening is an act of love.