Over 1,200 miles driven in 10 days:
a road trip with my little family of four
Atlanta, GA-> Huntsville, AL-> Decatur, AL-> Franklin, TN-> Nashville, TN-> Knoxville, TN-> Gatlinburg, TN-> The Great Smoky Mountain National Park-> Cherokee, NC-> Chattanooga, TN-> Atlanta, GA
“I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset. I’ve known rivers: Ancient dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” –Langston Hughes, 1926
“Always wrapped in illusory mists, always touching the evasive clouds, the peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains are like some barren ideal that has bartered for the vague isolations of a higher atmosphere the material values of the warm world below. Upon those mighty and majestic domes no tree strikes root, no hearth is alight; humanity is an alien thing.” –Mary Naoilles Murfee, 1885
“A considerable portion of the city of Nashville has been built over an extensive Indian graveyard which lay along the valley of Lick Branch… All around the sulphur spring [here], traces of the aborigines are manifest.” –Joseph Jones, MD, 1876
(Above quotes from monuments in Bicentennial Capitol Mall Park, Nashville)
There is beauty all around the southern states we visited: from the lowlands of the Appalachians, to the peaks looking down on the foggy vistas. Even the empty shells of the poorest rustic cabins were elegant, though families wrestled with poverty, oppression, and probably violence there a hundred plus years ago. There was constant and quiet greenery everywhere we went, and there were so many lush rivers. We visited the South, but not the Deep South. The historic towns we saw have mostly blended their values with the national trajectory. There’s a rich culture built from the hundreds of years that have passed, and it’s something tangibly different from the feel of my California way of life.
Where we’ve been…
• the wind surprised us & thunder pounded, followed by blinding rain, then by sunlight and warmth. Tornado country.
• the homes of family we just met, all the cousins & their beautiful children, my father-in-law’s sister, the food we shared, and enjoying them so much
• a long drive going the wrong way & my nine year old’s insistence about wrong historical facts; still it revealed his great concern for oppressed people and his struggle to grasp the magnitude of things that have happened in US history
• a peaceful rural water park & my seven year old’s jump from a high dive: how he looked, how I felt
• a backyard with glowing lightning bugs, and being a kid alongside my kids as we chased the bugs but never caught them
• the US Space & Rocket Center; the NASA connection at Huntsville, Alabama; the largest concentration of PhD’s in the US; the relocation of German scientists to the area post WW2; and the pride and complications of these men who became American patriots after the war
• Civil War era patterned walls, decorated floors, stained poplar to imitate mahogany, upholstered furniture, and diversions in the main houses
• the home’s exterior walls that still hold Civil War bullet holes from the second Battle of Franklin, the Union Army vs the Confederate Army
• the soldier son who was mortally wounded 150 yards from his home in that battle that was fought in his family’s backyard; he died with his father near him the next morning
• the Southern state that was last to join the Confederacy, whose people were divided about slavery and state’s rights: it was the first to rejoin the Union after ratifying the 14th amendment which extended citizenship to black freedmen
• the families that sent one son to one army, and one son to another; the blue and grey soldier caps my sons took turns wearing
• the descendants of people who suffered many war casualties and their deep and sober respect for their heritage
• the miles upon miles of land that is the fields of the Battle of Chickamauga, and no way to explain the physical experience of being on land that held 33,000 casualties.
• the grand sprawl of the interior of an opulent hotel, with its man-made waterfalls, dancing fountains and interior outdoor towns, always the perfect temperature, and truthfully: delightful
• an artful stop at a letterpress printer and its place as the Great American Poster Shop
• a music culture style I know nothing about, the ground breaking women among them, and the exhibition highlight of the Bakersfield Sound with a map that even showed the no-stoplight town where I grew up in California’s Mojave Desert
• a Mexican-styled popsicle stand, and not being able to have just one treat. Or just two. Watermelon, Chocolate Nutella, and Hibiscus.
• the plantations, the labor of slaves and the supported wealth of pre-Civil War life, the hot working kitchens and the amply supplied pantries, cast iron dish covers and rare sugar chests, fresh butter and the little hands that stirred it
• the book of first person slave narratives, recorded in the 1930s under the Federal Writer’s Project, and the sadness they survived
• what 60 acres of farmland looks like, then imagining 1000 acres & 80 people working it in the humidity and heat I felt
• the rugged surfaces of the slave cabin, the just-a-little freedom and then the clarity that there was none
• ownership records, field slaves and house slaves, last names of masters, being bought and sold, divided and discarded, or the “good fortune” of having a kind master
• the overflowing library, the esteemed guests, the children’s toys
• the cabin occupied by a slave that was freed after the Civil War, who went on to work as a tour guide for the preserved estate of his former master
• a mountain cabin in the Smoky Mountains, an idyllic, poor, hard-working life
• the cabin built by Cherokee who were later taken away during the Trail of Tears forcible removal of native people
• the drive through the most cluttered several miles of a tourist trap that I’ve ever seen in my life, with imitation dinosaurs, pyramids, cruise liners, upside down houses, tchotchke barns, castles, underwater worlds, and more than a couple dinner themed theaters
• a 1.2 mile path into the mountains to see a natural 25 foot waterfall, walking behind it, and having my soul take a deep breath and rest
• the draw of a cheap arcade for kids who have overdosed on important outings
• the draw of a run up 159 steps to see a 108 foot waterfall and crawling under bridges with kids who said they were sooo tired but suddenly weren’t anymore
• the collection of motor-home houses on a Cherokee Reservation, and the gas stations, the ice cream shops, the KOA campsites, and the impressive public school built just 3 years ago
• the Southern food: chicken & dumplings, fried catfish, fried okra, hashbrown casserole, turnip greens, and the two very best of all…smooth creamy cheesy grits & bourbon in frozen horchata
• Civil Rights history that I’ve known & read before, but seeing it in context, in the land where it happened, on the street where Martin Luther King, Jr was raised
• the living room in MLK Jr’s childhood home, where he listened to adults organize for the right to vote
• the banister he slid down, the roof he jumped from, the bedroom he didn’t clean, and the coal he loved to gather for the furnace
• the square miles of organized separation by race; the low open fences with their neighbors, the high metal dividers from the white homes
• a corporate headquarters as a last diversion before our flight home, it was a chapel to the brand & its marketing… we left with mixed feelings and a belly-full of “free” soda
Where we are…
We stood in so many historical places in the ten days of our exploration of the South. There is no easy way to summarize it. List the cities we visited? or the specific places? or recall the ways I felt as I physically walked the land and pieced together our victorious and sad American history? I returned home to all sorts of news: part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was struck down by the Supreme Court, then it bolstered gay rights with rulings on Prop 8 and DOMA; Congress passed sweeping immigration reform and committed $38 billion to Mexican border patrol; and one state senator in Texas stood and fought for hours for the sake of women’s rights, while possibly ultimately losing that battle.
I walked through the lands where people strived & suffered for years, and I learned the patriotic precedents that were paved for other repressed communities, so they could fight for equal treatment by the law. A complicated slave-owning president, who fought banking elites so that poor white men could be empowered, established that precedent. And a black man gave his life in the peaceful struggle for equality. Doctors found at his autopsy that although he was just 39, he had the heart of a 60 year old man.
I returned home to this bustling intersection of real time communities carrying on the struggle for dignity that has been going on for hundreds of years. I thought, didn’t I just come from that time & place? So, what are we looking for? What am I looking for? I just know that here I am at this point in life, after multiple losses (in fact my son’s best friend just suddenly and shockingly lost his father last week while we were traveling), and I’m wondering why I do what I do, and I’m wondering what I want. And here is my country, still fighting to maintain an identity as a land of freedom, dreams, and possibilities. I can look at where we’ve come from to get an idea of where we’re going. I can look at the land I visited: one of contradictions, of promise, of beauty, of sadness. In fact, California has it’s sad history, too. It wasn’t empty when people came West. My own Mexican family has an immigration story, with national borders in flux, changing citizenships, illegal entry and migrant labor. So much of our American history is built on layers of displaced and used people. That’s the story of so much human history. Still, we are dreamers. Hopeful for something better, hoping to make something good out of something broken.
I didn’t know before this trip that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on the night just before he was murdered. And I had never read the entire speech. But now I know. And here it is: a color video of a portion of the speech (I wish I could embed): http://youtu.be/hSjf-vLTBzA
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” –MLK Jr, delivered 3 April 1968, Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee