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A stream flowing through Gatlinburg

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” Saint Augustine

This is as good a place as any to revisit Gatlinburg for the third time, this time from my desk in my apartment in Germany, where we are laboring through our second lockdown because of the coronavirus.

The Tennessee sky on the day of my visit was a gorgeous, clear blue, a rarety here in the winter, they say. The day I entered Tennessee, a Saturday, it was pouring with rain. It had rained so much that the entire State was flooded, and I had to drive on a detour to get to Knoxville, having to drive through more detours even after I entered the city limits. Thanks to all the flooding, schools were closed, and both of my brother’s sons could spend the day with us in Gatlinburg.

We spent Sunday morning in church. I, as the oldest child in a family with seven children, grew up with a habitual feeling of responsibility. It was a weight that I can’t say I welcomed, but I accepted it, willingly sharing in the upbringing of my younger brothers and sisters. Now, an adult in retirement age, I find myself still unable to shake off this weight. I observe it, pray about it, offering it to God. But it always remains, at least in the background of my thoughts. I have always felt protective of Jason, my second youngest brother, so I was a little apprehensive about the kind of church he attended. I didn’t know anything about Tennessee, so I wondered, was it some backwards, reactionary redneck church? As soon as we entered the parking lot, I felt the sense of relief in experiencing a comforable familiarity. From the outside, it looked like a large, thriving church. When I heard the pastor, I quickly ascertained that he was educated. He talked about his seminary years. I found the people friendly. I met some of Jason and Lucy’s friends, and was impressed, not only by their friendliness, but also by the concern they showed for Jason’s family. One of his and Lucy’s sons is over eighteen and autistic. These church friends have invested time trying to find help for my brother’s son.

The next day, the first thing we saw in Gatlinburg was a wild mountain stream with pansies decorating the bridge. Someone had brought something of beauty into this town, which delighted me. In the photo you can see that the hillside is black. This is not only because it is winter, and the trees have lost their leaves. Huge portions of the National Park which I found so beautiful on my first trip to Tennessee were devastated by a forest fire in 2016. I read that the fire destroyed over 15,000 acres in the park, extending all the way into the city of Gatlinburg. https://eu.tennessean.com/story/news/local/2016/11/29/gatlinburg-extend-fire-damage-comes-into-grim-focus/94625786/

The summer of 2016 was the worst drought Tennessee had ever seen, and fires raged throughout the State that summer. Now, the day of our visit, in Februrary 2019, two and a half years after the fire, Gatlinburg’s scarred hillsides remain blackened and bare, and will still be so for years to come.

The fire roared right down to this edge of this visitor center.

I study the photos again from the warm comfort of my room. Because of the lockdown, I have plenty of time to study photos. In my effort to connect with, to understand this town a little, I notice something today I hadn’t noticed the day we sauntered along Gatlinburg’s main thoroughfare. Gatlinburg has an aquarium, and it appears that the aquarium is powered by solar energy. Someone in this city is concerned about sustainable energy, and that delights me.

For our day in Gatlinburg, Jason and Lucy decided that we would only spend our money outdoors, and not venture into any of the many attractions. That is exactly the decision our parents would have made, should they have even made the decision to spend any time in Gatlinburg.

Solar panels line parts of the roof of the aquarium.

As we sauntered along the “strip” – a road with very broad sidewalks on either side, we noticed that there were attractions galore in this town – among them the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, and Guinness World Records. There was a cable car too, where you could see the town and forest from above, and an aquarium, which felt somehow out of place to me, located in this mountain town, far from any seas.

World’s Tallest Man

In another way, Gatlinburg is a world away from cities I’m familiar with, like New York City or the Twin Cities in Minnesota. This town is geared just for tourists, and it seems to me, the goal is to rid them of as much money as possible. The towns and villages outside of Gatlinburg are the same. You drive miles and miles past one amusement park after another. Dollywood, a theme park named after Dolly Parton, is only one of them.

We sauntered along, sampling the experiences allowed outside the Guinness attraction. They’re actually kind of fun! I decided to go along with it all, and found myself getting into this. There’s a model of the world’s tallest man, sitting down. He is eight feet, eleven inches tall. My nephew, who’s not short, stood next to him, shorter than this man while seated. There is a Madame Tussaud-style model of Donald Trump, who seems to be selling copies of the Guinness Book of Records, and who apparently holds several records himself.

Donald Trump is in the Book of Records too. Why is that not surprising?

We all smiled and laughed as we paused to pose behind the corpus of an enormously fat farmer. We may be overweight, but not THIS bad!

You can’t help but have fun here, but besides having fun, I noticed that a part of me was also smirking. Was my brother smirking behind his smile too? We were brought up never to venture into such places. Now, as I reflect on our upbringing, I think my father, a second generation American, wanted to escape any traces of the poverty and ignorance he grew up with. His father was an uneducated shoemaker from a village in Hungary. My father had the good fortune to graduate from Columbia University in New York City, with plenty of opportunities to educate himself culturally, which he and my mother did, often attending the opera, operettas, and concerts. We children grudgingly trudged along with our parents to art museums. If we had heard or participated in any discussion about the paintings we may have been more enthusiastic about art museums. I guess the point was to get a little culture into us. My father used to quickly switch stations or turn off the radio if there were even a few bars of pop music being played. So no wonder my father drove through Gatlinburg on that first visit to the Smoky Mountains. Gatlinburg, with its carnival atmosphere, was completely the opposite of what we in my generation were brought up to appreciate.

I’m not sure how much of this has rubbed off on Jason. He just doesn’t talk about what is called “high culture”, throwing himself instead into the music of the Rolling Stones and other hard rock groups. Here in Gatlinburg, the boys were free to look and have fun, as long as it didn’t cost any money. I could tell by their enthusiasm that they would have loved to be able to go inside and experience more, but for today, that wasn’t an option. Trying to understand this town, I can see why families might like to go here. “It’s entertainment in its lowest form”, I can almost hear my father grumbling. And Jason, his kids and even I protest, “But it’s fun!”

The strip extends for many blocks, with shops, little cafés where you can have a meal or ice cream, or coffee, or buy trinkets. It may be fun, but for me, conditioned by my parents’ ideas of good taste, it is also embarrassing to admit this. This is what I wrote afterwards in my journal:

“I was immediately struck by the garishness of it all. It is all of America’s worst taste, the most garish, outlandish, most rednek collection possible, jammed into this crevice between mountains. All lit up at night, with fake snow, a fake snowman, some fake German-looking buildings, fake Western buildings, a fake English house. But it is so brazen, so confidently presented, you have to get into it and enjoy it.”

The “strip”
Fake English house

The “strip” led us to the Smoky Mountain Mall, with more shops and cafés. And then on to the Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine Distillery, a sort of mall unto itself. This part of Gatlinburg actually felt as though it belonged there. In the center of the mall is an outdoor auditorium, filled with beautiful identical wooden rocking chairs. How comfortable! How cozy and thoughtful! We sat down and enjoyed listening to a group playing bluegrass music.

Bluegrass music at the auditorium

The centerpiece of this mall seems to be a bar and store selling “moonshine”. If there’s anybody reading this who doesn’t know what moonshine is, I’m probably the last person you should ask. Even we from the North know, though, that moonshine is a variety of distilled alcohol beverages that are produced illegally – hence the name “moonshine” – made under the light of the moon. During the prohibition years, 1920-1933, buying and selling alcohol was illegal in the United States. Then the moonshine business really fluorished, particularly in the Appalachian Mountains, right where the Smoky Mountains lie. In the Appalachians, there are many places inaccessible by road, so it was more difficult to get caught. I read online that moonshine is generally young, unaged whiskey, and is still produced in some places. What we saw in this setting was obviously legal, though, an example of trademarking a moniker. There seemed to be several types of “moonshine” being sold. We didn’t try any, even though they had free samples, because we grownups were already buzzed from some delicious fruit-flavored wine we had already tried at the mall.

Free “moonshine” tasting at the Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine Distillery

We walked on, hungry by now. We sampled “bulled” peanuts – boiled peanuts, a local specialty. Not nearly as good, in my opinion, as roasted and salted peanuts. We bought homemade fudge with various flavors, sharing our choices with each other. Not very healthy, but the fudge was a treat, reminding me of what my mother used to make every Christmas. In Germany, where I live now, fudge is unknown.

We also passed stores like this, selling T-shirts. I had never heard of the “Save the Turtles” movement, but I read online that sea turtles are an endangered species. This shop seems to be one whose owners have an ecological, social conscience. Most of the T-shirts have the “simply southern” logo, so I looked that up while researching for this blog entry. I learned that “Simply Southern” is a brand of T-shirts and other clothing, known for comfort and quality, and very popular among college students. I also learned that access to the “Simply Southern” website is denied because of online attacks. I wonder why people are attacking this company. Why is there so much nastiness these days?

Simply Southern – A brand popular among college students

Then, as we peered at the wares of the next shop, my feeling of well-being while having basic fun quickly shifted to intense discomfort and revulsion. I felt so uncomfortable I would have crossed to the other side of the street if my curiosity hadn’t been stronger. Here was a shop full of Confederate symbols – flags and stickers, juxtaposed next to American flags and symbols of support for US troops. The aura of the shop felt somehow aggressive to me and utterly appalling. What was it doing here in this town, nestled in the mountains? Is Tennessee even a Southern State? I suppose it must be – before I crossed the border on my way to Tennessee, I was in Mississippi, clearly in the South. And Alabama, also on the southern border, is a southern State. Tennessee did join the secession, after all, albeit two months after South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama and Georgia, the first to secede.

As I sit at my desk in Germany, two years after my day in Gatlinburg, I ask myself, why is there all this hype about being Southern? I see a banner with a Confederate flag and the text, “It’s a Southern thang. Y’all wouldn’t understand.” Shutting me, a Northerner out. We don’t have shops in the North advertising how great it is to be a Northerner, or a Yankee, as Southerners call us. Another banner has the Confederate flag with “Rebel” written across it. Still? Over 150 years after the end of the Civil War? Another Confederate flag with the inscription “Southern Bride”. No, I don’t understand, and I feel like bolting away. Instinctively, I don’t want to understand. But I visited this town, willing and determined to set aside my condescension. I want to grow beyond the snobbishness lurking inside of me. So, even though my insides recoil at setting eyes on that Confederate flag, I wish there had been someone from this town whom I could have talked to and helped me understand, even if I didn’t like or approve of what I saw.

One discomfiting symbol after another in this shop

Luckily, there was a lot more of Gatlinburg I could enjoy and identify with than this store. I loved the care someone went to, to plant pansies on all the bridges crossing the stream. I enjoyed the heather growing otside the visitor center. I enjoyed the friendliness of the people in the shops. I enjoyed the playful attitude towards their mountain culture – the attention that went into building sturdy wooden rocking chairs, giving me the opportunity to sit down and enjoy a taste of moonshine and bluegrass music. I think I could even enjoy sitting down in a bar somewhere with a glass of beer or “moonshine”, listening to bluegrass. I’d even give country music a try. But if I had someone from Tennessee sitting across from me, I would definitely ask about that Confederate flag.

I am writing this post to try and understand. It is difficult, since this is a world completely foreign to me, and I don’t even know anyone from Tennessee, except my brother and his family, who came to live here, knowing nothing about the State, well after my brother’s fiftieth birthday had passed.

Someone once told me that we tend to negatively judge what we don’t understand. Even as I write this, I find myself doing this with Gatlinburg. I am ambivalent about this city. Just as with my brother’s choice of church, I instinctively want to put my stamp of approval or disapproval on this place. I know I am not alone in this. It is what we humans all do, but my heart and my faith tell me it is wrong, a mistake, to judge. Jesus told us not to judge others, lest we be judged ourselves. How am I to embrace this town without judgment? I think the answer is to look beyond and behind even what we believe to be wrong.

There is more that I need to understand. I notice something else about Gatlinburg that troubles me as I sit here, just months after George Floyd was killed – in Minneapolis, of all places, my home town, reputed for its tolerance! If I could talk to someone from Gatlinburg, I could acknowledge that things in Minneapolis are not as rosy as white Minneapolitans would like others to believe. We Northerners are so often completely unaware of our assumptions of what it is to be an American. Before Floyd’s murder and hearing the response of many Black Americans, I probably would never have noticed that I didn’t see a single person of color during my visit to Gatlinburg, except for my sister-in-law, who is Asian. The “fake” buildings and things I experienced were all symbols of white culture – bluegrass music, a Western-style building, an English-style house, a German-style house. I read that they celebrate “Oktoberfest” in Gatlinburg. Why? Is there a German heritage there? There was nothing that I could see that Black, or Hispanic, or Asian Americans could identify with. Is there only a white heritage in this part of Tennessee? My brother said the city reminded him of Las Vegas, a city I’ve also never been to. We came across a sign claiming that Gatlinburg was second only to Las Vegas in the number of weddings taking place there per year. Somebody posting online about Gatlinburg called it the “Vegas of the South”. What does Gatlinburg have in common with Las Vegas? Is this another aspect of marketing, of commercialism to attract tourists, or is there something else about this city I need to understand?

Not everything about Gatlinburg seems to be innocent fun. That store with Confederate flags and banners left a sour taste in my mouth. But I need to try and understand.

I am writing this three weeks after watching on TV in horror as a mob of violent thugs brazenly stormed the US Capitol. My heart was in my throat, watching one man carrying a Confederate flag into the chambers, into the very hall Congress had just been meeting in until they rushed to escape into safety. He carried the flag into the room where the House of Representatives sits, a room Senator Dick Durban called a “sacred place”.

I haven’t slept well in the days and weeks following this insurrection, and finally breathed a sigh of some relief when Biden was finally sworn in as the new President. What am I supposed to do with this Confederate flag I saw in my Capitol? And with the people who identify with it? Surely the man carrying this flag into the US Capitol was communicating something to the world, something that is repulisive to me. As far as I understand it, it symbolizes everything I deplore. For me, this flag symbolizes separation. An unwillingness to understand. It symbolizes racism and white supremacy. a narrow world view, a lack of openness, an unwillingness to travel, to open one’s eyes and heart to other cultures, needs and values. On the other hand, to me, the American flag symbolizes inclusion, an open world view, welcoming people of every land, culture, religion, race, gender and sexual orientation. It symbolizes freedom, liberty, and democracy. It symbolizes tolerance for one another.

But the country I am a citizen of is divided. I don’t live there any more, but I am thoroughly American, and my heart aches to see my country divided. My world is divided. What can I do about that? I think I can go deeper, and try to understand even those I consider my enemies.

I write this during a period of rioting and vandalism which is taking place all over the Netherlands because of a curfew the government declared, to try and deal with the new British variant of the corona virus. I hear about division over and over again, all across Europe. There are clear differences of opinion in my own family, and I hear that this is happening all across America.

I have felt my heart aching when trying to communicate with those who are of a different political persuasion than me. It so often seems as if in these “discussions”, they are trying to convert me to their opinion rather than understand me. But I am still committed to trying to understand those I don’t understand, whose values I even abhor.

One of my heroes is Bryan Stevenson, who wrote the memoir Just Mercy, upon which the movie is based. Here is a Black man who reaches out even to the people on death row, trying to help them achieve justice. Some are wrongfully imprisoned, but there are others he talks and listens to who have murdered someone. Some of them are white. He finds the humanity in each of these prisoners, and this reaching out seems to have softened many of them.

In my family and with my friends, we are committed to talking to one another. One of my friends believes all this COVID stuff is made up and exaggerated. She used to try and convince me with her “evidence”, but after a few months of discussion, she came up with a way to talk to her friends who see this differently. We agree to talk for several minutes without interruption, and then allow the other to talk for an equal amount of time without interruption. By now we smile and agree to disagree, and then talk about other things.

In my family, even though we don’t agree with each other about everything, we respond lovingly, positively, to the WhatsApp photos we send each other about the little moments of our lives that have nothing to do with politics or COVID. I hope we can grow still more in understanding one another, as we, as I let go of my urge to stand in judgment.

I hope that we who are appalled at what happened in Washington can honestly ask ourselves why these people feel so aggrieved. Our mainstream media is quick to judge and then dismiss these people as terrorists. But I have never heard an honest discussion with anyone who subscribes to these conspiracy theories on CNN. CNN piously castigates these people as vile criminals. By the same token, as I watch and listen to the conspiracy videos I have also been sent, I don’t hear anyone trying to understand why progressives want more centralized government. People like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders are simply denounced as Marxists.

How can we communicate with one another? We have to stop putting each other down. I believe we have to try, even if it feels like the other side is merely bent on converting us. People with values and beliefs that appall us are still human beings, just like I am, with longings, disappointments, hopes, dreams and values. My experience is that, as I listen, not only is my heart softened. The hearts of my opponents are also softened. They begin to understand me a little too.

Even if those in our lives with opposing or different beliefs than us are unable or unwilling to try and understand us, I think we need to try and understand them. Not to agree with them when we believe they are wrong, but to to look inside and also be open to the possibility of being wrong in some ways too. To look for common ground, to feel around for a way to unite again. If we don’t, we continue the cycle of judgment and disdain. We help increase the tension, which will lead to more violence, more division and less understanding than ever. There is so much more to each person than their political or religious beliefs. I hope this day in Gatlinburg will help me learn the importance of trying to understand so that I, and those I interact with, can connect and come closer to being united.