In the light of what has transpired just over the past year, it is impossible for me to write about a trip that took place nearly two years ago purely in the present tense. Time is forcing me to change my format, just as it is also, like the force of a little stream, slowly, sometimes abruptly affecting the shape of my perceptions.
One of my memories of Tennessee, etched into my mind like a boulder, is a day we spent in Gatlinburg. Gatlinburg was, to me, an in-your-face redneck town. I most definitely do not see myself as a redneck person. Does anyone, really? I don’t know. Since returning, since witnessing the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, I have done some thinking.
I have to admit that I, an alumnus of a post-graduate university program, carry an attitude of superiority if I even deign to enter such a milieu. I don’t think I really paid much attention to my attitude before. As I looked, watched and smiled, perhaps condescendingly, I didn’t think about the fact that I saw myself as better than the people who built or frequent such places. No wonder there is such resentment from the other half of America! I find my ideas reflected, dressed up and polished, listening to NPR, and my cultural craving satiated by PBS. But what about the other half of America, the half I can’t relate to? How are we to become a more perfect union, or to unify at all, if we don’t want to associate with each other? I have the feeling that the people I don’t understand resent people like me at least as much as people like me have despised them.
But, the whole reason for my trip was to understand members of my family I don’t necessarily agree with politically, and to see parts of America for myself we Northerners tend to ignore. I am trying to understand. I don’t want to be condescending.
So, how to come to terms with Gatlinburg?
My first visit to Gatlinburg was really a quick drive-through on a family vacation our family took in 1964, when I was a teenager. Our destination was a campground in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. All I can remember seeing of the town was the Great Western, wishing we could stay there and enjoy a hot shower, a real bed and pancake breakfast in a restaurant instead of having to set up camp in a campground. But once we arrived at our campground, just a few miles outside of Gatlinburg, we marveled at the lush beauty of the Smoky Mountains. I don’t know if I had ever seen such dense, thick, friendly forests, where trees blossomed! There were flowering mountain laurel bushes everywhere. Rhododendron trees were also blooming, with showy pink and purple flowers. Minnesota winters are too cold for rhododendron trees.
Another delight was discovering the dogwood tree with its four-petaled flowers. Stories about the dogwood flowers say the petals represent the cross, and the indentations on the flowers the nailprints on Jesus’s hands and feet. https://www.plantmegreen.com/blogs/news/easter-and-the-legend-of-the-dogwood-tree
Coming from Minnesota, with its harsh, cold winters, we weren’t used to lush, flowering forests. Minnesota does have beautiful flowers in its forests, but not flowering trees.
But then we went for a drive along some mountain roads outside of the National Park. Dotted along the hillside were flimsy, broken-down shacks I imagined a big storm would wash down the hill. These tiny houses had porches with wringer washing machines like my family had exchanged years before for automatic machines and tumbler dryers. There were abandoned cars, couches, and appliances marring the land surrounding the houses. My brothers and sisters and I were shocked that people could live like this. My parents told us about the term “white trash”. I was reading Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, a saga about the American South during the Civil War. I think the term “white trash” may have been mentioned in the book. I think my parents tried to be neutral when talking about this group of people, but I also remember feeling that these people were not only disadvantaged, they were somehow deficient.
We stopped at a Dairy Queen for ice cream. A teenage girl appeared at the window of my father, who was driving. She held a pad and pencil ready and asked what we would like to order. “Nine chocolate ice cream cones, please,” my father said. She looked at him uncomprehendingly and said,
My father repeated the order. “I still don’t understand you,” she said in a thick Tennessee accent.
My father sat there, puzzled, for a few seconds, trying to fathom how he could communicate with the server. Then he grinned broadly and said, “Oh!” Something had dawned on him. “Naahn chaaawklit aahs crim kah-oons, plah-ees.” We spoke the same language, but didn’t understand each other.
There is a big divide among Americans. I felt it during that first trip to Tennessee. I sensed it on this day fifty years later, revisiting Gatlinburg. But this gap isn’t only about North and South, I am coming to see. It is about those with a college education and those without. It is about those with secure jobs and those without. It is about whites and minorities who are quickly becoming majorities. It is about city people and rural people. It is about the religious right and those of other religions and Christians who are not on the right. It has come to be about Democrats and Republicans, bringing the divide even into families. How can we ever bridge this divide? How can we ever come to understand one another? This is my concern as I write about my day in Gatlinburg.
To be continued.