Two weeks ago I was in the Smoky Mountains. You move around the country, you move your brain. This is an ever-more essential process. So much sitting in one place, staring at a screen, festering up worries and resentment. Travel broadens your mind, they say, and right they are, although in the process one also comes to wish some folks would never leave their lairs. There is also the ongoing project of my acknowledging certain privileges, travel high among them. Bootstraps talk has long been conflated with shoe leather — why don’t you people just pick up and change your situation? These days many of us don’t even have to leave our home county to witness the fallacy of that one. Still, it is easier to sit in comfort and cast aspersion upon distant circumstance. But who am I to talk. One more Dad in a Van, preaching at the windshield.
The Smokies, as my 10-year-old noted one morning while fog lolled low between the green ridges, are smoky. In fact, less than a year ago they had been swept with real smoke. Wildfires. The denuded and discolored swaths are still visible. Over a dozen people died. Dolly Parton is from around here, and pitched in to help.
We had come to the Smokies to meet family from all around the country. We rented two cabins and stuffed them to overflowing. Played cards, watched favorite movies, passed the stories around, and down. In general it was a happy cacophony. I married into this bunch and happy I am to have done so. There is enough difference among us that certain topics are best given polite berth. So it is all over the place. All the more reason, perhaps, to tend the central threads. Among the bonds of civilization I count second cousins, crowded tables and cross-generational dishwashing shifts.
Harmony requires we sing different notes, I was going to say, but as with many decoratively stitched pillows that one doesn’t really hold up in a fight. I tell my children we travel so we may hear voices freshly, and firsthand. Some we ponder and prefer not to respond. Some we oppose. Others we amplify. Two miles from our cabin there stood a giant billboard featuring Dolly Parton. On our way out of town I snapped a photo of it and shared it with Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University. I first encountered Dr. McMillan Cottom on Twitter. The connections linking her and me and Dolly are baroque beyond description in this allotted space, but indeed they arose from travel outside my normal corn pone comfort zone. Online travel, yes, but no matter where we sit our minds are free to go.
Round-trip we covered 2,118 miles. Every day I’d sneak a little time with the news, then lay it like a scrim over whatever America I saw before me. I’m back home now. It’s late August. The meadow grasses are threaded with dead stems. The black cap canes are stripped. The hosta scapes arc like fishing rods leaned against the wall of an empty cabin. Long before autumn arrives, it insinuates itself.