It's a deceptively easy question, almost benign in conversation, "where are you from?" When learning a foreign language, that is one of the key phrases that is taught. While this is a question that we ask almost acutely in getting to know one another, has so many other meanings and connotations that it becomes difficult to separate the easy answer of geographic and place based answer.
For example, I am from the mountains in East Tennessee. This is fairly straightforward, yet it underlies that there is a much deeper understanding of who I am caught between the subtle words of location. Geographically, it is a pinpoint that defines who I am, yet this is much more. Going to the area and feeling the land move, the gentle hills, the trees that come alive in the spring, the flame colored earth that is the eulogy of warmth before a gentle cold that starts to take hold, this is what helps to define who I am. The geographic landmarks of the hills, springs, and water warn flats and hollows are but a simple part of this. The land defines the culture, each of these microcosms of geography highlight and redefine each individual. I mention all of this, because it is the cultural baggage of who we are, who I am, that not only defines myself, but the way I interact with the world around me.
Almost a century ago now, the creation of the New South's economic power started to come into view. The rebirth of cities, such as Atlanta and Charlotte, alongside newly emerging economic centers, such as Hickory North Carolina, meant low skill low wage jobs were the spoke in the broader wheel of this new economy. Migrants from Appalachia made their way to the city, with the hope that there was a brighter future, a hope that one day that they could return to their homeland. You can hear it in the origin of Bluegrass and Country Music, the longing to go back to their, "Kentucky hills," or to be part of the "Tennessee mountain home," once again was the central theme of the newly emerging working class migrants from the mountains. Granted, the resource rich mountains did have some jobs, the coal mines were the primary way that many were able to stay in the region. The coal towns were a product of further north in Appalachia, here in Anderson County especially, the Coal Creek Wars came to define the relationship between labor, the state, and prisons for the next half century. It is the people that were able to leave and make a life in the city that are interesting. For almost a century, the population of Appalachia has been slowly diminishing, the sociological term is "brain drain," This is where the best and brightest look for a way to make it, and due to the low economic conditions in Appalachia, mean that they have to find work in the city. How then do these migrants think of themselves and, "where are they from?"
This past year, I took a position a position teaching at a well-established regional college near Atlanta. One of the questions I asked my 250 plus student body population, "How many have ever been to the Appalachias?" To me this was an hour's drive up the road, many of the Southern Appalachia’s greatest beauties lie in Georgia and southern North Carolina. Their answer astonished me, only five had ever said that they had been to the Appalachias. Growing up in the western side of the Tennessean mountains, this answer was baffling. I could not imagine never seeing these scenic vistas, or experiencing even the Smoky Mountains. This question of where I am from, the ability to relate to another human being, about something as fundamental as experiencing a mountain was difficult for me to try to communicate. Yes, the topic of conversation had nothing really to do with the Appalachians, but I was quickly becoming aware that I now had to struggle to reconceptualize how to communicate with another human being, was a profound struggle. Not to mention a vague and lighthearted distrust of flatlanders. How does one then describe who they are if the lexicon that they use, carries no weight with the listener? That made me rethink, who am I? What makes me, me? Who I am as an individual? Granted these questions of introspection usually are those that visit at those hours that sleep has yet to come, for some reason they were at the forefront of the travel to Congaree National Park this past week.
Earlier this spring, I made plans with a graduate school colleague to visit Congaree National Park because I've heard of the amazing biodiversity and swamp geography. While the plans were made months in advance, this was almost perfect timing because I was able to finish grading and able to test out new equipment. In the past week, I purchased a Canon 6d and I learned that Lightroom can geocode photos, which is a handy tool if you are taking pictures and traveling, trying to remember where each location was. The trip was to go from Knoxville and meet in Charlotte to then travel down to Columbia. What I didn't realize was how important that drive was going to be to me.
The easiest way to get to Charlotte from Knoxville is to take I-40 through Asheville, then turn on to I-77 south to Charlotte. This is a six-hour drive, assuming that traffic isn't bad around I-26 in Asheville or going down I-77. Geographically speaking this is pretty straightforward, the Knoxville valley then turns into the heart of the Eastern side of the Appalachians in East Tennessee/Western North Carolina. After passing the Gatlinburg exit on I-40, civilization almost disappears and you watch the mountains in the distance, melt into the sky, the road dives around rock blasted areas, through the literal heart of mountains with tunnels. From Asheville, the slow climb to the top of the mountains, before the almost rapid descent to the bottom near Marion and the flattening out until one reaches I-77, brings beautiful scenery to the driver.
The reason that I know this all too well, is because in the past three years, I've driven both sides of I-40 countless times. In the fall of 2014, I traveled from Sylva (near Cherokee North Carolina, exit 27), to Surry (north on I-77 near Virginia) every Tuesday and Thursday for the semester. That semester, I put about 17,000 miles on my car. Last year, I traveled back and forth from Sylva to Knoxville for another countless number of times for work. Needless to say, I know this road well. But this time, it was different. Like visiting an old friend, the road was welcoming, the mountains were more than just landmarks between destinations, they were a kind of home, a refuge that I didn't realize that I needed. After getting around Gatlinburg exit, there was a constant smile on my face, feeling the welcoming embrace of returning home. Each turn in the road was another friend I felt I hadn’t seen in years. The entire time, being lost in the road, being lost in the moment of realizing how much this small stretch of highway was, meant everything to me. I became the small, my fraction of a second time that I was present here, in comparison to ancient mountains that were thousands of years old made me only realize how tiny my time on this earth really is. The light traffic only meant that I had time to absorb the fresh green of spring around me. You could feel the almost magical state of life returning to the woods and beckoning you to come to them. What I kept coming back to, is the almost confidant quality of these mountains: how many times had I had a great day teaching and was reflecting on how amazing that connection felt with students, or struggled to find the right way to handle a situation, to fix things that were broken. These mountains, while impersonal my connection to them was, held some of my most personal secrets in the way that only a mountain can. A stony stoicism that is obstinate. How again, can you describe that to someone who has never experienced a mountain before?
I left for Charlotte at four and arrived by 10, the traffic on I-77 was a bit of a mess, which meant that I was more than ready for sleep. I awoke the next day and meet my traveling compatriot near UNCC. We drove to Columbia, about two hours away and entered a different climate. While the mountain air was, cool and composed, the piedmont's temperature was on the steady climb to the low 90s. The marsh like air was a complete change to what I've been use to for the past few weeks. Congaree is a magical place of life, you can feel it when you step out of the car, the singing birds that great you, the skinks that surround you on almost every tree, you can feel the life surrounding you.
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The park was a national monument in the 1990s, and became a national park in the early 2000s. The lush green of the park was mesmerizing. The trail that we took was the boardwalk to the Western loop trail that was recommended by the visitor center. This gave us the clearest views of the Cypress trees that litter the ground with their knees and take over the forest floor. The smallest change in elevations, even a few inches, meant a completely different ecological zone, from a mostly dirt floor was a grass covered. After about a mile, the boardwalk ended and you are put on a mud path through the woods. Make sure that you bring mosquito repellant, because these were more than a nuisance. Several times, both of us were smacking full mosquitos that smeared blood over our arms, making us look like we had been caught in a combat zone. The marsh plain and path had many different points of interest and the self-guided tour gave clear ideas and instructions on why each area was important. Around mile 3.5, the boardwalk returns and there is an amazing area to watch the river. Several turtles were waiting for food at the bottom of the boardwalk. While most of my photography revolves around landscapes, Congaree’s wildlife was an excellent change of pace. I captured several turtle, skink, snake, and woodpecker photos. Congaree's swamp was well worth the trip, next time, I would like to have a canoe or paddle boat and go out on the swamp to explore more of what the park has to offer. I feel that I didn't get the best pictures, but what made up for it was the ride home.
I returned to Charlotte at about five in the afternoon, parting ways with my friend and having a wonderful dinner, it was time to go home. I punched in home address on the GPS and I was expecting to return basically the way that I came. Yet that was not the case, the GPS took me southward towards Kings Mountain, then across and up I-26 to hit I-40 at Asheville. The road through Shelby and lower central-western Carolina was fairly uneventful, it was when I hit I-26 that I realized how much place and location actually started to mean.
In the fall of 2015, I taught at a school in South Carolina, thinking that this was primarily for an online course, I was badly mistaken. I had signed up for a hybrid 8-week course that meant that I was driving to Florence South Carolina twice a week from Sylva North Carolina, another 200+ mile trip. Each school day, I left the house before noon to arrive in Florence at 5, taught American History II at 6-8, then was on the road back to Sylva by 12-1 am. While it is very clear, the life of an adjunct is one that is not sustainable, this is not the purpose of mentioning that. Every day I had to find something new to entertain my thoughts on the drive to Florence, I learned that semester what a podcast is and discovered some amazing interviewers, such as Marc Marion. As summer became fall, the drive back on I-26 from Greenville South Carolina to Asheville became more and more the reason that I would be amazed. One of the least traveled interstates (in comparisons to others in the South), is that section between Greenville to Asheville, I believe they call the rapid descent from Hendersonville to the piedmont as "the Gulch," because of the 7-10% gradient, that then has the slow rolling hills of South Carolina. The speed limit is 70 MPH, but because of the lack of traffic, that turns out to be the minimum speed. It was here, in the sparsely populated, and remote area of the two Carolinas, that as summer turned to fall, I watched each night with splendor as the stars came out and were magical. That feeling of being so insignificant, to be lost like a child under a blanket, where you are safe and protected, yet full of life, is the most magical feeling as an adult.
Coming back from Charlotte the other night, was that same feeling of rapture at seeing those mountains. There is nothing more empowering than having the radio of the car turned up, drowning out your own voice, singing at the top of your lungs, and feeling that sense of home. The problem with saying smile, is that seems almost too weak of a word to describe the feeling/expression. I was in a state of almost euphoria feeling the mountains return and being a part of them. The sun setting in the distance, further north, casted a pink and purple on clouds, was in direct contrast to the lush green of the mountains. By the time I was near Asheville, the stars were starting to come out and again, that feeling of home was so overwhelming. I was too caught up in the moment to do anything other than take a few pictures of the mountains, but that doesn't even begin to demonstrate how amazing that moment was. While I am not from this area, I feel this deep connection to the place and would say that it has that quality of home that for myself that is not found in all corners of the world. Even if I'm not from here, can I call this home, can I lay claim to being colonized by this area?
This question of home, location, and place are common themes in the human experience. The legend goes, that when the Spanish arrived at the Yucatan, they asked, "Donde esta aqui?" To which the local Mayan, who looked slightly confused, responded, Yucatan. Asked a second time, the same answer, thus the Spanish marked the toe of Central America as Yucatan. Only centuries later, did anyone care to decipher what Yucatan meant in Mayan: Loosely translated as, "I don't understand you." That is the critical problem with language and trying to describe these mountains, the words that we use to describe them are temporal and don't really take into consideration that the listener has to experience this moment or it is always lost in translation. I return to this question of where am I from, because in many ways this definition of myself is so hard to formulate into anything that means something to another human being. Even though I am something in the ballpark of 95% genetically similar to another human being, there is something deeply different in my experience that I struggle to communicate with others. I've been reading Dan Flores and his discussion of the natural history of the Western United States, which is a fascinating read, but throughout it, he points out that there is a fundamental difference between place and location. Transversely, location is a geographic point. That place is where you are connected, through language, experience, through culture. In the past few months I have had the ability to teach outside of Atlanta, having to leave the confines of the mountains. Maybe that's the problem, that I am part of that larger economic trend, of Appalachian refugees, looking for better economic opportunities somewhere other than home, and have this hagiographic vision of a place that is always lost in memory, or a translation of myself in a former life. Meaning, that I need to quickly learn the banjo and get on the hipster return to the earth movement currently en vogue. Or maybe, I'm the strange one evolutionarily. Thousands of years ago, we descended from the great savanna apes, and never really found refuge in the mountains, maybe it was my ancestors that were the strange ones and encoded me to be different, with that love of a place that is foreign to all of those around me.