T is for Texas, and T is for Tennessee

Some of the strongest links between the past and today is the personal connection with family. While family relationships are often difficult to maintain, it is that unbreakable connection that links the present, past and future that come together in to form that union of ourselves as an individual. The earliest stories that we learn about ourselves are from our family. It is like a second genetic code, one that creates the body, the other that creates the individual. To understand who we are, we have to understand those the closest to us. Yet, those relationships are often fraught with their own quagmires of different viewpoints, struggling to create bonds in adulthood with people who often don't have things that are in common. The question that I think many of us struggle with, is how to balance who we are as individuals, and how do we relate with this other people that we are genetically and culturally linked to? While I don't have an answer, the past few days, I feel that I've started to come to grips with this more and more driving from Tennessee to Texas.

For months on end, I have been planning this trip to go back out West. I made my pilgramage to the desert last summer, in July. I realize in hindsight that was probably not a smart idea. Scout and I spent nine days on the road to drive from Knoxville, down to Muscle Shoals, New Orleans, across Texas to Austin, then up through Roswell, Albequerque, to Joshua Tree, before turning around and going home. That nine days had this profound impact on me. If you would have asked a year ago, would I have ever wanted to go to the desert, there would have been a complete revulsion. Granted, I did want to go to the Grand Canyon for a few years, but in my head that wasn't the desert. Yet, there was something so soothing and calming about the desert that called me to want to return.
I made plans, starting in December, to travel back to the American Southwest for this summer. Those plans included upgrading my car, I recently purchased a Prius (yes you can make fun of me for that, but the gas mileage is perfect for this trip), trying to spend more time and using less money. Part of this trip was to show my younger sister the desert, she had never been to this area either. It also made for a nice graduation present as well. In the intervening months, I've basically used Instagram as a travel guide, spending countless minutes looking at what I thought was interesting and beautiful and making notes of where these locations were. Armed with a list of over 100 places, I started really sitting down to plan this in April. I had a handful of places that I wanted to go, Grand Canyon, Zion, Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Yosemite, Crater Lake, Vancouver, Yellowstone, just to name a few. I guess it is time to say that I have a weird affinity for National Parks, they are treasures! So far this year, I've been to 10 parks before making this trip. I told my students that I was hoping to make it to 15 before the end of the year and I think that is going to happen. The plan was to spend about two months traveling and seeing if I could visit these for more than just the passport stamp quality visit. The day finally arrived that we were ready to take off.
For the first leg, the plan is to go from Knoxville, Tennessee Monday, travel to Reelfoot Lake in the top corner of the state, then make it to Zion in Utah by Thursday. I realize that this is a tall order because of the close to 2,000 mile difference. My sister is with me for the first two weeks, and I promised her that we would go to Zion, Grand Canyon, and I might have found that I want to go to the Grand Escalante before dropping her off at Las Vegas. I've then got another week to make it to Joshua Tree, before having to take a week off from travel for work. That effectively ends the first leg of this trip. So when Monday came it seemed like it was almost a dream. Those months of thinking and planning seemed to all of a sudden hit at once and it was this moment of realizing that we were actually about to do this that it was hard to believe that it was happening.
There is something ancient even in the name, Tennessee. The name comes from the Spanish explorer Juan Pardo, translating an indigenous village named "Tanasqui as early as 1567. This was the Cherokee village Tanasi that the Spanish were referring to. Caught between the "dark and bloody ground," of Kentucky (what Kentucky roughly translates from in Cherokee), Tennessee became the western half of North Carolina, stretching to the Mississippi after the French and Indian War. As more and more settlers came into the area, there was a growing rift between the culture between the pioneer mountaineers and Raleigh. After the failed attempt of the State of Franklin, the westward expansion to the Mississippi meant that the three geographic regions of the state were starting to have direct conflict with one another. The mountains were rural and poor farming quality, whereas the western part of the state had the ability to grow cotton and large plantations meant that during the Civil War the state was divided in loyalty. While driving through the state today, you can feel that same division in geography and culture. The eastern section has the feeling of life with the forests; whereas the western section is flat and seems to stretch forever in farms, more akin to Texas or Oklahoma.
The primary artery of east-to-west in Tennessee is I-40. Leaving early, we made it from Knoxville, winding through the Cumberland Plateau, down to Nashville. We continued on I-40 until Jackson before turning north to Reelfoot Lake. While this is a small state park at the corner of Tennessee, there was a lot of family history here and it was a longing to go back to a childhood memory. Maybe I should unpack some of this history to make it clearer.
My grandmother was born in Corbin, Kentucky in 1924. She was one of seven children of a one eyed coal miner. By 1929, the mining work was slowing down and because of infidelity, my great grandfather left to the "promise lands" of Oklahoma. Packing up seven children in a jollopie, he made it as far as he could, Dyersburg, Tennessee. My grandmother told me before she died in 2004, her first memory of being 4-5 years old of Dyersburg was pulling into the town and there was a lynching of an African American man. I couldn't imagine the terror and messages that this sent to a child of that age. Afterwards, the family became sharecroppers, working in the region's cotton fields, working side by side with African Americans. Another one of the many the paradoxes of the South during the post-Reconstruction period. The family started to split up as the 1930s start to move into the 1940s. My grandmother for instance, eventually made it to Iowa during World War II and was one of the Rosie the Riveter, before marrying a railroad engineer and moving to Anderson County to raise a family. There's a little more to the story, but isn't that the way with family...
Growing up, hearing stories of the Great Depression made a profound impact on me. When I was in that awkward pre-teenager period, my grandmother's brother was slowly dying of lung cancer. For three summers, we would pack up in a car and drive the 6-7 hours across the state to visit with family. Each time we would go, we would go up to Reelfoot Lake and walk the boardwalk and see the raptor center. I can remember driving what seemed like forever across this flat as a pancake landscape, only to get to a lake that seemed to stretch from the horizon. The state park sold Cypress knees, and by the time I was in high school we had a small collection of these in the kitchen window, almost like a family heirloom. The last time that I was at Reelfoot was in the 1990s. I felt this longing to go back and have a connection to with my family.
There is the other connection to Reelfoot, the historical, that I have often thought about. Reelfoot Lake was the only naturally made lake in Tennessee, in 1811-1812. In a geographic sense, this was a recent addition to the state. Here is one of the interesting convergences of geography/nature and history. At the turn of the 19th century, the policies and ways of the white settlers towards indigenous people was less than admirable. After four centuries of contact, these settlers had taken with both hands, indigenous lands and were systematically killing indigenous people for more land. One of the most important resistance leaders was Tecumseh. His brother, Tenskwatawa the Prophet, had a vision that when the indigenous people should give up the ways of the Americans and return to the traditional ways. In some of his teachings, earth shook that this was the sign of the gods to attack and drive the whites out. Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa attempted to ally the peoples of the Mississippi region together to fight the whites. The sign came in 1811, when the New Madrid Fault shook the earth about a thousand times before finishing. The shocks were so strong that the Mississippi River flowed backwards to form Reelfoot Lake. Unfortunately for Tecumseh, the moment passed and he was killed by future president William Henry Harrison at the Battle of Tippacanoe. The lake was cut off from the Mississippi by a dam and became a natural home to a variety of birds, such as eagles.
The drive from Dyersburg to Reelfoot lake wasn't anything spectacular. Farms haven't returned just yet, and the yellow and brown of the dirt makes it seem like the earth is scarred. The park is difficult to navigate, there are no real signs through out the area. I suggest that you stop in several parts of the park to figure out where you should go. The best part of the park is at the visitor center there is the raptor rehabilitation center and the boardwalk over the swamp. Because this is a rehabilitation center, you never know who is going to be there. When we were there, there were several eagles, a hawk, and a variety of owls. The eagles looked to be in the roughest shape. It was interesting to watch my sister laugh and enjoy these, she especially liked the owls that were there. She claims to not remember being there the last time, but the smile on her face tells me that this was well worth the trip. The boardwalk is a short walk through a marshy area, the cypress trees come to meet you out of the water. The short 1.5 mile walk was a nice break from driving.
The second goal of the first day was to try to camp outside of Ozark River National Waterway in Missouri. I found this while researching national parks/recreations areas before leaving, it is more of a waterway and was more or less a good spot to camp for the night near I-40 that would be an easy connection for the next day. We left Reelfoot and crossed the Mississippi, the flat land still surrounded us, and the feeling of discontentment with the surroundings returned. The southeastern part of Missouri is interesting, small towns, wholesome American values, and vast farms. The two hour drive to Ozark River was taxing for many reasons, the first day was starting to get on both of our nerves (we both didn't sleep well the night before), and the flatland-nothingness had started to grate. It was a welcome sight to see the Ozark National Waterways sign and to pull in. While we knew we were arriving late, many parks you can get a site and then pay later. When we arrived, there was a gentleman who greeted us at the door to the visitor center saying that there was a very bad flood in the area and that the park was still closed, even part of the town had been washed away. Feeling terrible for the people of the town, we asked was there any place close to camp, unfortunately he didn't know but a local grocery store at the end of the block. Going in and asking if there was any cheap hotels, or campsites around, we were informed that the hotels were being almost exclusively occupied by displaced residents and that there were no state parks or campgrounds in the area. This was apparently a once in a 100 year floods. I hope so for their sakes, but with the way that the climate is changing that is not necessarily going to be the case.
Having that momentary pause of what to do, we drove down highway 63 trying to wait out cellphone signal to find a camp ground via internet. I finally found that there was no good camp site available for the night, we decided to find a hotel. The cheapest that would allow a dog was in Branson Missouri, about another hour away. My sister and I split the duties of driving for the next hour. While it was almost pitch black, the constant up and down the hills was a little jarring. We just left West Tennessee, a land so flat that it could be a model for pancakes, and here we were going up and down hills. While I had heard of the Ozark Mountains, I never thought that they were that big or impressive when thinking about this drive. We made it to the hotel and crashed almost immediately, both of us were tired of the road. Poor Scout was also tired of riding and was asleep between the beds.
The next day, we woke rested and ready to go. The plan was to instead of going to Ozark River, but instead go to Buffalo River National Waterway near St. Joe Arkansas, then connect to I-40 and make it to Texas that night. I realize that was a tall order, but that was the goal. We left Branson and made our way southward towards St. Joe, which was a delight. There was the Mark Twain National Forest that we spent most of our time driving through. We were going between the top of mountains and seeing some of the most scenic vistas. This was a spectacular drive. Add to that, years ago, when I was driving my sister to a variety of school and social functions right after high school, we would listen to music and sing along with the radio. She took the wheel and we sang Stevie Wonder cresting the tops of these hills. It was nice to connect over music in a way that we haven't done since childhood. To be honest, I doubt that I could have made it as far as I have without her here, the help that she has made driving and just having someone to talk to has made this trip already. Funny how something small helps make those connections again.
We arrived at Buffalo River, this park stretches the entirety of the river and is more for rafting and watersports. We were a little like fish out of water here, we had watershoes and walked along the bank. Scout even got in the water past chest deep and was attempting to swim, but being afraid, after a few moments he was not having any of it and was giving us the there is no way that I'm crossing this short body of water at all. Scout was the eternal optimist at that point. We made our way back to the car and we then left for I-40 and Oklahoma.
There are two different Oklahomas, the that resides in the literary works like Grapes of Wrath, of a land that is terribly flat and has nothing there; and the other is the actual Oklahoma, that has hills and has more than a few people. When we were crossing the state line, my thoughts were back in my high school readings of the Grapes of Wrath and the miserable life of the farmers here. The turtle trying to cross the road and the family having issues when leaving the state with the grandfather dying before leaving on route 66. There is the other image of Oklahoma that I constantly think about, the old Merle Haggard song, "Okie from Muskogee," where the Hag clearly demarcates what an Okie is from "those San Fransisco hippies." This image of clean and wholesome Oklahoma that came to define the Conservative Movement in the late 1960s, is one that Rick Pearlstien writes about in Nixonland. So naturally, when I realized that Muskogee was about fifteen minutes north of I-40 in Oklahoma, that was a well justified reason to stop and see what this town was all about. The city is a nice place, like most Midwestern towns that saw better days in the past, there were some interesting street art pieces of guitars that were painted. This was a nice touch, because they littered the downtown area. We were there long enough to get a break from the car and then were back at the driving. Unfortunately for us, it was close to five local time and Muskogee was pretty close to the eastern boarder of the state.
The next few hours of driving was pretty uneventful, the small hills started to flatten out and the road was straight as an arrow. I kept looking out t'he window thinking about how the Dust Bowl lifted thousands of acres worth of resource rich dirt and blew it across the continental United States. How because of a combination of drought and over farming the land, that some of the most resource rich soil was gone. Watching the large industrial farms, thinking about how much these farms had to tax the limited water resources of the Mid west makes me question, did we really learn that much from the past? Why are we doomed to never learn from our mistakes? Somewhere outside of Oklahoma City was where things changed. This is the spring time and in this area of the country, it is well known for Tornado season. We unfortunately got caught in some severe bands of storms around Hinson. We spent the next hour looking at the weather reports and trying to make sense of what to do. The television was saying that there was a tornado that had touched down near us on I-40 and there was a major cell that was about to hit the area that we were at. We waited at the gas station, slightly apprehensive when storm chasing vehicles pulled up next to us, it was like watching the 90s movie Twister. The rain kept pounding pretty hard for about 30 minutes and I decided to travel. For the next two hours, the lightening kept the sky in a constant state of light. The spring warm weather hitting the cool winter was chaos at best, but for the most part no rain. We made it to Amarillo by one local time and both of us were beyond exhausted. The over 12 hours of driving had taken the toll and sleep came immediately.
It's interesting, the bonds that you have with family can be strained and can be pulled in pushed in many different ways, but that connection isn't ever broken. The road less traveled is the one that you reconnect and rebuild those relationships however in disarray that they are in. I have been really surprised at my sister and how we have not been this close in many years. I'm looking forward to the rest of the trip because watching her experience new environments, finding a new part of herself in nature, is a type of awakening that is a joyous occasion. Its rare to experience those with another human being, but I'm glad that I got this experience.

Nathan Widener