Loneliness Lesson in Appalachia

I tell the loneliness to pull up a seat. I notice she does not look so very threatening after all—she has a touch of the dowager about her, actually. She is clutching a handbag made of fat white beads, and she smells of rose water. We sit next to each other on my screen-porch, with its faded hibiscus fabric and fraying wicker. I lean back. I breathe. I ask her where she’s from, and she says over the mountain...I ask her what she has for me. She takes a letter opener from her bag and tells me she can kill me if she wants to.

–Lauren Winner, Still, 59

I worked hard to lull myself to sleep amid a thunderstorm ballet with my legs cramping and sweat pooled on my back in my sticky, stale, too-thin-for-my-5’9”-legs car in Smokemont Campground my first and only night in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I was alone: alone to sprint back and forth through the rain to pack up my campsite, alone to frighten at wild turkey calls and hawk shrieks, alone to worry about bears in camp, alone to build and extinguish a camp fire. Alone to indulge my fears, plans, ideas, and revelations.

I’ve never been very good at being alone. I’ve often equated it to loneliness. I thought when I got married at age twenty I would never be alone again. There is something so ironic about feeling utterly alone in the most visited national park in America. Smokemont Campground was nearly full, but I was still “alone.” And for the first time in three years in North Carolina, I didn’t feel lonely. I didn’t know it at the time, but in seven months following my solo visit to Appalachia, I would have to learn how to exist as a solo traveler for an entirely different reason. Anything that takes something or someone away that is or has been vital to our lives in one way or another sucks. Cancer sucks. Moving away sucks. Dispossession sucks. Divorce sucks. I experienced all of those “sucky” losses in the year following my night at Smokemont.

The emptiness was palpable. I was seeking the emptiness; this was my fall break from an elite graduate school, and I was seeking a respite from my over-civilized experience. I wasn’t supposed to make the trip alone. I was supposed to have a partner in this adventure—the partner I had committed my life to over 4 years before—but his schedule became too complicated, so I set out alone. I’m realizing I was always supposed to go on this journey alone.

And just when I thought I couldn’t induce any more irony in this project, I made my trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Monday, October 12, 2015…also known as Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples Day. In order to get from Durham to the park entrance, I had to drive through Cherokee, North Carolina. Irony abounds. Our government set aside the land of Great Smoky Mountains National Park to “save” the land from destruction or privatization while displacing Cherokee Indians whose entire existence, history, ancestry, and religious salvation is inseparably bound to the land. But the dispossession train didn’t stop with the 19th century displacement of Cherokee Indians in the lands that would become Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks. White mountain peoples were displaced from the same lands in the 20th century. Dual dispossession. The government cleared both groups out...all so that I could go there and feel the sucky displacement-enforced emptiness. All so that I could go there and feel alone.

I made my first stop at Occonaluftee Visitor’s Center just inside the park boundaries. I bought the book Sanctuary: Meditations from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park by J. Greg Johnson. I read some of it before bed that night (8:30pm, before it started raining). I read his meditation on Cades Cove, the main attraction of day two of my trip, by headlight in my oversized tent: “So much for solitude. Cades Cove is crawling with tourists, an irresistible autumn Sunday drawing car hikers and windshield adventurers into the outdoors to grab a glimpse of the Smokies while laying hold of a hint of history...Over nine million people visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park each year, and in spring and autumn, it seems they’re all here on the Cades Cove Loop” (141, 142). I was alone for the first day, but I expected to feel claustrophobic in a sea of people the second.

October in among the trees means leaves falling like footsteps of a giant. You grow deaf to it after a few hours. I hiked the Chasteen Creek Cascades trail after checking into my campsite. I didn’t get all the way there. There was a steep hill that my feet wouldn’t have me climb. I met a handful of people and a handful of people on horses. I side stepped and tiptoed around digested hay and dark green (fresh) piles and droppings as I walked on both sides and down the middle of the “wagon-wide” trail that I assume was once a road for the lumber companies. I watched the movie version of the novel Serena a few months before my trip. The story is set in the Great Smoky Mountains area during the lumber boom. I admit I was frightened at the thought of camping in a place with such potential (and likely historical) anguish. I was scared to listen to the whispering trees. Maybe my campsite held stories of lumber companies and children who grew to call this place home until Horace Kephart and friends found sanctuary here and set in motion that which would remove the saws and shacks forever and loose a second race of inhabitants of their livelihood.

I burned the crescent and cinnamon rolls over my poorly constructed camp fire that night, and I charred the Campbell’s tomato soup that stuck to the bottom of my cheapo pan on my Coleman camp stove. I wondered how much more frustrated with myself I would have been had my husband been there. I used to keep a list of my “wife fails”—not my finest feminist trait. I have an elephant’s memory of my failings as a wife...as a woman. But alone in the mountains, I was perfectly happy to pick around the black bits of my dinner.

I woke from a sweaty sleep in my ford focus and packed up my moldy tent. I made instant coffee and savored the caffeine before setting out for the far end of park. I was heading to Cades Cove before winding back through the park and half way across the state to Durham. I read book after book about Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I looked at pictures. I planned and organized my trip. I read the raves about the fall colors and foggy, but breath-taking views of the mountains themselves. But I was still caught off guard by the enormity of the place. I felt my breath being sucked into the clouds by the wind in the parking lot of Clingman’s Dome trail. I was so distracted by a scenic view at a turn off from the main road through the park that I tried to get out of my car without putting it in park. I drove dangerously with my camera poised on my steering wheel, trying to give the yellows and oranges some kind of permanency in my mind. The turns of the road lulled me into a feeling of belonging. Like John Muir said, “Going to the mountains is like going home.” I felt more at home in North Carolina for that 35 mile-per-hour, winding, ear-popping drive than I had in the previous two and a half years.

It was easy to tell when I was close to the Cades Cove entrance. Johnson was right: it seemed as though all nine-million yearly visitors were there on Cades Cove Loop. There was the option to bike the short, paved loop road, and that route would have likely been the faster option, but I stayed in my car and inched along the loop, only stopping to take a closer look at the empty cabins and churches still standing in the park. I remembered a quote I read about the area that became Shenandoah National Park (Great Smoky Mountains’ neighbor up the Blue Ridge Parkway). The book’s title was Hollow Folk, and it was a study done by psychologists on the inhabitants of the mountains prior to the formation of the first eastern national parks. One professional described the small chapel in one of the smaller, more isolated coves and concluded: “This little log building is no temple of the living God” (Hollow Folk, 70).


Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Driving slowly around Cades Cove, I was overwhelmed by the irony that characterized in the formation process of Great Smoky Mountain National Park. First, park organizers had to prove that the land was too precious to use for its resources; more accurately, they had to prove that the lands were not actually useful in agriculture or that they were unnecessary to the expansion of national industry. But mountain inhabitants had for centuries used the resources of the land for survival; not only that, the land was precious to the inhabitants for its resources—for the way the land upheld them, for the give and take between human and land. “Unlike contemporary notions of nature appreciation, which suggest ‘leave only footprints and take only photographs’, Cherokees and white mountain people relied on what they could harvest again and again from their gardens, the meadow, and the forest. Each elevation of the Smokeys...had a special meaning to them, a meaning related to what the land provided” (Margaret L. Brown, The Wild East, 16).

But, since park formation would require the eviction of thousands of multi-generation owners of farm and timber plots and homesteads in the park, park organizers had to prove that the inhabitants would in fact benefit from a move out of the mountain coves and into the valleys and towns just outside the proposed park boundaries. How would they prove that potential benefit? Characterize the inhabitants as uncivilized folk. Claim that not even God would be present among such uncivilized beasts. Park supporters had to convince Congress that the mountain inhabitants needed to be brought to civilization—that the move was for their own good. Land owners were paid pennies for their precious land and penalized if they tried to return to claim items of nostalgia or value from their former homesteads. “An estimated 5,600 people left their homes as a result of the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934” (The Wild East, xiv). Once the call for civilization drew the inhabitants out, the call to return the land to its “natural” (“wild”) state rang out. Conservation of the nation’s wild places: that was the goal of the U.S. national parks. With my car window rolled down, driving slow enough and close enough to the other driving visitors that they could probably hear me, I laughed out loud. I didn’t care that I looked a little crazy.

I parked in the last open spot of the Cades Cove Methodist Church parking lot. The rectangular shack was so packed with visitors that only standing room remained for the final minutes of the ranger presentation. But I was somehow alone again. And I was lonely again. I stood on the church lawn and looked up at the bell that would have been (and maybe still was) used to beckon congregants to the sanctuary on Sunday mornings. It looked so simple compared to the bell tower of Duke Chapel—the complex system of multi-toned bells that played songs to mark the end of my afternoon classes. The Cades Cove Methodist Church bell tower played only one note, but it was sufficient. I imagined that the true congregants, the Cades Cove Methodists, were there with me in spirit. I wished more than anything that I could grasp an eighteenth-century hand and sing a Wesley hymn to fill the cove with the Spirit as a big “F-You” to whoever decided he could predict the presence of the living God in Hollow Folk. Instead, I grasped the hand of lady loneliness and braced myself against her: “I ask her where she’s from, and she says over the mountain...I ask her what she has for me. She takes a letter opener from her bag and tells me she can kill me if she wants to” (Winner, 39).