It was a cool, clear night in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park when I finally arrived at the Smokemont campground, about five hours driving time from our home in Carrboro, NC. Since Erin and Anna were to fly a few days later, I was driving the packed Honda CRV up to Chicago, with two nights of solo camping to charge my mental batteries before being Anna’s caregiver for the summer. My campsite in Smokemont was not more than 30 feet from a swift-moving river. Though I was already missing Erin and Anna, I enjoyed the solitude. I used my camp stove to cook rice and tuna, and briefly spoke with two young women from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who were camped nearby. They were on a week-long trip, and this reminded me of the time Erin and Katie and their friend, Sara, traveled out West, a trip just before I was to move back to Cleveland from Hawaii to romance Erin, and yet for weeks I didn’t hear from her. I was despairing, thinking that the clear mountain air and Grand Canyon vistas were seducing her away from me.
A road trip into America’s natural heartland can be clarifying. The next day, as I drove further into the Smoky Mountains, I knew more clearly how beautifully connected I am to Erin. I hiked for an hour on a trail all to myself. Then, back into the car for another 5 hours. It took nearly an hour just to exit the park, not because of traffic — I was expecting the park to be more congested, since it is the most visited of national parks, and I was there during a holiday weekend — but because the winding road takes you through some of the most beautiful forests I’ve ever encountered. I can’t wait to get back there later this fall.
Back on the highway, I frequently tried to snap pictures of the swatches of wildflower color that burst into my vision as I sped along. The red poppies were my favorite, but the fields of yellow or purple or white were pleasant, too. These wildflowers reminded me of my Uncle Stoddard Allen, who loves to plant flowers and trees. When I worked with him on the farm 10 years ago, my favorite task was to sprinkle wildflower seeds among the fields of prairie grass. Uncle Stoddard, the husband of my mother’s sister, Ginger, is the one who arrested Uncle John Zuiker when he chained himself to a condemned tree at Northern Illinois University, where Stoddard was a policeman. Uncle John these days takes care of trees for Fairfax County in Virginia.
Most of my drive I listened to a reading of Jonathan Franzen’s novel, The Corrections. But I also listened to some of my favorite music. One of those albums, U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, has a song called Grace, with this line: “Grace finds beauty in everything; grace makes beauty out of ugly things.” It’s a subtle but powerful line, and I wondered how to live a life of grace, how to teach little Anna how to be graceful. Is grace teachable, or is it innate? Who do you know that is graceful?
Another song that struck me was Pat Humphries’ Swimming to the Other Side, which was featured recently on NPR. This is another subtle but powerful anthem, and NPR’s story was very moving; it included Pete Seeger telling how good songwriters simply reach up into the river of song and pull out their songs. Make sure you listen to this story and the song.
Through Knoxville, through Nashville, into Kentucky and along hilly country roads to Pennyrile Forest State Resort Park just in time to grab one of the last campsites. The campground was packed with RVs and pickup trucks and Kentucky families eager to go boating and fishing in the lake when it opened for the summer the next day. I simply enjoyed a hot shower, and after another rice-and-tuna dinner, enjoyed more of the peanut M&Ms in my bag of goodies. As dusk appeared, a bluegrass band from Frankfort, Ky, played in a small outdoor amphitheater. And when Brushfire played a tune called Five Foot Two, picking it on a banjo and a mandolin, I knew that the spirit of Frank the Beachcomber was with me. Grandpa Zuiker used to sing that very song at his home in suburban Chicago, and I can hear him now: “...five foot two, eyes of blue, but oh! what those five could do, has anybody seen my gal?”