Jie and I spent last weekend in the Smoky Mountains, celebrating her birthday and our anniversary. The trees were green and gold. The black bears stayed out of our sight. Some low hanging clouds gave the appearance of smoke coming off the top of the mountains. And about 70,000 other people joined us from around the country and world. (Some of them might have been there for the foliage instead of Jie's birthday.)
The Smoky Mountains were my first vacation destination, ever. When I was a little kid, we didn't take vacations, we visited relatives. I'm okay with that. Little kids have no taste when it comes to things like scenery or history. When I was four I would much rather study what the neighbor kid had just thrown up than lift mine eyes unto majestic mountains. And I'd far rather hear another recitation of "The Little Red Hen" than tune into a lecture about a civil war battlefield. No parent should ever waste vacation money on a four-year old. Relatives are much better for that age. I loved the attentions and treats and privileges grandparents gave me. And there was always something delightfully nasty to learn from my cousins. In fact, the only real downside to the relatives were the aunts who slurped kisses on your cheek and hugged you too tight.
By the time I was 5, however, it was time to stretch my wings and see the real world. I'd never seen a mountain. So my parents took me to see the Grand Smokys, a trip that is still vivid in my mind. It was quite a shock for an Illinois boy who'd never seen anything but flat his whole life. Plus, we got to see some bears.
Actually that trip didn't start out as a vacation. It started out as just another visit to the relatives. The Tennessee relatives.
My grandpa was born and reared in Eastern Tennessee. And even though he moved to Illinois, he remained a proud hillbilly all his life. There was no work in the poverty stricken Appalachians, so he and his brothers migrated toward East St. Louis to work in the factories. While lots of our kin emigrated to Illinois after World War I, not all of them left the hills and hollers: many lacked the desire to escape. There was a significant Smith remnant left in the mountains.
And there was this odd thing among those who had migrated north: the mountains whispered in their souls, luring and beckoning them back. So several times a year various Illinois Smiths would load up their cars with kids, cold fried chicken, sweet tea, toilet paper, and whatever...and trek back to Tennessee, like homing pigeons, for a quickie reunion.
My parents didn't usually make that trip. Here's why: when my mom and dad first met, it took my mom years to get him to stop talking like a hillbilly. She was successful. Except when he went back to Tennessee. He would immediately backslide. And then it would take her months to get him retrained. So we weren't among those Smiths who hopped back to the hills every whipstitch.
But for some reason we did go back in 1960. My parents pulled me out of my last week of kindergarten. Grandpa, Grandma, Mom, Dad, and us three brothers (my youngest brother and sister were' t born yet) all crammed into the car and headed south. We stayed overnight in Indiana, my first night ever in a motel. Those old vintage metal lawn chairs were lined up outside the rooms...so you could sit outside in the morning and wait for everyone else to wake up.
When we got to the relatives in eastern Tennessee we evidently needed a break from each other after a couple days. Plus my grandma wanted a day to be in sole possession of my two little brothers. To make everyone happy my mom, dad, grandpa, and a second-cousin-twice-removed took me and headed off to the nearby National Park. My mom made baloney sandwiches for our lunch.
As we drove the roadway through those majestic mountains we kept our eyes open for stopped traffic: it meant that someone had spotted bears. Gawking at bears was the main feature in the Smokys in those days. It happened several times on that trip: stopped cars, bears playing along the roadside, eye-popping excitement to be that close to something so exotic.
Sometime around noon we got out at a scenic overlook, unwrapped our sandwiches, and ate them in reverent silence. Best food I've ever had. Then after several hours of being the only kid with my parents and my grandpa, and second-cousin-twice-removed, we headed back to my grandma, brothers, and third cousins.
It was my first real vacation: only one day, but a dozen or so live bears, mountains galore, the unrivaled center of attention of four adults, and a baloney sandwich. And it was so very fine. And now, heading back 57 years later, I not only have the joy of present company...and the beauty of the fall foliage...but also the gift of memories: of that time I was a prince...and the world greeted me with its finest beauty, excitement, attention, and gourmet food. --Mike