Appalachian Spring

It was a good winter in Tennessee. Earlier this year I was in Nashville, a city surrounded by ring after ring of droll little wooded hills, and I was teaching among the magnolias and mockingbirds of Vanderbilt University and counting the church towers and steeples of the Bible Belt.

There was hardly any rain and although the temperature was often below freezing and there was old ice in the gutters, there was none of the slushy, dirty snow that O. Henry spoke of a couple of generations ago when the soft coal smoke of the railway fogged and blackened the city. The railway has long been closed. No fog now; instead the sun shining in the beautifully vacant southern sky—a Londoner’s dream even if the icicles glittered on the trees.

Then in March there were signs of the rapturous Tennessee spring—the grass around the house we rented suddenly turned from straw to green and there were thousands of violets in the rough lawn, the honeysuckle came out in the hedge and, of all things, chives were growing on the grass verge of the pavements in our streets. Out came the waxy tulip tree and the redbud whose flowers grow out of the bark, and by April, the dogwood.

It was time “to light out for the territory,” as Huck Finn said, and to go to the Great Smoky and the Cherokee mountains, and see the Blue Ridge, the southern branch of the Appalachians, from what is now a national park—and to see my ghost talking to other ghosts. Fifty-five years ago, when I was twenty-five and in my Borrovian and “open road” period, I had been a sentimental traveler through these mountains, mainly on foot, over wagon roads and forest tracks, before the highways were built in the Thirties.

Tennessee is a small state, about the size of England, slotted between the mountains and the Mississippi plain, almost empty by European standards: four million people compared with the English forty-six and distances seem longer because they are empty. One understands why nostalgia is the deepest American feeling. We left at six in the morning for the six-hour drive to Knoxville where they are excavating in a rush to get ready for the World’s Fair next summer, on a bus which, unbelievably, had Los Angeles on its indicator. We had an hour’s wait in Knoxville and there I heard a driver telling another that his wife had just had a baby girl and they were going to call her Melody—the right Dixie touch in the South, where “you” becomes “you-all” or “y’all,” as if to fill up the country.

We changed buses for Gatlinburg at the foot of the stupendous mountain forest. The streams from the mountains give a gaiety to the little tourist town, with its funicular, its dozens of motels, candy shops, cafés, restaurants, and antique shops. “Horrible. Ruined. All faked up,” my students warned before we left.

So I too would have said when I was…

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