This past week has been a lucid dream: falling asleep in state parks, parking lots, and rest areas, waking up to thicker and thicker accents as we headed south into Dixieland.
We left Kentucky (too many dry counties,) and headed unexpectedly towards Knoxville, Tennessee. (“Wait – what road are we on? Are we going to Knoxville?”) And what a pleasant surprise! Cobble stone streets, historic architecture, hip shops, and a great local food scene. For our first meal in the south we had to order grits. I mean, come on. Oh.my.god. Buttery smooth goodness. Like cheese sauce without the cheese. Like mashed potatoes but better. My mouth is salivating just thinking about them.
Strolling through Knoxville with the art museums, the coffee roasting shops, and the guys with hipster beards, we forgot we were near the “deep south.” That is, until later that afternoon. We called upon Siri to direct us towards a state park campground up in the mountains in eastern Tennessee. Past Baptist churches, stray dogs, rolling green fields, Baptist churches, faded barns, and Baptist churches, we traveled deeper into the woods, across the border into North Carolina. Up, up, up we drove our truck and camper into the high hills of the Appalachians. It was getting darker and Siri was telling us to forge onward, climbing high to the mountain ridge.
We dropped to the other side, winding down the back road as the sun began to set, and we came upon a, what should I call it, …a colony? Several run down houses littered on the road, missing walls and windows, years of garbage bags thrown around the yard, dirty diapers, even a broken hot tub in a gully full of rain water, and – a large confederate flag hanging over the town as we entered. Confederate flags hung around the dirty houses, flags were stuck in to the ground around the rusted old vehicles and empty booze bottles. At that moment, Siri announced that we had arrived at our “destination.” It was in that moment I realized I was completely out of my element. I swear I could hear creepy banjo music coming from the broken porch, someone waiting to slit our throats. But Dave says nonchalantly, “Nah, this doesn’t scare me. I could party with these people if I had to.” I didn’t want to stay and find out.
The sun had set and we had no campground, no clue where we were, and no desire to stay here, stuck in the past. We turned around and retreated back to a town eight miles back, feeling defeated. Campgrounds were closed up for the season, and it was the type of small town where a cute ‘lil camper from Montana would not exactly blend in. We were trapped in the backwoods of Appalachia.
Our patience was dwindling – with being lost, with the windy roads, with each other. Instead of freaking out, which we were dangerously close to doing, we decided to grab a beer at the bar on the single main street and talk it out. As we sat there sipping a regional brew, we began to open our eyes. Hmm…this bar is actually kind of hip. Those people over there have backpacking packs on. Is that a gear store across the street? Next to a natural foods store? Wait a second – we were on the Appalachian Trail! Hikers on the 2,168 mile trail running from Georgia to Main strolled right through tiny Hot Springs, North Carolina to grab a beer and stop to stock up on some dry foods.
We ended up staying in the parking lot behind the bar that night thanks to our server, Dakota who was a Hot Springs local (“born and raised, ma’am.”) He told us we were welcome to stay, but to keep an eye on our belongings. “E’ry once in awhile we get somebody rollin’ through who pokes through cars. But don’ worry – any locals see ‘em, we’ll beat ‘em up.” Appalachian vigilantes.
The experience not only gave me some pep in my step (and made me want to hike the Appalachian Trail,) but it made me feel guilty. Consciously or not, I was judging people based on their accents, or the size of the town back in the woods. Once we let go of our agenda we started meeting the kindest people who were ready to jump at any opportunity to help us.
In the past few days we have pushed up and over the Appalachian mountains, through Asheville, North Carolina, and down to Edisto Beach in South Carolina, where we find ourselves this evening. We have chatted with grocery store clerks, hikers on trails, dirt bikers building trails, and restaurant servers, all wearing their heart on their sleeve. Locals have been thrilled to learn we’ve chosen their town or state on our journey across America. They ask us, always with a smile on their face, “So, waddya think? You like it around here in the south?” The answer is yes. We love it.