"Oregon?" she asked, not needing us to convince her that, indeed, we are from Oregon. "Huh. How do you like it here?" We replied that we liked North Carolina just fine, and that we were excited to go up into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. "Huh," she sighed. "I don't know. Ain't it funny how you travel all this way across the country to see our hills, and we travel all the way across the country to see your hills. It's not the same hills, but all the same it kinda is."
We thanked her for giving us her observations and for taking our money. But it got me to thinking. Why had we traveled across an entire continent to see an unfamiliar roll of hills when, in truth, we could have driven fifty miles from Eugene to see a stretch of unfamiliar hills? And as we rolled up into the tree-covered hills of this famous national park, it occurred to me that the checkout lady was right. In Oregon you might also see a man picking blackberries.
But she was also very wrong. Because, in Oregon you will never see a kudzu tsunami.
Nor, in Oregon, will you see this:
What's more, The Great Smoky Mountains is more than just a roll of steep hills and lush valleys. It was a place of profound importance in terms of historical consequence. In 1755, the Cherokee Nation essentially controlled these lands. By 1758, Virgina colonists and the Cherokee were at war. The wars went on, culminating here in 1838 when the Cherokee nation was forcibly removed from these lands in what is now known as The Trail of Tears*. A small band of Cherokee escaped the round up and their descendants remain today on a reservation that borders the park. But like all displaced peoples, they ain't what they used to be.
Of course, the same can be said for the American people. Once citizens of the British Crown, our forefathers shed tears, sweat and blood in a war for independence from divine rule and went on to displace many nations of indigenous peoples. The glories of these struggles are proudly on display the moment you exit the western border of the park and enter Gatlinburg, TN.
Suffice it to say, we did not take in an an authentic Indian pow-wow nor did we linger in Gatlinburg. We, instead, took refuge in the old unfamiliar hills somewhere between North Carolina and Tennessee, a continent and a world away from our home-away-from-home with Oregon plates.
Because a cross-country road trip is not about seeing what you haven't seen before (though, of course, it is). It is about jumping out of your daily rut and finding new roads in a trusty old bus.*The removals were motivated by U.S. desire for expansion, the desire to "save" Native Americans from extinction, and to profit from the acquisition of their assets and resources. Many Native Americans suffered from exposure, disease, starvation while enroute to their destinations.