I just got back from a whirlwind trip to my hometown. I was born in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and spent my first few years living in Norris Dam State Park where my dad was a park ranger. Norris Dam is right down the road from Oak Ridge. It’s a rather small but very beautiful park nestled in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains. It’s named for the Tennessee Valley Authority dam that was built there in the 1930s. Coincidentally, one of my great grandfathers was a worker that helped build the dam. There is a nice lake, a museum, an 18th century grist mill and a threshing barn among other things.
Mom and I made the trip to go visit our dear friend Mark who is the park manager there. Mark is one of the only people other than family who has known me since birth and remained actively involved in my life. Whenever I tell anyone about Mark, who frequently sends me batches of his famous chocolate chip cookies and postcards when I’m away at school, I always refer to him as “Uncle Mark” because he’s really been more of an uncle to me than the ones I actually have. He’s a great guy, and it’s always good to see him. There’s also something very comforting in the fact that we always go back to the same place to visit him. I love going back to that area. Some of our happiest years as a family (though my memories from it are precious few) were spent living in Norris.
As we were driving through Oak Ridge on our way in and passed the hospital where I was born, I remarked to my mom about how for some strange reason coming back to Norris always feels like a homecoming although we haven’t lived there for nearly twenty years. The little community of Norris which welcomed us, was a good fit for our quirky family as many of its residents were highly intelligent and interesting northern transplants via TVA. Like I said, it was a happy time.
We left after my little brother died for reasons that are and are not so obvious, I suppose. We’ve all at one point or another wondered what our lives would have been like if we’d stayed and if Seamus had lived. I guess things worked out how they were going to, but while it’s a happy occasion when we get to go back, those visits will always be tinged with a little sadness, and that’s just the way it is.
Anyway, we spent the evening Monday with Mark after we got in, which was nice. It was great to catch up. The next morning we got up and headed out pretty early and stopped at the grist mill where I had spent many a happy hour splashing in the creek and watching the big wheel do its thing. It’s always nice to take a moment to reflect on happy times like that.
Afterwards we struck out with a mind to hit the Starbucks in Oak Ridge for real coffee and oatmeal. (I still cannot understand how Oak Ridge got one and the town we live in now only got a horrid Dunkin’ Donuts). The Sturbs proved to be slightly elusive, but we found it eventually. Fortified with caffeine, we visited the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton. I had never been, and I am never one to turn down an opportunity to visit a museum. The man who created the museum, John Rice Irwin, traveled across Appalachia gathering artifacts, stories, and buildings, yep you read that right-buildings, in an effort to preserve a slowly fading way of life. He brought them all back to the museum he founded in the late 1960s. It is a huge complex with a wide array of original buildings from important figures in East Tennessee history and it is run to some extent as a working farm with livestock including a multitude of peacocks. It’s an interesting place, though, it can be hard to keep from looking at places like that, very much products of their time stuck in that time, without the critical eye of a budding museum professional. I appreciate Irwin’s intent, but the place could use some updating and a little more organization.
One thing did strike me as I walked through “The Hall of Fame” which was chocked full of, well, everything, an entire side of my family lived an existence like those featured in that museum. That’s my stock, and roughly five or possibly even four generations from them, I couldn’t feel further removed with my city ways and slick New York education. I couldn’t tell you how to plant corn or butcher a hog. Hell, I don’t even eat pork! It’s weird, not bad, just weird.
We hit the road after that, only stopping to visit the Wheat Community African Burial Ground since we’d only ever driven past it, and Mom was tired of wondering what it was. It is the site of some ninety to one hundred graves of enslaved persons from local plantations. The graves are unmarked and the identities of those interred there are unfortunately lost to the ages. It was a sad place, but I’m glad it has been recognized and commemorated.
It was another nice mini road trip, but I’m glad to be back home with Irving and the dogs after all the traveling I’ve done in the past few days.