Saturday, November 7, 2009


For a few days I'm back where I began. It's a good place to be. Especially while still-cheery autumn sun glints down on Upper East Tennessee's hills and hollers. Today for barely more than a moment I did something I've done all too rarely here, during either my growing-up days among the narrow, windy roads or on my regular return visits to see my family.

In places other than this one, I explore (old-school style, sans GPS). I take the long way home. I take roads I've never driven on before, roads whose destinations I don't know, roads that start out heading in directions I want to go without offering any guarantees they'll continue that way. I walk along sidewalks that may or may not deposit me somewhere I recognize. I meander by foot or by wheel. And I make delightful discoveries. Exploring offers you things you wouldn't receive otherwise.

Post-nice-conversation this afternoon with a fellow traveler who doesn't hail from these parts but has made a home-base here I was reminded how little I've explored the nooks and crannies of this place I still refer to as home, in the way of "home-home" that references roots rather than where my books are shelved. I haven't done things here that I have done in lots of other places I've lived in and visited. Mostly, I haven't meandered with eyes willing to see the wonder of this place. Instead, I went to high school and sewed 4-H aprons and babysat and went on youth group retreats here. Good things all but not really the same as exploring. Living, yes. Exploring, no.

In Cape Coast, Ghana, two years ago now, I stole away for some solitary moments spent overlooking the picturesque coastline, watching colorful fishing boats bobbing on the sea as two men carried fishing paraphernalia down a path and then along the beach. I wondered then if they recognized the beauty they walked in the midst of every day or if they only pondered whether the day's catch was enough for their family's supper.

When I tell people where I'm from, those with any knowledge of this place comment on its Appalachian mountain beauty. I agree. Yes, it is beautiful here. But deep down I feel a bit insincere as I nod my head. Because I'm not sure I ever stopped long enough to take in the beauty while I lived in its midst. I don't think I paused on many mountain paths in the middle of my daily tasks and looked around myself, absorbing just a bit of the prettiness I'd been plopped into courtesy of birth. I certainly didn't explore beyond the usual routes from place to place.

When I've returned to Nashville after various travels abroad, I've come back with eyes eager to see my home (in the home-du-jour, single "home" version of the concept) through a traveler's eyes. What would my new friends think of this place? What would they notice? What would seem odd and incongruous? What would seem intriguing? What would seem beautiful? What would seem similar to their homes? What would be strange and different? What would surprise them and crack their stereotypes?

Today, for perhaps the first time, I momentarily turned those questions toward my home-home in the northeastern tip of Tennessee. I explored just a little. I exited the interstate one exit early and headed toward a nearby road that appeared likely to take me to the farm-fenced, sun-brightened hills that were beckoning. I wound along the narrow asphalt for just a little while, crossing a railroad track, passing old Boone Station, and meandering deeper into the hills. That bit of time was long enough to decide there must be more of it. There is wonder here too.

It's sometimes easy to sell home-home short. To miss its charms for its daily grind. To miss its cow-dotted pastures and friendly-looking houses--scattered in delightfully un-cookie-cutter fashion along shoulderless roads--for grocery store runs and "i"s to dot or for family to visit.

But that's the beauty of travel. Done right, it brings you back home, back to where you began, just better equipped to recognize the wonder of the world you walk in every day as you catch your daily fish and finish your geometry lessons and visit your new niece. Here's hoping for more time spent exploring my beautiful home-home.