Yesterday, as I crossed into the Smoky Mountains, almost immediately, I recalled the enjoyable feeling I experienced as a child when singing folk ballads such as "On Top of Old Smoky." It was one of a number of songs, especially those of Stephen Foster, that I learned both in school and from my father. On much too rare occasions, he would be relaxed enough to sit down and pick up his guitar, strum a few chords, and sing with my sister and me lyrics which described the Old South. Our family had a historical connection to Tennessee. The Volunteer State had been my parents' first home after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939. They had settled in, of all places, Nashville. There, they had learned English with its distinctive drawl and experienced southern style American culture. As a youngster my parents told fascinating anecdotes of those early years, including one that suggested I had been named after Robert E. Lee, as part of a bargain made with my father's mentor Lanier Merritt, a crusty old Confederate, who taught my dad how to letter signs.
My route, after leaving the mountains, would take me through Eastern Tennessee. I stopped first at Davy Crockett's birthplace and then arrived in Greeneville, Tn, the hometown of Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's vice president, who took over the presidency upon Lincoln's assassination. I spent over an hour hearing the perspective of the National Park service guide of the events leading up to and through the Civil War. I was moved by the sensitivity he showed while talking to other guests and me. It was clear that every day he spoke with visitors whose opinions covered a wide political spectrum: some were passionate modern day rebel sympathizers and others were Northern liberal Yankees who still blamed the South for slavery and treason. I left feeling inspired and gladdened from listening to well-informed discussions of history.
My ultimate destination was Gray, Tennessee, the home of Eastern Tennessee State University. In 2000 when a bulldozer, while preparing to straighten a road, unearthed some strange bones, a monumental event had its beginning in the world of paleontology in America. Almost rivaling the La Brea tarpits in Los Angeles as the motherlode of ancient animal finds, the Gray Fossil Site Natural History Museum was built adjacent the dig site. I was able to watch people unearthing Miocene Epoch (5 - 3 million years ago) mammals and reptiles such as jaguars, camels, llamas, weasels, tapirs and lizards that are so plentiful in the soil that the joke among researchers is that you can throw a rock and hit a bone. While I stood at the viewing platform outside, I watched a fellow scratching away the earth from an ancient alligator skull. Also indoors, through large windows, guests can watch graduate students, volunteers, and researchers cleaning, classifying, and arranging bone fragments with tweezers and microscopes. Not surprisingly, this museum has had a startling and perhaps a somewhat annoying impact on many of the fundamentalist Christian residents who live in the surrounding area. The second day I was at the museum, I spoke with an older couple who had come to see the displays. They said the dig was a great place, but the school had lied about numbers. They claimed that the alleged ages of the animal and plant fossils conflicted with scriptures and therefore were false. This error, they attributed, was partially the result of the devil's handiwork.
I have given you a thumbnail's synopsis of my days in Tennessee. I am so full of experiences and so limited by the time and format that I have skimmed over so much. Today I leave for Kentucky and then to Ohio. Yikes! I'm not even remotely half way through this adventure.