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Gatlinburg – The Hillbilly getaway in the Smokies. It’s an odd mixture of fake Tudor houses, pretend Swiss chalets, log cabins, and tacky tourist attractions with fake blue water. Now, I am not trying to use the term “hillbilly” to denigrate Gatlinburg. Gatlinburg has done this to itself. Although, I suppose I should be careful not too offend people who consider themselves hillbillies by equating their culture with Gatlinburg’s take on it. Gatlinburg contains all things hillbilly from your Hillbilly Wedding (does this come complete with Pa in the back of the chapel with a shotgun –I don’t know) to Hillbilly Golf (historically great golfers, those hillbillies) to Hillbilly Harleys (do moonshine and motorcycles mix?). What is being offered to the tourist by the word hillbilly? The Wikipedia entry states that the “origins of the term "hillbilly" are obscure. According to Anthony Harkins in Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon, the term first appeared in print in a 1900 New York Journal article, with the definition: ‘a Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him.’" I have to admit to growing up on a small piece of property in the foothills of Tennessee with goats, chickens, pigs and cows. We were not hillbillies by the historical definition however, and probably would have been offended at being called such. So the whole concept of celebrating the hillbilly has never had much appeal to me.
Not too long ago, I was staying in a pretend four story Tudor (the Tudor part was pretend…it actually had four stories) in Gatlinburg, placed implausibly at the bottom of an incredibly steep hill. Pulling into the drive at the top of the hill and driving down into the parking lot required holding my breath and letting the car ease down what appeared to be a cliff on a slope so steep that once I committed, I couldn’t see over the edge. Unfortunately, the trash dumpster was at the top of this hill and so taking the trash up the hill required an alpine hike. While schlepping bags of trash up and down this mountainous slope, I happened to look through an opening in the kudzu that hung from the trees beside the drive. And I think I found the real essence of hillbilly. I looked over an old wooden fence into a yard with an old overstuffed armchair sitting a few feet from a screened in wooden porch with a fridge. The small yard had been mowed at some point, the grass surrounding the dirt and gravel car park was only ankle high. There were two cars in different states of disrepair parked at odd angles to one another, almost randomly - one had a large cloth draped over the passenger side mirror that first made me think it was a drunk leaning over into the window; the other car was an old, eighties orange sedan. An old open shed with a tin roof sat at the back, with a few rusty tools and a wooden bench. Three blue and silver beer cans were scattered in the grass, buried too deep to be last night’s beer, too shiny to be too old, suggesting that the residents occasionally picked up their beer cans but didn’t get overly anxious about it. A few daisies had congenially planted themselves along with an orange daylily or two in the corners. Two big old trees casually covered the yard with big leafy arms and a cool, shady indifference to the strange hot little town around them. I thought about sinking into that chair with a beer in hand, facing the daisies and the daylily and the birds that casually happened by, refrigerator close at hand watching the cars slowly rust, and for a brief moment it seemed kinda like heaven. Doing what you please…, sitting around watching the grass grow…as untrammeled as the citizen of Alabama mentioned in the original definition. I could probably do without the whiskey and the revolver, but maybe a little bit of hillbilly now and then might do a body good.
Sometimes the universe wants to give you a gift. Only it’s not free. You might, for instance, just be driving along, looking at Queen Anne’s lace and soft green grass while sunlight pours through the glass and lightly illuminates the cat paw prints on the way into your car. Then you notice that there is some sort of dancing magic transforming inside of your dirty Subaru into something divine – the light is gently luminous on the half full plastic bottle of diet coke that is rolling around on the floor and it flashes off the broken mirror that your child left on the rubber mat. The dust on the dash sparkles. And suddenly “Rockin the Casbah” is a call to a holy war and the Clash are your priests. Then you notice. The universe is offering you a gift. There is a way to see through all of the things that weigh you down. There is a door open onto some glittering possibility….no not possibility…reality. There is a truth that will open out into endless vistas, a way of seeing things that will not confine you. All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.
But the gift isn’t free. It requires everything you have. It requires opening your hands and letting go of it all. You must stop worrying about what other people think when dirty napkins flutter out of your car when you open the door. Stop worrying about your kids and how you will pay for college and whether they will suffer forever from that C in math. Stop worrying about whether your mortgage is too high, worrying about what will happen if you lose your job or what you will eat and whether you are too fat and whether people will notice your socks don’t match. It requires you to forgo seeing other people as obstacles and trying to tell them what to do or how to conduct their paths from here to the other side. You have to let go of all of that to fit through the door. And, of course, while you think about it, while you wonder if you could possibly….could you possibly….could you open your hand…the door swings shut again and you feel the weight of the dirty car – why haven’t you cleaned out this car- and the meetings you have to attend and whether your kids will get through college and whether you can pay the mortgage and whether or not you have any milk or cat food -cats will eat you, you know. And the world closes in around you…and it is heartbreaking but comforting at the same time. There are walls and boundaries. You are too small for the limitless lands. This weight is familiar if nothing else. It soothes the sense of loss.. But that moment…just that one view through the crack in the door. Maybe that’s enough for now. Maybe you can learn to let go just a little…just a little. Maybe you will be ready when the door opens next time.