I had been hesitantly expecting six foot drops and rapids, especially after the rain. We'd sat on the porch the previous evening, watching the rain come down while I rocked in a chair with dogs at my feet. This was a dream I had somewhere, some literary fever where all I'd ever wanted was a house in the mountains and endless whispering trees.
Now we are drifting down a river in a canoe, in a valley practically untouched by history. It was easy to throw a thread out to the past and see those that came before transported down the river. There is no sound but the Earth itself, practically the slow turn of it, while the birds call out in the trees and the water carries us down. I do not want to be anywhere else, and there is nothing else. There is no London, no traffic, no deadlines or triple shot caramel skinny machiattos.
We'd travelled up from Atlanta and watched the landscape turn greener, the roads smaller. From time to time we stopped to put the top on the car up or down dependent on the intensity of the summer showers or the sunshine. We pass signs promising mythology, a half hope we could turn left towards Nashville, or Memphis. We save it for another trip.
We pass Knoxville and its fabled Sun Sphere, a remnant from the World's Fair known mostly to global consciousness as a beaten-up relic in The Simpsons. The reality being it gleams on the Knoxville skyline as we glide past it in our silver Mustang.
We stop at a Food City just outside Knoxville and John comments that small-town supermarkets won't have too much stuff, so if we want to we can go to the Walmart closer to his family's home. I walk into a fairly large supermarket which has a fruit and vegetable selection that would put any British megamarket's to shame. The gluten-free section takes up an entire aisle. Compared to our local supermarket, which may I point out is in one of the world's busiest rail stations, this is heaven. Victoria Station's supermarket has four gluten-free shelves, hidden away and embarassed, offering two packs of gluten-free biscuits and a white gluten-free loaf the size of a normal sized slice.
Had I been in a less disciplined part of my life, I can see how I would have gone crazy with want in America. Once we head to the Walmart, towering above a hill with nothing else in sight, my brain practically splits in half. Here is a supermarket that would comfortably house the entire population of Gibraltar (or as John points out, Lee County), open 24 hours and offering basically everything you could ever want or need at any hour of the day or night. What's more, it is basically situated in what could be constituted as the middle of nowhere.
Days later, on the way back from Big Stone Gap, we test out the theory and visit the store at 11pm to purchase an electric sharpener, a pack of pencils, a bottle of wine and a bag of salad. Don't ask.
To romanticise, we do pass Jonesville (which I continue to call Jonestown by mistake, my childhood submerged in reading about religious genocide) and John gives me the tour of the little Appalachian town. Population approximately 900. It practically hits the beats of my own childhood, and I feel heartened that a little Mediterranean boy and a little Virginian boy can share a similar experience. There's the house that caused Satanic panic in the 80's, the school, the church. Life seems far more peaceful here, we hardly see a person outside, compared to the sardine tin chatter and navigation that Gibraltar presents.
The path to the family home is pure Superman Kansas. A small winding road leads to a sudden burst of infinite blue sky, a large wooden house towering above cornfields giving way to the breeze. (Days later we'll see a deer peer out from the stalks and bounce along the road.)Then a tilting gravel path down the valley to a barn that would be comfortable in any 70's rural horror movie and a drive leading up to a beautiful home.
John's mother, Carlene, and her partner Vera sit on the porch I will be so enamoured of in the next few days, while four dogs bark and jump and bound towards our car. Three statuesque weimeraners and a little beagle-dachshund doing her best to catch up behind. Despite the towering authority of the three other dogs, Sissy is the boss. She is also my favourite, Bette Midler in dog form.
Carlene and Vera's home is everything every luxury holiday company and mouse-eared theme park has tried their best to market as a real American South and miserably failed to do, because what they always miss is the warmth, honesty and lack of stereotype that this entails. It reminds me of Southern Spain, and the fact that everyone thinks I take siestas, eat paella and go to see a bullfight every afternoon. That everyone who speaks with the Spanish accent I share is an uneducated farmer with missing teeth. Nevermind that Andalucia is a hub of culture and history. Nevermind Lorca, Manuel De Falla or Picasso. Likewise here. Nevermind The Carter Family, Daniel Boone or John Fox Jr.
The kitchen is expansive, and I am jealous. I covet it. The walls are dotted by Picassos and Dalis. The mounted deer heads remind me of holidays up in the mountains in Spain, where the reality of hunting is not what PETA would have you believe, and something that has happened since time immemorial until such a point when meat was consumed from little plastic trays and everyone forgot what it means to connect to the land.
I am at home. I feel wrapped up in a quilt, like the seconds on my watch tick a little slower, if at all. I am dispelled of the myth that there is not much to do, and the promise of canoeing, visits to Big Stone Gap and drive-ins peak my interest.
Which is where we are days later, after the rain. Floating down a river looking at a landscape of pioneering. This is the first state after all, a land of promise and discovery and secrets. Our journey downstream is celebrated on a wooden deck, looking out at the river and mountains while we eat catfish and salad with my beloved ranch dressing, served by incredibly well-mannered young girls, a world away from the sour faces of London restaurant service. The sweet tea in enormous tumblers instantly refilled, making me vow to never touch another bottle of Nestea again.
- Jonathan Pizarro.