Back in the beginning of September, I was struggling with post-grad blues—no job lined up, no calls back, applying to positions that didn’t pay enough—just coasting through life, bitter about having gotten my degree at all. But day-to-day life had to continue because I didn’t want my life to end (or to end my life), and so I went on a road trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee with my friends.
I was nervous about this trip, going through Tennessee with my brown skin and a big, bleached afro. I told all my white friends just that: I am legitimately hesitant about going, will it be okay? I made a joke about the cops pulling us over while I was driving, maybe another joke about just getting out and ghost riding to Dolly Parton. My friend who was from there told me we’d be fine. There was more to my hesitation, but I didn’t express it entirely. I didn’t express that I thought I probably would be fine because I had them as a buffer—my white friends, though leftist and Jewish, still would not be the first targets. I didn’t express that if I were alone, I’d be much more susceptible to risk, and that they’d be safer without me if something were to happen.
Anyways, I agreed to go and we were off. From Philly to Chatt, probably twelve hours, driving split in half with my friend whose car we took. We stopped for snacks and toilet breaks at rest stops and each took turns controlling the aux cord. The weather was nice and it was an enjoyable ride.
There was all of this strange but very interesting Americana along the trip. We passed a Bass Pro Shop pyramid in Memphis —this very weird, big, shiny ass pyramid right off the highway. We stopped at multiple Cracker Barrels, all basically the exact same, some with heavier white-patron-to-black-staff ratios than others. We stopped to use the restrooms at the Johnny Cash dedicated rest area in Dickson. I found this all slightly funny in its absurdity and strangeness to me. But it wasn’t so funny passing through Charlottesville, where only a month before, the Unite the Right rally had resulted in some white supremacist piece of shit driving into a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring many and killing one. They killed a white woman, Heather Heyer, whose whiteness was all but dismissed—they just saw her as a nigger-lover. I knew that white supremacy spread far wider than the South and in more corrosive ways. I mean, I’ve seen blatant and microaggressive racism more times in Pennsylvania than anywhere else with my own eyes, and I’d be lying to myself to think being there was any safer.
The closer to Chattanooga we got, the more beautiful the scenery became. Lush, mountainous, and the air smelled pure. Although this had been a place of black lynchings, I couldn’t smell bodies in the air right then, only the trees. It was dark out and it all felt peaceful. When we got to my friend’s brother’s place where we were staying, we were greeted at 2:00 a.m. with plenty of Southern hospitality.
The next two days were full of going to recommended shops and restaurants, playing our favorite Canadian board game , Crokinole, a desktop type of shuffleboard I guess; hanging out, cracking jokes, talking about video games and music and life. On the third day, we went to a swimming hole. There was an unmarked spot on the side of the highway where you could park your car and hop over the guardrails. Leaving our wallets and dry clothes in the car, we went over the guardrails and into the woods. We climbed over little hills and through openings in between rocks where water was trickling down, with tall leaves of bright green towering above to the sky. We made our way to the spot. Sparkling water ran around the boulders that reached up in the same fashion as the trees. A small waterfall, cold as could be, sung out in splashes against the waters below it. There was a beautiful area of tan rock that overlooked the whole area, where one of my friends found a lovely little moth caterpillar. It looked like a fuzzy little yak with tiny orange horns. The warm air dried the cool water on my skin as I got out of the water to see it before it was released back into the wild, and then I got back in again, feeling at one with nature and with my body as the water rushed around me.
All was beauty and peace until I decided I wanted to climb a big boulder, not putting my wet glasses on, but tucking them into my bikini top. One bad angle, and they went soaring down into the dark, pulled underneath that very big boulder. I did my best to feel under the boulder. Then I asked everyone else for help, since I couldn’t really fit my arm underneath. But it was a lost cause after twenty minutes or so. The delicate, titanium, light gold trim frames that cost far too much money because they looked so damn good on my features, they fit so well, they felt air-light and I had to wear them constantly so I had thought “I want to make an investment.” And then they were gone so instantly, during this wonderful time I was having, in this place I had been so worried about travelling to but that had proved me wrong. I felt so stupid. I lost them by being a complete idiot on my own. And now, I needed to get a pair somewhere soon because I was expected to drive the next day. And depending on how long it took, we’d have to be there for some time longer. And now my stupidity was holding my friends back, and I couldn’t even look up at the sky or at the waterfall to find some sense of relief and focus. It was all blurry. Blurrier when the tears started to fall.
I just started crying like a big baby about losing a pair of glasses. Well, I was crying about how stupid I felt, but the crying itself felt dumb. “It’s okay, really.” We would have to go find a place for me to get new glasses and spend a few more days here. My friends weren’t mad at me, they actually felt bad for me and were ready to help. “For now, let’s go get something to eat.” The whole scene felt so dumb that I was crying but laughing at the same time. I had been worried about something much bigger not too long before —my safety against whatever white supremacists were lurking around, ready to take me and my nigger-loving friends down just for being in their space. I was here, in my brown skin, being comforted by my white friends over losing a pair of glasses, in this place steeped in a history of plantations and black enslavement and all the rape and brutality that came with it. I feared this place because of its human history and that history’s passed down heirloom of white supremacy. But I was really out there just crying about my favorite pair of glasses that were now out of my grasp, going for a deep swim.
A street near the swimming hole entrance was lined with trailers and houses that looked like trailers, all proudly waving and displaying the Confederate flag. I hadn’t seen this on that one day without my glasses, but I noticed them on a separate trip we had made driving up in the same area. And seeing them, high and mighty, in high definition with my new updated prescription, I just...didn’t care. I was more interested in looking farther, to the cozy trees hugging the road, to the water in the river gently being pulled to another body of water, to the mountains glistening in the summer sun.