CHILDHOOD FAMILY VACATIONS: THE SMOKIES
by Jerry Murley
Version Options: My Perspective | Parents' Perspective
Once was that a family vacation lasted more than a weekend and all the members of the family were more or less unplugged from daily habits, worries and social controls. Thus the travelers were forced to interact at a different level outside the safe bubble of routine. Nonetheless, this didn't keep adolescent members from pining away for friends and new loved ones at home and generally spoiling the experience for everyone else.
I remember four such trips vividly enough to recall some interesting or funny anecdotes. And I remember them insufficiently enough to permit myself to embellish them at will. Unsurprisingly, the four entailed journeys to places filled with lore: the mountains of Appalachia, the hills and borders of Texas, and the great, indelible western trek to California. All, of course, took place between junior high and my first year of high school, after which I would have been hard pressed to vacation with my parents for more than a weekend for the remainder of my adolescence.
I am reminded of an unwritten but often applied rule of our family: one can cry through one's pain, but one must laugh through one's tears. Distilled to its purest form, this code of codes suggested that every human experience deserved a run through the humor mill. Not only could one laugh at most anything, one should try to laugh at most personal setbacks. The problem, of course, was that human nature fought back unbidden, and self-pity waged a valiant effort to be seen if not heard. As one would expect, this challenge to good form made for more laughter. Oddly, the system worked fairly well and has been perpetuated in successive generations.
When my family vacationed with my year-older cousin on a camping trip to the Smoky Mountains the summer before I entered high school, my always-playful father slipped on the rocks in a cold mountain stream where we went to wade, float and cool off on those hot July days. Dad hurt his tailbone and was required to soak in hot water in a galvanized tub screened by a curtain of tenting material that we rigged-up at our campsite. For all I remember, the tiny private area might also have doubled as a quick toilet retreat at other times. One afternoon, while taking a soaking treatment, a bear approached the crowded campsite. There was much commotion and muffled screams as surprised park visitors moved to their cars and campers for safety. But my father could not move.
So there he was, helplessly stuck in his makeshift spa, veiled and protected only by a canvas curtain, as the bear made its way through the campsite. I am not certain that anyone of us laughed aloud at that moment, but I am certain that each of us registered and stored the comic setting. (Coincidently, a similar experience followed seven years later at a nearby spot in the Smokies, when while camping with friends in cold, gray November, a smelly bear rummaged near the tent where a friend slept as I lay comfortably in my VW van.)
There are more memories of that trip, such as the feeling of independence and adventure while hiking the mountain trails with my cousin, and the Sunday visit to a nearby primitive Baptist church. (In fact, on thinking more about it, this trip was a precursor of the move to LA that my cousin and I would make together just six years later.) But the spectacle of my father, helpless but not forgotten in that tub as danger circled, encapsulates the predicament of adolescent youth traveling with family: There he is isolated from all the others in the group yet a part of their real and imaginary hopes and fears – connected in some indefinable way to what can and cannot be sensed and known about them and personal circumstances – sensing that he might be the focal point of their neglect and derision – holding heightened concern for himself in isolation. The whole group emerges somewhat richer and closer for the experience, but only because the experience itself was unavoidable and uncontrollable – and the group members are on their own to digest the incomprehensible in some meaningful way.
I'll write no more about this particular trip for now, because in preparation of this story I asked my parents to act as fact-checkers and to my surprise they provided an elaborate recollection that should stand on its own. So what started as a story about four family trips may end up as five or six stories about four trips. I'll continue to subtitle the series Time Out. Be sure to check the version from the alternative perspective of my parents, as we, far from adolescence, make these journeys of memory and invention together.