I was in Newfound Gap, Tennessee, between two parking lots. The grass itched my ears while I lay still, watching planes, cars, and people move around me.
A woman in a nondescript, decrepit blue minivan pulled up. She was my ride.
“Y’all Eileen?” she yelled over the burping and clanking hood.
She had a wide face, cheekbones like God had cupped her face in his hands and gently pushed them up with his thumbs. Her hair was raked back so tight it made me wince; her forehead ended at the top of her head, above her crown. Her hair was dirty, blond, and slick. A large shirt hung on her, like she had tumbled into it, its seams misaligned with her bones. She tugged at the neck, but it didn’t make a difference. She spoke like she was pushing notes out through her teeth and a few had gotten stuck.
“Y’all Eileen? Need a cab?”
I wasn’t Eileen. But it didn’t matter. So I lied.
“Sure, I’m Eileen, whatever. I’m the one waiting for the cab.”
She hopped out of the driver’s seat, slamming the door with such force it rocked the van. It was a first-generation model Dodge Caravan from the late ’80s. My parents had bought one in 1990. Brand-new.
Now, however, it was 2012. The van looked like it had outlived four or five families before it rested on this poor, young girl and her mother, who used it as a taxi in Gatlinburg, near The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
I grabbed my pack. It was light because I was out of food. I wasn’t sure, but she could have been pregnant—the shirt made her look lumpy. Her face was young, but her voice throaty.
“Sorry ’bout that. You waited long?”
“It’s fine,” I lied. I hated her. It wasn’t fine. I was livid. I had waited three hours. I had to get supplies in Gatlinburg. I was starting to consider walking down there myself.
Anything was better than sitting here, on the grass, not moving.
I needed to move. I was thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, and that necessitated an obsessive treadmill mentality. I guess you figure, at some point, you’ll walk to the other side of what ails you.
Sure, the experience starts new and breathtaking—it had for me, hundreds of miles and weeks earlier in Georgia. But that gold veneer quickly flakes off to reveal the nickel underneath; there is nothing so sure to melt your brain as 2,200 miles of endless forest, trodden one foot at a time.
Nevertheless, the Trail was my world. Gatlinburg, this parking lot, this woman, were not.
To be honest, I had felt shitty and bitter since I entered the Smokies. It’s the most visited National Park in the U.S. People, like locusts, swarmed. In Newfound Gap alone, I’d counted 200 motorcycles, 30 camper vans, bazillions of family cars. All people driving on the Blue Ridge and then up to Klingman’s Dome, the highest point on the Trail, which I had summitted that morning.
Fortunately, there weren’t people on the Trail, these people didn’t have time for the trails. To exit the beautiful woods to this crowded, noisy, irreverent hoopla of ungrateful travelers, defies description. I owned this place, these people didn’t. I hated everyone who wasn’t me. It grew darker and darker. The trees lost their outlines and blended into smokey smudges of blue and grey.
Then the 1990 Dodge Caravan pulled up and a girl with a billowy shirt and tight ponytail hopped out.
The inside of her van smelled like the seats had been soaked in chaw spit and motor oil. Threw my pack—ripe with its own smells—in the backseat. She brushed tapes and towels off the front seat and nodded for me to get in.
This was a taxi service, one I had found online and called to come get me.
“I run it with my mom,” my young driver explained. “We take turns. Used to, now she can’t drive.” She smiled like it was the most natural thing in the world to be three hours late.
“You must get a lot of business from the Park,” I asked, thinking the Smokies had to be the biggest thing—the only thing—around here.
“No. Mostly people going to Dollywood.”
I didn’t know what the hell Dollywood was, but if it had to do with dolls, pageants, or Dolly Parton, I could die without seeing it.
“You live there, Gatlinburg?”
“No.” And then she made a few sounds I could not identify, sounded like “Pitchin’ Forward.” She was saying “Pigeon Forge,” a small town to the east.
“How often do you go to the Park? Nice to have it so close.”
“What, Dollywood? A few times.”
“Hell no! The Smokies!” I was indignant. Why was I indignant?
“Oh, never been.”
“You’ve never been?” I snapped. The most visited, oldest, most diverse national park in the entire world, 20 miles from her entire life. Never camped or hiked and never driven through it. I felt unsettled. Angry.
“I’d like to go, just haven’t. I go up to the Gap, pick people up.”
We were stuck in traffic, some car flipped off the road a few miles up. We heard sirens. According to my driver, it happens all the time. Tourists take the curves too fast.
What the hell should we talk about? We were both American. We were both white. We were both women. . .
“So, I suppose it’s difficult to drive as a woman?“ I asked.
“You have to be careful. One time—” she mumbled a few strings of words I couldn’t understand, in her excitement her accent doubled back onto itself in thickness “—but I just zap the bastards!” Her gestures suggested she was tasering someone. Or stabbing them with a dinner fork.
She leaned over and reached down between the seats, rummaged around, and lifted a solid, black plastic rectangle with Batman ears.
“See?” She held out a taser, then, noticing my recoil, she chucked it onto the dashboard where it skidded to my side. I pushed my body back into my seat as far as I could to get away from the thing.
“You use that? On people?”
“Oh yeah. You don’t have one?”
“You’ve a gun?”
Did she mean in life, or on the Trail? I don’t remember telling her I was hiking the Trail, I doubted she knew it existed.
“No! I keep safe. Make good decisions. I don’t need a weapon.”
“I’d give you mine if it worked. You should get one. If you find a boar, you’ll need one.”
I had seen signs for wild boars—well no, I had seen fences. Fences sectioning the part I’d just hiked. Hikers had to cross the fences on cattle steps. I had always wondered if I was crossing into boar territory, or out of it. Tasers, however, I never considered.
“What’s up with the boars?” Leave it to this area to be overrun with wild pigs.
“Outta control. Friend of mine camps up there, just kills the boar.”
“You mean, legally?”
“Oh yeah. They pay him.”
“Who pays him, the Park?”
“Shit. That crazy.” I heard myself. I’d affected her accent, dropped words, picking up her vowels. It was more a departure from myself than a mimicry of her. A way of reducing the distance between us, our lives.
The taser slid on the dash every time she curved the van, which was frequently as we were descending thousands of feet in fifteen miles. Finally, her common sense prevailed.
“Hey, can you stick that in the glove?”
“Uh . . .” I looked at the taser, tried to figure out which was the dangerous end and which the handling one.
“It’s fine. Doesn’t work. Just stick it in the glove compartment.”
I leaned forward, caught it as it slid to her side, and laid it like a grenade on some old papers and tissues. And a photo.
It was a photo of a toddler. Not a close-up, recently taken. Her daughter? The child was tanner and had brown hair and dark eyes. But she had her mother’s broad face and high forehead. Something else too, I couldn’t put my finger on it.
“Is this your daughter?” I took out the photo and held it.
“Yes!! That’s my Sweetie Pie. She’s three and a half.”
I couldn’t tell if she was a sweetie pie, or if her name was Sweetie Pie. “She’s adorable.”
“Looks more like her father.”
“She looks like you. Does—” (your husband, boyfriend, brother?) “—her father have dark hair?”
“Yeah. He’s Mexican.”
“Oh. Was he legal?” I had no idea why I said that. When you spend so much time alone, you forget how to care about others. To diminish her and her bad life choices, probably. Regardless, she didn’t care. Or she forgave me. Or she’s heard worse.
“We’re not together anymore. He tried, he just couldn’t do it.”
Couldn’t do what, I wanted to ask, take responsibility for his semen? I said nothing. I don’t know where my anger was coming from. I wanted to be back on the Trail, moving. I didn’t want to have anything to do with Gatlinburg, boars, Dollywood and tasers—and certainly not deadbeat dads.
Then I played back what she had said. He tried, he just couldn’t do it. She said it with such generosity, as if she was drawing from an interior well of love and mercy. It was such a simple kindness, the kind you don’t have to think about.
I don’t think I had felt kindness—let alone mercy—for anyone since I started the Trail. All my energy went into walking. I was generally a nice person, but lately, I hated everyone.
Then she started talking about money. Not complaining, not the way I was used to, just talking about it. Her daughter needed an operation, and she didn’t have the money. Her mom was sick. She had had to quit school. She didn’t say college or high school.
She offered this up, as we’re sitting in the slow traffic, like it was something she told everyone.
The words weren’t new, they weren’t rehearsed—they were just true.
“Surely the father, I mean, her father, pays child support?”
And then she said, I will never forget this: “Oh no. He can’t. He tried, but he can’t. It just got too difficult. It’s OK.”
We drove past police cars and fire trucks, a car on its side. I couldn’t see anyone who looked like owners of the car. Maybe they were already headed to a hospital.
How did she do this? Cope with this life, her car, these smells, being three hours late—all these things? And I’m the one who feels like I’m falling apart.
“What is the operation for? Your daughter?”
“She’s got a cleft lip.”
A cleft lip. Like in the magazines. The ads that show a photo of a kid from the third world and ask for money. And here we were in the middle of America. And she was white. Bad things happen to white people?
Then I noticed her scar. Right above her lip, like two pieces of dough had been pressed together leaving a faintly visible, white seam of scar tissue.
We finally got to my hotel. Motel. Parking lot with a building around it and a sign that said “Vacancy.” She said she needed to rest the car, I didn’t doubt it. The old girl had become increasingly angry during the measured descent.
“Hang on,” she said and pulled out a locket with her daughter’s picture. The chain was gold, but fake—if you scratched it the nickel would show. There was an “E” on it.
“What’s the “E” for?”
“Ellen. That’s her name.”
My heart exploded. My nose stung.
“We call her ‘E.’” She said, handing me the chain.
I looked at her daughter, her lip that didn’t quite join. Then I couldn’t see her anymore. Couldn’t see anything.
My parents can’t say where my name came from. They said they’d wanted something unique. My sister was named after my Grandmother, my brother after my Dad. I got the name that no one had, that my parents couldn’t explain.
You don’t meet many Ellens. Each one has a story. Each one carries a torch, a kindness for other Ellens, should they pass each other along the way.
Ellens are unique. And here was another one. I found my well.
This was more than the same name. Most Ellens are affectionately called “El.” Not me, I was always “E.” She was “E” too, the child with the cleft lip, with a deadbeat Dad who tried but just couldn’t take care of her, a grandmother who was ill, and a mother who drives around with tasers picking up rich, white hikers who deflect their pain through anger.
My body flooded.
Then my truth came out in a breath, a wind from a deep part of my soul that had just woken up. “Me too. Ellen. My family always called me ‘E.’ Always.”
She let me sit and cry. She tried to give me a few dirty tissues, but I said no. I gave her whatever cash I had and told her to go home and not work anymore that day. I felt vaguely better.
If she came back to drive me the next day, I’ll never know. We made plans to, but I had to move motels. Some young degenerates were yelling, smashing things, right outside my door. Another community breaking down?
I didn’t have a taser.
I left her a note at the front desk. I called her, no answer. No answering machine. I had to get back to the Trail.
I got back up to the Gap by way of taxi-Dave. Or Sam, or Pete or something an old, white, poor man in Gatlinburg would be named. He talked my ear off about boars and tourists. And Dollyland.
I dumped my breakfast trash in a bear-proof bin, adjusted my pack, loaded with fresh supplies, and breathed in the sweet, sweet spring air, still curdled with smokey fog.
My body opened up and remembered. I walked north.
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