Vacations are meant to be methods of escapism. Believing this idyllic wilderness to be free of struggle, of complicated emotions, allows visitors to enjoy their day hikes. Many tourists to Great Smoky Mountains National Park see what they believe it has always been: rainbow-emitting waterfalls, cathedrals of green, carpets of yellow trillium in the spring. The majority never venture more than a couple of miles off the main road. They haven’t trained their eyes to look for the overgrown homesites of the park’s former inhabitants through the thick underbrush. Using the park as a side trip from the popular tourist destinations like Dollywood and Ripley’s Believe it or Not, they aren’t hiking the trails that pass by cemeteries where entire communities of white, enslaved, and emancipated people lived, loved, worked, died, and were buried, some, without ever being paid a living wage. Slavery here was arguably more intimate. An owner had four slaves, not 400. But it happened.
There is a revisionist fantasy that Americans cling to about the people in this region of North Carolina and Tennessee: that they were dirt-poor, struggled to survive, and wrestled the mountains into submission with their own brute strength. In reality, many families hired their sharecropping neighbors, along with Black convicts on chain gangs, to do the hard labor for them.
These corrections of history aren’t conversations most people are interested in having.
After a fruitless stop at Fontana Dam, the site of a former African American settlement where I find precious little to see, I try to navigate back to where I’m staying. Cell service is spotty. My phone’s GPS takes me on a new route along the edge of the park, through Happy Valley, which you can assume from the moniker is less than happy.
Early spring in the mountains is not as beautiful as you might believe. The trees are bare, and you can see the Confederate and Gadsden flags, the latter with their coiled rattlesnakes, flapping in the wind, so they do not take you by surprise. At home after home, I see flag after flag. The banners tell me that down in this valley I am on my own, as do the corpses of Jonathan A. Ferrell and Renisha McBride, Black people who knocked on the doors of white homeowners asking for help and were shot in response.
In the middle of this drive back to the part of the park where I belong, I round a corner to see a man burning a big pile of lumber, the flames taller than my car.
I am convinced that pyrophobia is embedded in my genes. The Ku Klux Klan was notorious for cross burnings and a willingness to torch homes. The fire over my shoulder is large enough to burn up any evidence that I ever existed. There is a man standing in his yard wearing a baseball cap and holding a drink, watching me as my white rental car creeps by. I want to ask him how to get out of here. I think of my mama’s frantic phone calls going straight to voice mail. I stay in the car.
Farther down the road, another man is burning a big pile of lumber. I know it’s just coincidence, that these bundles of timber were stacked before I set off down this path, but the symbolism unnerves me.
I round a bend and a familiar sign appears—a national-park placard with the words “Abrams Creek Campground Ranger Station” in white letters. Believing some fresh air might settle my stomach and strengthen my nerves, I decide to enter that section of the park. The road I drive is the border between someone’s property and the park. Uneven, it forces me to go slowly.
The dog is at my car before I recognize what is happening. It materializes as a strawberry blond streak bumping up against my driver-side door. Tall enough to reach my face, it is gnashing at my side mirror, trying to bite my reflection.
I’m not scared of dogs, but this one, with its explicit hostility, gives me pause.
Before emancipation, dogs hunted runaway slaves by scent, often maiming the quarry to keep them in place until their owner could arrive. During the civil rights movement, dogs were weaponized by police. In the modern era, use of K-9 units to intimidate and attack is so common that police have referred to Black people as “dog biscuits.”
I force myself to keep driving.
When I reach the ranger station, the building is dark: closed for the season. I see a trail inviting me to walk between two shortleaf pines, but I decline. There is something in me that is more wound up than it has a right to be. No one knows my whereabouts. Despite making up 13 percent of the population, more than 30 percent of all missing persons in the U.S. in 2019 were Black. A significant portion of these cases are never covered by the news. The chances of me disappearing without a mention are higher than I’d like.
There are three cars in the little gravel parking lot. A pair of men, both bigger than me, are illegally flying drones around the clearing, and there is palpable apprehension around my presence. They don’t acknowledge me, and I can’t think of what I’m supposed to say to convince them I’m not a threat. I have no idea who the third car belongs to—they are somewhere in my periphery, real and not real, an ancillary portion of my calculation.
I take photos of the clearing, including the cars, just in case I don’t make it out. It is the only thing I know to do.
I run my odds. No one in an official capacity to enforce the rules, no cell service to call for help, little knowledge of the area. I leave. Later, my residency mentor gently suggests that maybe I don’t visit that section of the park alone anymore.