A few years ago, I drove through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. Besides being one of the most beautiful places in America — the trip took place while the leaves were changing through an incalculable range of colors, and the damp cold could be felt on the mountaintops and in the shadier areas — there was an oppressive feeling of isolation, not only because the park is large and the visitors few that week, but because if there had been others in the park, you likely wouldn’t have seen them through the trees and around the endlessly curving angles of the earth.
We stopped at a wayside on the downside of the mountain, at the site of an old mill, bubbling and creaking on as a small stream trickled by. To get a closer look, you followed a walking trail across a narrow bridge, winding around to the side of the building. I left my Dad in the vehicle and walked out there alone. I couldn’t have been more than 300 feet away, but that trail wound slightly, and the tree branches and wet leaves blocked the view of the parking lot and, save the bubbling of the creek, blocked out all other sound. It was easy to imagine being very alone, and far from anything familiar. Walking back out of that isolation and seeing my trusty old Jeep parked at the end of the lot was a big relief.
Although that feeling of isolation was real, I felt silly about it, and still do, a little bit. But there was something unnerving in those thick woods and that uneven terrain, with enough murmuring noise to overwhelm your thoughts. You could imagine walking out of the woods and finding a different world than you’d left, with nothing but unfamiliar faces.
Rank Stranger (performed by the Stanley Brothers)
Written by Alfred E. Brumley Sr.
I wandered again to my home in the mountains
Where in youth’s early dawn I was happy and free
I looked for my friends but I never could find them
I found they were all rank strangers to me
Everybody I met seemed to be a rank stranger
No mother or dad, not a friend could I see
They knew not my name and I knew not their faces
I found they were all rank strangers to me.
Now they’ve all moved away said the voice of a stranger
To a beautiful home by a bright crystal sea
And some sweet day I’ll meet them in Heaven
Where no one will be a stranger to me.
The people who lived in those mountains and sang songs passed down through generations to explain how the world works, those people knew what it meant to be alone, left behind and without the familiar faces you could count on. And there wasn’t a more comforting idea than that they’re on the road ahead, waiting for you. And the faces that surround you today, the faces of strangers, are only temporary, until you can rejoin those to whom you belong.
It’s a really simple image — “a beautiful home by a bright crystal sea” — but I can’t come up with anything better or more reassuring, so I’m going to dream about that. And prepare for the walk one eventually has to take alone, and what I might find at the end of that winding trail.