When I picture my childhood, I picture the outdoors. Playing outside, catching toads, building dams in streams, skittering rocks across frozen ponds. My mother's answer to boredom was "go play outside," and even if I had to be reluctantly pushed, I inevitable found myself lost in imagination, a world unfolding amongst the trees of my backyard.
My Michigan-born grandparents had a love affair with Tennessee, and owned a cabin just outside Great Smokey Mountain National Park. We visited every summer - as I child, I just figured everyone made yearly sojourns to Tennessee. I could rattle off the spelling in a sing-song (T-E-N-N-E-S-S-E-E) proudly when other kids bragged about knowing how to spell Mississippi, and would rave to anyone about how my grandparents' cabin didn't even have electricity *gasp*!
As an adult, I learned that, in fact, many people visited Tennessee - GSMNP is actually the most visited national park in the country. And most of those people made their stays in Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg.
My earliest memories, my Tennessee, lives in "peaceful side of the Smokies" - the tiny town of Townsend, population 448 as of the 2010 census.
It's funny how your perceptions of a place change over time. As a kid, Townsend was magical - a place devoted solely to the outdoors, whether it be hiking in the park or floating down the Little River.
As a teenager, Townsend with hell - a place with no coffee, one restaurant, and lots of people who somehow knew my family from way back when and wanted to chat about it. I had no idea why anyone would want to visit this place. Though my extended family continued yearly visits to Townsend, I slowly backed away from what suddenly seemed like a stagnant town.
I started returning to Townsend as a young adult, most notably to mark the death of my grandfather. Once again, Townsend had become full of magic, now accompanied by a deep sense of history and nostalgia. Road signs and markers are fully of names that twist the tongue and feel like candy in the mouth - Chilhowee, Wears Valley, Tuckaleechee. I've visited Cades Cove dozens of times by now, and I still find myself lost in thoughts of earlier settlers and frontiers people. As of a couple years ago, Blount County is no longer a "dry county" - though alcohol hasn't necessarily become easier to access, one darling little winery exempted. I love that there's only a handful of restaurants - mostly barbecue - I love finding folks who still recognize my last name. It makes me feel rooted.
Now, Townsend is a place locked in my childhood and a place where my childhood imagination can once again come out to play. Should you visit my tiny Townsend to see for yourself? Absolutely. But tread gently - precious memories live here.
How have your memories of a place changed over time?