It was the first day of the road trip, and halfway between our
nation’s capital and the site of the 1927 Bristol Sessions we
pulled off the highway, passing an abandoned sanatorium which
loomed above the town like a scab on the flesh of the land.
A few minutes later, we found ourselves on the dusty paths
of the Frontier Culture Museum, ambling backwards through
time among traditional dwellings from England, Ireland, Germany;
deconstructed and reconstructed on this land. A West African
compound of clay buildings and domed thatched huts crouched
off to the side. The architecture of American houses from the
1740s, 1820s, and 1850s sang of how the cultures intertwined,
how everything stems from something else—Irish women grew
squashes, okra, black eyed peas. As we walked, we speculated
on the loneliness of the first man to hike from Pennsylvania
to this soil through an unforgiving winter, surviving without
shelter until he threw together a tiny primitive cabin of logs
sandwiched between thick layers of red mud, disheveled and
flared boards for a roof that didn’t help much against the rain.
Chuckling, we passed a sign that read: “the Untied States” while
espousing the merits of spelling books in early grade schools.
Even now, with this country stitched together by train tracks,
bridges, interstates, generations, trauma, societal norms—
there’s still a risk of unraveling, of neighborly conversations
fraying around the edges. We found the 1850s house inhabited by
an elderly museum worker clad in a blue dress and white bonnet,
and as I studied its spacious whitewashed interior and brushed
an antique German scheitholt on a desk that would morph into
the mountain dulcimer, I heard my friend asking the sweet lady
a string of questions. Upon striding out to the porch, she was
explaining how as the West opened up in the 1800s, settlers
sloughed off their native nationalities and started wearing the
word “American.” Can a single word mean everything and
nothing? We smiled goodbyes and set off across the lawn,
but something compelled me to look back. The old woman
was leaning against the doorway, waving and wishing us well
on our journey, and for a moment I felt as if I were her restless
son leaving the homestead in search of a country I’d hardly seen.
Passing the schoolhouse, that adjective scrawled across my
mind—untied, untied—then there was only the clear brightness
of the September afternoon, the wind rippling the woman’s blue
dress and white bonnet, her hand waving us on and on and on.
Ben Groner III (Nashville, TN), recipient of Texas A&M University’s 2014 Gordone Award for undergraduate poetry and a Pushcart Prize nomination, has work published in Whale Road Review, Appalachian Heritage, The Bookends Review, One, Still: The Journal, New Mexico Review, and elsewhere. He’s also a bookseller at Parnassus Books. You can see more of his work at bengroner.com/creative-writing/.