In the spring of 2004, I embarked on my first ever camping trip with two of my best friends from Oberlin. After a few trial runs setting up the tent on North Quad, we packed my friend Ona’s Subaru to the gills and started heading due south. In the seven days of our spring break, we would make it through Ohio, West Virgina, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia before parting ways to spend Passover with our respective families.
The trip was remarkable for much more than the long hours spent in the car cycling through our CD collections. This was before the ubiquitous iPod! We three co-op girls cooked arguably the best vegetarian camping food imaginable (and documented every meal in our trip-log at night by firelight or flashlight when it rained.) Sated and high on freedom, we followed the threads of our conversation up steep hiking trails and along winding roads, green with the first undergrowth of spring beneath trees still bare and stark in the flood of sunlight.
In the very middle of our trip, when school and the rest of our lives seemed impossibly far away, we decided to take the only road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park to its terminus, a town called Cades Cove. When we arrived, we found nothing. No houses, no people, no cars. Only an old post office building on a soft meadow of a lawn marked by an old NPS welcome sign. Inside were a few glass cases filled with farming implements and some panels with faded photo enlargements. The building was like a time capsule and we seemed to be the only living people in the vicinity. We climbed the stairs to the second floor (a museum taboo!) and touched the walls lined with newspaper insulation from the 1930s.
I didn’t know yet, but on that trip, I’d caught a permanent case of the research bug. I returned from my trip with a new zest for my history major. I wanted to know what happened to Cades Cove. Why was it empty? Why was it inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Where did all the people go? My questions fueled my first real research paper, written for a fabulous seminar with Lisa Abend called History and Memory. A few phenomenal classes in museum studies, art history, and environmental history later, my questions became the seeds for my senior honors thesis.
In the Fall of 2005, I returned to the Great Smokies with the same friends plus one for a combined fall break/research trip. I spent two days in the park library digging as deeply as I could into the park’s collection of primary sources-- scrapbooks, oral history transcripts, letters and diaries. I learned about the actors engaged in the debate about place that characterized every genesis story in the history of America’s national parks. Through my research at the Great Smokies and at the “neighborhood” Cuyahoga Valley National Park, I constructed my thesis: “Making Space: Sacred, Public and Private Property in America’s National Parks.”
Like every honors student, my senior year was characterized by lovers’ quarrels with my ultimately 120 pages of text and photos. But I couldn’t have done it without the fantastic support afforded me by the Oberlin history faculty. Despite the absence of three advisers in my four years of study, I was taken under the wing of the formidable social historian and Americanist, Gary Kornblith, who embraced me and my thesis like he was actually interested in National Parks! (I have the Monopoly board to prove it.)
Now, as an aspiring public historian and museum curator about to emerge from two years of graduate school, I am compelled to reflect on what it was about Oberlin that so thoroughly nurtured my self-confidence, emotional growth and intellectual curiosity. Please forgive my extended metaphor, but my Oberlin education was like the perfect camping meal: fresh ingredients sustained by classical knowledge and preserved in the right environment, prepared cooperatively, by many hands with love, requiring creativity and a little resourcefulness, forgiven for any imperfections, modified along the way, and ultimately savored.