On Mason Dixon Line
I have lived most of my adult life in the southeastern region of the United States, more commonly known as the “south”. It was not a deliberate thoughtful choice but as many things in life, in hind sight, fell in place. Most of these things could be called fate, or in my case, it was more like a whim decision of a thoughtless youth, blessed with ignorance. It was as simple as traveling to the “south” to see my friend Paul in Macon, Georgia and falling in love with him and the bright red birds, which I learned were called the cardinal, which flittered around the beautiful southern lawn of Mercer Law School campus. At the beginning of this fateful trip however, I remember being very cautious and scared that I would be racially profiled visiting the “south”. Immature and ignorant, my only knowledge and perception of this region of the United States was gained from movies, more specifically “Mississippi Burning”. While I wanted to learn and experience the “south”, I was deadly afraid that KKK will come and stake a burning cross in front of Paul’s apartment, because of me.
Visiting Macon changed my views of the United States. I have only visited or lived in big US cities before. I went to college in Boston. There was history and culture there but things were not so far and alien from growing up in Tokyo. Georgia showed me something entirely different than of which big cities revealed. Georgia was lush and green, even from the air flying into Atlanta. There were aged old oak trees with Spanish moss and deep rooted culture that somehow to me, synched to the ways of Japan. When I became a resident of this pretty little town, I learned that the similarities in the two cultures lay in the notion of hospitality, family, food and a vertical hierarchy, not something I had seen in the other big cities the US. I understood it innately how that worked, the unspoken etiquette of “knowing your place”, keen sensibility of behaving a certain way because you are, without words, placed in a certain place on that hierarchy ladder, invisible but ever present. It was familiar and it felt awkwardly comfortable. I married Paul and couple years later gave birth to my one and only child Tora right there in Macon, the heart of Dixie. I now had a child, who was as southern born as one can get. In the seven years there, I learned about the antebellum history, as a tour guide of a historic home called the Hay House where I would proudly give tours in English and Japanese. When I first visited there I did not know that Macon happened to be a small southern town which housed the worlds largest YKK zipper factory, outside of Japan. Because of this anomaly, there were so many Japanese families who called Macon “home”. My presence as a rare bilingual served useful there for the Japanese community as well as the many tourists who visited the area, certainly during the Atlanta Olympics.
As I hiked the southern portion of the AT, many young hikers from non southern states mentioned that they were scared, similar to my first visit to Macon, seeing the deliberate exhibition of the southern love for the confederacy, or in this case their support for Trump than the siding of the civil war. “Dude, did you see that gas station full of confederate paraphernalia and Jesus crap? Man that freaked me out, I just grabbed my soda and snacks, threw the money on the counter and ran out of there!” Confederate flags are everywhere in my home town. I have become so accustomed to it, I would not call it kinship for sure but I do not feel scared anymore.
I hiked through Maryland and crossed the Mason Dixon line into Pennsylvania. The plaque was a simple wooden marker. There were no history, no explanation. There was a mailbox with a log book but the notebook was full and shoved inside it, half eaten by mice. I arrived there alongside a group of young hikers, celebrating our walk into our seventh state. I had to walk 10 miles this day to get to this marker. For many days prior I had thought deeply, over and over again how I would feel about hiking out of the south. The south is my home. I realized how closely I now identified myself as a Japanese southerner.
My wedding was held in Macon. In Georgia at that time, all couples needed to get an HIV blood test before getting a marriage license. I went to a clinic to get my blood drawn, the nurse said “I’m glad your blood isn’t as dark as some black folks. You should see their blood. They are as black as their skin.” At Piggly Wiggly a cashier lady spoke very slowly, she wanted to make sure that I understood her. “Here you go china doll. Your skin is white as porcelain tea cup.” These comments always muted me to a stupor. I grew up in Japan, where we equally idolize white skin and I was definitely not that. The woman at the register was for certain, lighter skinned than me. In Japan, I was so dark in the summer, I won a Black Sambo contest at a pool competition and often be mistaken as a Philippino and people asked me to show my passport. Skin color profiling is everywhere, in all cultures, where humans dominate. During my frequent translation volunteer gig in Macon for the Japanese YKK wives, I accompanied one to get her drivers license. A DMV officer struggled to pronounce her name so I promptly helped her to say it correctly. The officer was clearly offended at my gesture and told me that it was my accent that was too strong, it wasn’t that she couldn’t say it right. My English is comparable to Californian accent, as some people like to point out, like Connie Chung, who, has no identifiable accent, and the same people made sure I knew that they like her. The most memorable one was being called a Yankee because I went to college in Boston and noted people as “you guys” instead of “y’all”. Yet with these hard to respond experiences, I identify myself more of a southerner than a yankee. At my current residence where I call home, Eastern Kentucky, I arrived well groomed with the knowledge and experience of southern culture. Choosing my home in Eastern Kentucky, however was not an ignorant nor and accidental choice. With full knowledge and intense love for the people, culture, mountains and music, I call it with love, my adopted home. And despite some episodes of such speechless encounters, I am comfortable in the gratefully overwhelming warmth, love and generosity of the southern folks.
Maryland hike was stuffed full with civil war history. It was moving, to say the least, to walk through a battlefield where thousands of soldiers perished, monuments and memorials of famous generals seen along with stone piled walls and bunkers used for various war tactics. At the simply plaqued Mason Dixon line, one of the hikers said, “imagine how the runaway slaves must have felt reaching this line from the south in the dark of the night, stowed away in the cargo train?” Because “imagine”, is all we could do looking at the lonely wooden sign of the Mason Dixon line. Here, there are no mention of the history or story of the significance of this place. Having hiked through the impressive and detailed history of the significant places of the battles of the civil war in the last few weeks, it is entirely absurd that this diaspora of thousands of people who secretly and desperately traveled so many miles for their life and freedom was untold. The void of this reenforced the notion that perhaps not much has changed in this country. The issues kept in silence, like my innate knowledge of being placed on the hierarchy ladder without words, the embers of discrimination is still burning, like a dormant volcano, spewing out heat when it can’t hold the heat any more, waiting for an ultimate eruption.
As clear as the Mason Dixon line can be seen today with this tiny wooden plaque, the demography of the day hikers changed drastically approaching Harpers Ferry. The English accents changed of the ridge runners we meet. The southern drawl is replaced by the New England accents of the day hikers, which prompt a flashback of memories from my college days. The trail is rockier but we are still in the green tunnel, the AT is still the AT. Mountains remain the same. Trees and flowers are the same. This line is invisible in the mountains except for the small wooden plaque but demonstrated and drawn as clear as day and night in the human world and behavior.
The Appalachian mountains stand with all its plants, trees, bugs and animals, all doing its own thing, minding their own business, while people surrounding it still run chaotically arguing, who is better than the other, who should have more than the other, who should oppress which people and doggone-it, who is right. Many blood was shed here and without much lessons to be learned, continues to be shed physically and metaphorically, by the stripping of rights and prejudice, while the unchanged nature looks on. The same flowers bloomed and trees grew, bears and deers looking at us in wonder what the fuss is all about. The natural world simply supporting each ecosystem in perfect harmony while the line that divides the north and south drawn by humans, continue its bickering and struggle for power.
Backpacking strips you down to the bare minimum and it does the same in your mind. AT hikers’ only mission each day is how to go on to the next mile without incident, safely and in peace. Along the way we realize that the trail doesn’t discriminate. The mountains do not care what you look like or what your political affiliations are. A four year old has to climb the same rock as a seventy year old, if you are trim and fit or overweight. If you want to go forth, the only thing that matters is that we take that step forward. And because of this, we too start to become blind to any differences between us, in how we look, talk or how old we are. Our relationship to one another becomes a question of how better we can support one another, how we can best work with the earth, it’s beauty and its challenges, and realize that we are much smaller and less powerful than this giant amazing machine called earth. We learn the power of simplicity. Letting go, adjust, be nimble and forgive to the higher power, to humble our little bodies as just one of the molecules that make up this planet. In an ego centric human world, this is so difficult to see. I believe the world will be a different place if all children can step into the woods and have their bodies be filled in the natures awesome powers. Like faith for the divine, this power can only be felt as you immerse yourself in the power which is undoubtedly greater than yours.