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Look Away, Dixie Land

April 1, 2011

I don’t remember the first time I climbed Stone Mountain, but my parents tell me I was less than three. I wonder if I was scared.

“We’d push you up as far as we could in your stroller, and then we’d carry you,” my mom said when I told her Elisio and I had climbed up and down that large granite outcrop. He was not quite three, and we’d made it to the top – and back – with little more assistance than a glittery water-filled baton he’d found in Haley’s room at my mom’s place.

“This is my hiking stick,” he said, from the back of the car, holding it high as we walked through the parking lot to the slow grade at the beginning of the path up the mountain, and again as he planted it in crevices between rocks as we made our way down.

I held fast to his other hand, sometimes gripping so tightly I feared he’d cry out. He was getting too big for me to carry too far, and walking down just the two of us alone felt too much like a gravely scramble to gamble perching him on my shoulders.

“No, Mommy,” he’d said the one time I’d tried lifting him up and over my head on our way up. “My hiking stick won’t reach.”

The first time I have a solid memory of climbing Stone Mountain, that gray rock I can always see out the window as the plane banks a turn into the airport in Atlanta, was in sixth grade. That was the year we formed a boy-girl group of six or eight, depending on the outing, and rode all together in the back of the Brodgon minivan or my dad’s Econoline. This time we were there for school, but we stayed on for the laser show and while we were waiting for twilight, we climbed up and rode the Skyride down.

We’d dressed up in antebellum costumes that day, and several of us had memorized period poems. We recited them as part of a re-enactment at the one-room schoolhouse about half a mile from the big lawn. It was at the foot of the mountain where we’d sit in the dark on itchy blankets and watch lasers bring the carving of Stonewall Jackson and the other Confederate generals to life.

There were several moments in the laser show where large portions of the crowd gathered on the lawn got quiet, stood and held their hands over their hearts. When Willie Nelson and Ray Charles sang a duet of “Georgia on My Mind,” when Elvis started in real slow with, “Way down yonder in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten.”

Other moments were less solemn, like the end of that song, when the music got big and stretched out across the heads of all the standing people, and the lasers brought the carved stone figures on the rock to life and the horses started galloping. Everybody cheered loudly when the green squiggly outlines of the Northern and Southern states rejoined at the Mason Dixon line, and the image of a sword breaking in two signaled the quiet coming to an end of the song.

In sixth grade we were too young for reverence, too young to feel how odd it was to memorialize the losing side of a hundred-year-old civil war with a carving as big as a mountain.

That year we went on a school field trip to the museum that chronicled the history of the carving. We watched a documentary about the making of the carving, and what I remember most was the image of the crew setting up a long dining table and having lunch inside General Jackson’s nose.

They made the carving with hand tools and dynamite, dozens or maybe hundreds of men perched on the side of the rockface for years etching out three men in uniform on their horses, ears taller than three men, eyes deep enough to plunge an arm into a tear duct.

That night in sixth grade, we climbed up the mountain and then rode down together. The cable car takes you right past the carving, the close-up view of the soldiers competing with the green panorama of the Atlanta suburbs growing ever closer until the wonder becomes ordinary pine trees, and if you look closely, you might be able to find your minivan in the parking lot.

Three years later, I climbed the mountain again. This time, instead of racing my friends to the top, oblivious to scratches on my shins from roots and branches, I was there as part of a geology class. Our teacher wasn’t interested in how the granite had been carved but in how the granite had been formed, millions of years before. He’d stop to point out not the broad vistas that emerged once we were above the treeline, but fissures in the stone made by water. Small pools. Lichen. Streaks of darker coloration like lightning bolts on the ground just beyond the path.

At the top of the mountain, instead of putting a quarter in the viewfinder, we were encouraged to sit down on the rolling surface of the mountaintop and run our hands across its rough face. We dipped sticks into tiny pools and watched the surface of the water stir with small ripples of insect life.

My trip to the top of Stone Mountain and back with my son was more like this geology trip. He was a toddler scientist, stooping to make enthusiastic observations: “Mommy! Look at this stick! Look – a big rock! Can we climb it?”

His resilience at this nearly three-mile hike was impressive. We took the descent at a near jog once we got past the steep incline where we’d had to scoot down on our backsides to avoid falling. It was only when the end of the hike was near, when the end of the path widened out to the concrete sidewalk, then asphalt, that he began to tire.

I don’t know why I get these ambitious notions to take my son on challenging excursions. Maybe I have a seed of remembrance of my parents taking me up that mountain at his age. Maybe I want to recapture what is lost with age and time: wonder, stamina, attachment to a glittering talisman that will make it possible to achieve our goal.

A few months later, on my next visit to Atlanta, we went to Stone Mountain again, this time with my sister, my niece, my husband, and my son. The laser show hadn’t changed in the 20 years or more since sixth grade, but watching it – and the crowd’s involvement – with my brown-skinned husband, it felt different. Perhaps I’d set his expectations too high in my nostalgic rendering of the magic of the lights, sounds, lasers, fireworks. I think he found the reverence for the Confederacy less a quaint anachronism and more an odd remnant of an arguably racist past.

We made our way to the top of the mountain, the five of us, not on foot but in the ferrocarril, the cable car whose name for some reason is much easier for me to remember in Spanish than my native tongue. Haley loved the roller-coaster-like dip as we slid into the docking station next to the gift shop. I had the video camera out, documenting the ride while Elisio clung to my knee. Surprisingly, the same journey he’d made with plumb and enthusiasm in his sneakers, somehow was frightening to my son as we rode suspended above the trees.

We reached the top and I stood next to my sister, watching our kids dig in the loose gravel under their feet. I reached for Eduardo and imagined twirling in wild 360s taking in the view of the city I grew up in down below us, not falling down because he was holding my hand.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. April 3, 2011 1:48 pm

    It seams you leave a piece of your heart wherever you have lived, Angie. If Home is where the heart is, you have one very large home. … And an even larger heart.

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