Alternative Spring Break Rhapsody

By Julieanna Luo

As someone from the other side of the Pacific Ocean, I had always hoped to see what America was really like. I ended up in Gambier, OH for what feels like eternity – in a good way – and once or twice asked myself if it was a silly thing to have shut myself in one place. By the end of this February, I found myself standing on Middle Path, my sleeping bag packed, more than ready to leave for my alternative spring break and go on an adventure with 11 other Kenyon students to Maryville, Tennessee in the Great Smoky Mountains. We stayed at Once Upon a Time, Appalachia with two hosts, Ed and Arleen Decker, a couple who met in their 60s through a breakaway trip and found love at first sight.


March 1

I am always happy to meet new people. I came from a big city with twenty million people, and as much as I love Kenyon offering me the chance of living in a small community and making lifelong friends, sometimes I wish to see new faces as well. Every person brings a new perspective of the world, and though I will definitely forget this beautiful backpack Inn that I stayed in, I will not forget listening to Lacey’s bedtime story, her own life stories, and after that, everyone’s life story.

This is the second year of Kenyon’s alternative spring break, and I feel so fortunate to have been a part of it. We hiked up a mountain – with bears roaming on the other side of the mountain – and built a bonfire, around which we heard the story of big finger and learned about another culture. We then slept together in a hand-built cabin. I found a cool place in another part of the world. I was moved, then I got up and walked back out into the current of life, but I know I will take those first few days with me, wherever I go.

I adopted a new exercise from my alternative spring break: I would sing the Cherokee morning song every morning, as the tribal leader taught us, and try not to forget my place in the world.

March 3

“When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.” ~ Cherokee Proverb

Once Upon a Time is located on the Little Tennessee River between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee National Forest in rural, east Tennessee. One of the main reasons, according to Arleen and Ed, that student groups choose Once Upon A Time for their alternative break is to learn about the Cherokee Nation and to be of service to the community. The main body of the Cherokee nation is in Oklahoma, and we work with a smaller community of Cherokee called the snowbird Cherokee. It is said that long ago there once lived on the highest peak a giant white snowbird, who was the grandfather of all the little snowbirds we see today.

I did not know much about American Indian culture, except for several brief visits to The National Museum of the American Indian, but a million exhibitions in no way to compare to a single conversation with a real tribal leader. I was very moved by the Cherokee leader I spoke with, who has been teaching Cherokee language classes to school children and adults for over 20 years. Rather than developing tourist attractions in their community, the snowbird Cherokee rely on jobs in the area for sustenance. A language on the verge of disappearing was saved because of one person’s devotion, and upon the language stands the whole tradition of Cherokee community.

I adopted a new exercise from my alternative spring break: I would sing the Cherokee morning song every morning, as the tribal leader taught us, and try not to forget my place in the world.


March 6

The last day of our service trip, all of the three schools – Kenyon College, University of Vermont, College of Charleston – came to the Great Smoky Mountains area, where we removed invasive plant species like the Japanese honeysuckle. I used to like Walden a lot – now I find Thoreau a bit too high-minded for me – but he was right in saying that, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” Most of the students there were putting much effort into hacking at the branches, but I was one of people who seemed to be hacking at the branches but was really mostly of the time not working hard. As the world passed me by, I had a realization that in nature I have much in common with the natural man Rousseau describes in his “On the Social Contract,” who is unfortunately very lazy, but who gets a sense of identity by being in nature. No matter how hard I try, I cannot become a good Lockean man who is always “industrious and rational.”

The truth is, who can be exactly like the natural man of whom Rousseau writes? Human beings are always worried about the past, about the future, and about others’ opinions. Rilke writes that “The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.” People always say live in the crest of that moment, but everything is in constant flux on this earth, is there being, or is there only becoming? Nothing keeps the same transformable shape, and our affections are always out ahead of us or lagging behind; they remind us of a past which is gone or anticipate a future which may never come into being. Is there anything in this world so solid for the heart to attach itself to, for the hope to stay forever with?


April 19

A letter from Ed and Arleen came as quite a surprise; I never thought I would hear from them again. They wrote on some updates and news from the pathway at Rattler Ford Campground in Nantahala National Forest, which several schools including Kenyon have helped build. The purpose of the pathway was to protect a Cherokee archaeological site, and the dirt area we worked was a “chipping station” where Cherokees gathered flint for arrowheads and tools. The soil erosion over the years had been exposing the fragments of artifacts. Honestly I cannot recognize the pathway because after the walkway was finished, the Forest Service brought in several dump truck loads of dirt to raise the soil level to meet the top of the timbers that we installed. After building a trail for the first time in my life, I somehow felt a bit closer to civilization.

Ha wa di nah da go hu hi (see you in the future, in Cherokee).

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