This piece was originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of Our Jackson Home: The Magazine.
An expansive flock of slate grey clouds span the sky as I drive along the narrow highway. The landscape rolls beside me, before me. The hills and subtle ridge lines guide the highway that bears my passage. Rural fields are dotted with gigantic cotton gins, dilapidated barns. Small colonies of trailers and rented houses populate gravel side roads, sprouting like branches from the main highway. I am northward bound, driving into an increasingly brisk wind. Small towns come and go, their buildings a remembrance to the earlier times of independent farming communities that offered the only glimpse of an outside world to the rural communities they served.
Today I pass silently through this modern rural America. My younger brother sits shotgun, quietly reading a book. He listens quietly to my music, making conversation between fits of coughing. He has bronchitis. Today he is feeling better and is very excited under his stoic exterior. We are bound for the Discovery Park of America, located in Union City, Tennessee, an hour’s drive from our Jackson home. The Discovery Park of America was founded and financed by Robert Kirkland, creator of the international retailer Kirkland’s. Robert and his wife Jenny saw a need to provide a world-class learning center to their hometown of Union City as well as the rural West Tennessee community. By teaming up with world-renowned contractors and architects, the Kirklands opened up the Discovery Park of America’s doors on November 1, 2013. They had over 295,000 visitors in the first year alone.
We arrive at the park. The tiered building and climbing white tower give an almost Star Trek-like look to the sleek and modern building. We drive up the straight main drive, escorted on either side by symmetrical evergreens nestled in hibernating flowerbeds. Walking through the main gates, we pay our fees and push through the clear doors onto a second story balcony overlooking the park’s first floor. Bright sunlight shines from overhead skylights. Dinosaurs of all types, brought to life in skeletal form, lurk below my brother and me as we walk to the nearest exhibit.
A life-sized picture of Davy Crockett immediately greets us. Aquariums hold the fish of Reelfoot Lake and the nets and boats of the people who have lived on its banks for generations. A timeline tells the tale of the native peoples who have called North America home since time’s beginning. A hallway leads us deeper into American history. The Civil War and Reconstruction fade into the World Wars. Propaganda posters line the walls as we come to another balcony. Below is a hanger filled with real-life military vehicles and weaponry. Thomas is much more versed in this department and takes delight in one-upping his older brother on his knowledge of stinger missiles and automatic rifles.
Strolling along, I notice a young girl with her mother and father. She holds her mother’s hand, taking unsure steps, gazing at the warheads and bullets in the display case. A Vietnam War video shows images of a dark time in our country’s history. The girl looks up and very sincerely asks her mother, “Why are they shooting each other?” I am taken aback by the simplicity of the question. Whatever fact Thomas is telling me is lost in a swirl of thought. I realized I was in a massive room holding nothing but better and better ways to achieve the death of others. I ask myself the girl’s question but save the answer for another time.
The next few hours are spent in and outside of the multi-million dollar facility, all dedicated to the empowerment that knowledge and learning can bring. Thomas and I brave the cold and walk through the pioneer era built and salvaged cabins and businesses, most of them from the surrounding Obion and Gibson counties. A huge metal warehouse houses all types of tractors and farm equipment. I can’t help of thinking about how every piece of equipment in the building changed forever the West Tennessee way of life, making farming more corporate and forcing the tenant farmer into abject poverty. The fierce winds whip our clothes as we head back inside, across gardens and waterworks, past sculptures and monuments.
I visited the park with my family a few years ago and saw just about everything there was to see that day. However, this time Thomas and I were determined to get to the top of the tower that looms large over the park. After a long elevator ride, we finally reach the glass-plated viewing room. The day, once overshadowed with clouds, has become bright. Flecks of wintery blue sky streak the far-off horizon, the mid-afternoon sun casting its dull winter eye on the sea of trees in all directions. Thomas, in typical fashion, immediately ventures outside to walk on the see-through balcony floor. A more cautious me stays inside, the room all to myself. Large portions of my life have been spent in either two places: the woods and fields of Tennessee or the big sky country of Colorado and the American West. Never has the big Western sky met my humble West Tennessee woodlands until this moment. My two worlds meet with an unexpected fervor; how well they go together. The two seas—one blue and grey, the other vast and spiderwebbed by sleeping trees—stretch out before my eyes, greeting each other like new best friends on the West Tennessee horizon. At this moment I concede a thought, which in turn becomes a belief, and finally a fact: that this vast woodland is my home.
Pulling out of the parking lot, Thomas and I head to the closest McDonald’s, grabbing a quick bite and getting on the road again. Thomas doesn’t know this, but this is by far the farthest I have ever driven alone at one time—yet he trusts me. His eyes never leave the book he brought along as we drive southward across the Obion River bottoms, cypress knees and brown water passing underneath. Upon my questioning he says his favorite part was playing with the interactive water tables alongside kindergartners and myself. Obviously this is my favorite part as well. The rest of the car ride is silent, as the north wind aides our travel back home to Jackson.
Samuel Tilleros is a recent graduate from Madison Academic High School, where he enjoyed writing for the Galloping Gazette and running cross country and track for the Mustangs. He hopes to either be teaching high school history or be a contributing writer for the magazine Outside for a career.
Photographer Kristi Woody is a photographer and storyteller for our Hello Jackson features about locally owned retail stores and restaurants. She also works as the university photographer for Union University and owns her own wedding photography business, Woody & Pearl Photography. In her free time, Kristi enjoys spending time with her husband and rambunctious beagle, Rhett and Chipper respectively. If you can't find Kristi in Jackson, you'll find her in her second favorite place: Disney World!