I’ve never been outdoorsy. I’m allergic to pollen and most animals, and not exactly athletic to boot. While I appreciate nature, I mostly do it from indoors, looking out, or by caring for my growing menagerie of plants. That’s why I managed to surprise myself a little getting lost in Death Stranding—I realized I didn’t even mind. I did feel extremely silly once I got back on track, but it made me look forward to going back to the Smoky Mountains.
Last March, my boyfriend and I went to the Smokies after spending a few days in Knoxville for the Big Ears music festival. It’s something my boyfriend has been doing on his own for years, and he wanted to invite me along as our relationship started to get serious. For him, combining a weekend in the woods with a weekend of jazz, classical, and folk music seriously recenters him and keeps him calm. Going on hikes was the point of going to the Smokies for him, and I decided to take a leap of faith. I was falling in love with him and wanted to tell him in what he said was one of his favorite places in the world. Still, I was skeptical.
Once I actually went, I got it. My strongest memory of the Smoky Mountains is the moss. As in Death Stranding, its deep, supernatural greens were so bright and vibrant that they appeared alien. From there comes a whole host of sense memories: the freshness of the chilled air, the strain in my thighs as I walked up a trail. In the Smokies there is a noticeable absence of sound, and coming from New York, where you are besieged by the cacophony of city life, that peace struck me.
Death Stranding takes me back to those moments in the Smokies with such a ferocity that I can almost feel the clarity of the spring air. In Death Stranding you’re only outside to make deliveries, but just walking around and besting the landscape has been its own reward for me. It’s the silence that drives it home. When you’re not being chased by bandits or monsters, the most you hear is the rush of water, or a thundercrack in the distance. It’s also one of the few places that main character Sam Bridges seems to feel comfortable with himself. When Sam talks to other characters, he’s on guard and dodgy. In nature, he talks to himself or to BB, whistles, and sometimes sings. It reminds me of seeing my boyfriend as we started our first hike, his eyes bright, his mouth curled into an easy smile, wondrous at the sight of nature uninterrupted.
I did not end up telling my boyfriend that I loved him for the first time in the Smokies. He beat me to it, unable to contain himself in our cabin the night before. He told me he loved me again, the next day, in the Smokies, and the next day, on a hike that ended at a waterfall. It was a difficult climb for me, an inexperienced hiker, but as the narrow trail opened itself up into a small clearing where the crashing of water was all I could hear, I was content in a way that I rarely feel. The clouds had finally cleared, and sunlight dappled us through the leaves. I rested on a boulder as my boyfriend explored the plants growing and waded as far as he could into the water while keeping his clothes dry. For a few moments, I felt like I finally knew what mattered to me, what I needed to keep safe. I told my boyfriend I loved him again there, and I will tell him I love him in the Smokies this year, and the next, and every year.