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Sweltering in Southern Tennessee

I was planning to spend about a week traveling through southern Appalachia, a part of America that I wasn't very familiar with.  Appalachia is about the only region in the U.S. that I've never explored much, so on this road trip around America instead of driving up the Atlantic coast, like I've done many times during the past 15 years, I decided to travel inland and see Appalachia.  The term " Appalachia" to me conjured up images of coal mines, hillbillies, and moonshine, as well as Andy Griffith and the Waltons.

 

Before visiting Appalachia, though, I spent four nights camping at Old Stone Fort State Park, near Manchester in central Tennessee, getting caught up with my website.  I enjoyed my stay there despite the oppressive heat and humidity and thought it was a pretty interesting park.  It has a nice campground and there are several old Indian ruins that are worth exploring (even an old "stone fort," hence the name).  There's also a great Visitor Center and, yeah, the cute rangers are another plus.  When I wasn't getting caught up with my website or answering e-mail, I dodged hickory limbs that occasionally and without warning crashed to the ground near my campsite (seriously).  And, of course, I ate lots of bratwurst.

 

Above:  The laundromat in Manchester, Tennessee, where I almost got converted.

On Friday morning I packed up and left the park, then drove into the nearby town of Manchester, where I stopped at a laundromat to wash my clothes.  An hour later, as I was outside the laundromat by my truck packing my freshly-washed clothes, a friendly woman in her 50s stopped by to talk and, in a twangy, southern accent, asked me where I was from, how I liked Tennessee, and where I was heading.  After a nice talk, she wished me a pleasant journey and walked away, and I resumed packing up my truck. 

 

A few minutes later, she returned and handed me a stack of religious literature.  "I just thought you might enjoy reading this," she said with a smile.  I thanked her for it -- then promptly tossed it in the trash after she left.  I was wondering how long I could travel through the Bible Belt without someone trying to convert me.

 

From Manchester, I headed southeast, bound for Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is probably the only city in the world with that name.  You can drop a letter addressed simply to "Chattanooga" in any mailbox in the world and it'll probably get there.  It's also one of the few large cities in the U.S. that I'd never visited, and having heard about Chattanooga my whole life -- or at least, having heard the song " Chattanooga Choo-Choo" -- I wondered what it was like.

 

By the time I got to Chattanooga on Friday afternoon, the temperature was hovering around 95 degrees and the humidity was, oh, about, 120%.  Since the air felt like a hot, wet blanket, and since I was a wimp from Oregon unaccustomed to this kind of mind-numbing weather, I decided not to camp and, instead, splurged for a room at the Rodeway Inn -- a very well-spent $42.  That afternoon, I basked in my cool motel room with the knob of the air conditioner set to "High" as I worked on my e-mails and digital photos.  I didn't leave my room very often that afternoon, but when I did, the outside air hit me like a brick wall.  Breathing the soupy air outside was like inhaling... well... soup, and my trips to the ice machine were frequent and quick.

 

   

Above left:  Sweet home, Alabama.  It was only a few miles off my route, so I decided to cross over the state line.  The heat and humidity here was stifling.

Above right:  Relief at last!  After camping for a week in the steamy South, I got a motel room in Chattanooga and spent the afternoon replying to e-mail.  The air conditioning was such a treat that I didn't want to leave the next morning.  The maids had to pry me out.

Checkin' Out Chattanooga

Other than the humidity, one thing that always strikes me about the South is the slower pace here.  Compared to most other parts of America, even the rural Midwest, life in the South seems to move in slow motion.  Even a mellow city like Portland seems incredibly frantic compared to the South.  Some people like a frenetic pace but not me. 

 

Above:  The Tennessee Aquarium is one of the main attractions in Chattanooga.

There are some things I don't like about the South, like the aforementioned humidity and a higher level of intolerance and racism than in other parts of America.  But the pace here is more relaxed and there's a greater emphasis on personal relationships rather than making (and spending) money.  I guess you have to take the good with the bad.

 

It was still humid on Saturday morning, though a few degrees cooler, as I checked out of my motel room.  This was my first visit to Chattanooga so I drove into downtown to look around for a few hours.  Chattanooga was once an important railroad hub but it's now filled with lots of abandoned red brick buildings.  Although I found some interesting sites, such as the Tennessee Aquarium and the Chattanooga Choo-Choo (yes, there really was a choo-choo), I thought the city was a little depressing and, despite the friendly folks I met, I was glad that I didn't live there.  

 

 

Here's Glenn Miller and his orchestra playing Chattanooga Choo-Choo.

   

I think the most interesting place in Chattanooga is nearby Lookout Mountain, the site of an important Civil War battle.  However, I have to admit that the main reason I liked Lookout Mountain is that it's about 2,000 feet higher than Chattanooga and thus about 10 degrees cooler, so I lingered there a while.  But after a few hours, I reluctantly dropped back down into the steamy soup (there's that word again) of the Tennessee River valley.

 

I left Chattanooga on Saturday afternoon with both of my truck's windows rolled down, not having air conditioning.  I thought I'd have trouble finding a campsite that evening, since Saturday is the worst day of the week to find a quiet campsite (or indeed, any campsite).  And sure 'nuff, the two campgrounds that I stopped at that afternoon, both on reservoirs of the Tennessee River, were overrun with huge RVs, beer-swilling guys wearing muscle t-shirts, and little kids zipping around on tiny dirt bikes.  It was your typical power-boat crowd and definitely not my kind of place, so I got back on the highway and continued north.

 

       

Above left:  This is what happens to your shoes when you travel through the South in the summer.  It was between 93 and 102 degrees each day for a week here, with very high humidity.  As hard as I scrubbed, I just couldn't get the mold off my shoes.  I still can't.

Above center:  Broad Street, the main drag in downtown Chattanooga. 

Above right:  The Market Street bridge across the Tennessee River.

 

   

Above left:  Chattanooga has lots of old brick buildings that make interesting photographs. 

Above right:  Pardon me boy, is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo?  The Choo-Choo doesn't run anymore between Chattanooga and Cincinnati, but it's a popular tourist attraction.  Idiots like me enjoy climbing into the cab and ringing the bell.

 

       

Above left: Cannon on Lookout Mountain, overlooking Chattanooga, an important Civil War battlefield.  The Confederates defended the mountain top but the Union troops successfully stormed it in November 1863.

Above center:  A park ranger dressed as a Union soldier, loading his rifle during a demonstration at Lookout Mountain. 

Above right:  Best friends.

Dayton's Monkey Trial

Dayton, Tennessee was only a few miles away, so I drove into town late that afternoon and got a room at a place called the Kelly Motel.   Whoever Kelly is, I'm sure he's a nice guy but his motel was a bit of a dump and, worst of all, there weren't any non-smoking rooms.  That night, while breathing in the equivalent of two packs of Marlboros, I made a vow to never again stay in a smoking room -- or in a dingy motel.  I thought seriously about sleeping in my truck out in the parking lot, but I'd already paid my $32 and, dammit, I was going to sleep in that room even if it killed me (which it nearly did).

 

Above:  The Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton, scene of the Scopes "Monkey Trial."  I parked under a shady elm tree here on a Sunday morning and ate lunch in my truck while listening to a preacher on the radio.  Listening to him preach, I could easily envision Bryan preaching to the jury during the trial in 1925.

After gladly saying goodbye to the Kelly Motel on Sunday morning, I headed into downtown Dayton to visit the Rhea County Courthouse.  This was the site of the Scopes "Monkey Trial" in 1925, where a high school teacher, John Scopes, was put on trial for --  horrors! -- teaching the theory of evolution.  I'd wanted to visit Dayton ever since I read about the Monkey Trial in my high school English class, about the only worthwhile thing I did in that class. 

 

I was surprised, though, that no one else was there poking around the courthouse grounds, but I suppose rural Dayton is pretty far off the beaten tourist path.  Nevertheless, it was interesting to walk around the courthouse and imagine Clarence Darrow battling William Jennings Bryan -- and just about everyone else in the very religious state of Tennessee.  Darrow and Scopes lost, not surprisingly, though the ruling was later overturned on a technicality.  Interestingly, a few days after John Scopes was convicted, the prosecutor (and three-time Democratic presidential candidate), William Jennings Bryan, died here in Dayton -- and on a Sunday, no less.

 

Around noon, as the thermometer topped 100 degrees, I left Dayton and drove east towards the Smoky Mountains and Appalachia.  The eastern Tennessee countryside is beautiful with lots of green, rolling hills and small truck farms (where they grow small trucks, what else?)  This being my first trip to eastern Tennessee and southern Appalachia, I was half-expecting to see hillbillies sitting on their front porches playing the banjo and sipping moonshine, but actually this area is fairly modern (though, obviously to me, quite poor). 

 

It was also very muggy and I couldn't figure out why anyone would willingly live here, at least during the summer.  Southerners are perhaps the nicest folks in America, but -- and no offense here -- they're apparently not too smart for living in this kind of swampy weather.  Of course, I'm sure they think anyone who lives in Oregon, where it rains every day for six months through the winter (like me for example), is also stupid.  So I guess we're even.

 

   

Above left:  Downtown Dayton, Tennessee was a busy place in July 1925 during the Scopes "Monkey Trial."  It's a lot quieter these days.

Above right:  After traveling through the steamy South for a few weeks, it was a treat to climb the Great Smoky Mountains and cool off.  Here's my truck at 4,400 feet.  My elation was short-lived, though, because I soon headed down into the steamy lowlands of North Carolina.

Up and Over the Great Smokies

With both windows rolled down, I drove east on a two-lane highway that afternoon and climbed ever higher into the Great Smokies, which form the border between Tennessee and North Carolina.  I stopped at several viewpoints along the way to take pictures of the green, rolling hills below, but unfortunately, a haze from the humidity covered everything.  That haze is apparently why they call these mountains the "Great Smokies." 

 

Above:  Here's something I'd never seen before:  steam rising from a lake on a hot afternoon.  Now THIS is what I call "humidity"! 

As I continued climbing, the sweltering heat gave way to cooler breezes and I enjoyed a pleasant respite at the 4,400-foot summit.  I honestly didn't want to leave the cool, lofty summit oasis, knowing what was ahead of me, down below in the lowlands.  But after a while, I reluctantly got back in my truck and dropped down into the sweltering soup of western North Carolina.   

 

To be honest, though, I was starting to get used to the constant sweat on the back of my neck and the salt stains on my shirt.  Between that and the Krispy Kreme donuts that I'd been eating lately, I was starting to feel like a real Southerner.  However, I didn't have the "y'all" down yet.  And I still refused to eat chitlins.

 

I pulled into a National Forest campground Sunday afternoon at Fontana Lake, located on the North Carolina side of the Smokies, and once again I cooked up my favorite dinner:  bratwurst.  The scenery and the steamy atmosphere there reminded me of the movie "Deliverance," and I was glad not to bump into some weird guy with a silly grin playing a banjo.  Actually though, it was pretty peaceful here and I enjoyed it.  And speaking of movies, Fontana Lake was where the Jodie Foster movie, "Nell," was filmed about 10 years ago, although I'm probably the only one who ever saw it.

 

Shortly after I finished dinner, a violent thunderstorm rolled in with brilliant flashes of lightning that lit up the entire campground, so I scurried into the back of my truck and watched the storm with fascination.  As I sat in my truck, I listened to the thunder crash all around me and watched a blanket of lightning bugs dance in the rain while thinking, "Yep, this is a real Southern evening."   Except, of course, for the bratwurst.

 

   

Above left:  The Cheoah River in North Carolina. 

Above right:  Instead of B&B, it's D&D (dinner and downloading photos) while camping at Fontana Lake, North Carolina.  Yep, it's brats again.  It's a good thing I'm not in a rut!  

The True Story of Tom Dooley

Interestingly, the place where I was camping in North Carolina was just a short way from the site that inspired a famous folk song.  Shortly after the Civil War, a man named Tom Dula (pronounced "Dooley") lived in nearby Wilkes County, North Carolina.  Dula, a Confederate war veteran, had lively relationships with several local ladies, including a young woman named Laura Foster.  The details are hazy, but Dula apparently spun a lot of romantic webs because he also had a relationship at the same time with a married woman named Ann Melton and with yet another Foster woman named Pauline.

 

This is the Kingston Trio singing about that nasty dude, Tom Dooley.

 
   

Early one morning in 1866, Dula woke up Laura Foster after a romantic interlude and told her to pack her things because he wanted to marry her -- an approach to romance that probably wouldn't get a big "thumbs up" from Oprah.  Anyway, Laura disappeared soon afterwards and Tom Dula fled to Tennessee.  After a prolonged search, Laura's murdered body was found and Dula was tracked down in Tennessee by a sheriff named Grayson.  Dula was brought back to North Carolina, where he was tried for murder and was found guilty.  He was hanged in Statesville, North Carolina, and was buried in Wilkes County, as was Laura.

 

The story soon hit the newspapers, some as far away as New York City, and eventually a song was written about the whole affair.  In 1930, a fiddler named G. B. Grayson, a relative of Sheriff Grayson, recorded a version of the song which, in 1958, was sung and popularized by the Kingston Trio.  Their song set off an explosion of folk music that swept across the U.S. in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and it's always been one of my favorites.  Today, you can even visit Tom's grave in Wilkes County -- if you're into that sort of thing.

 


 

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