Week 3 of our trip took us to the fabled land of Tennessee! While Wisconsin and Illinois proved to be beautiful in their own ways, were excited for Tennessee. To us, Tennessee meant an end to the bitter cold we’d encountered in Wisconsin and Ilinois- it was full of possibility and magic by way of Nashville’s bars and Dolly Parton’s hairdo. We imagined drinking moonshine and wearing tee-shirts, carousing in the streets with nary a care in the world!
Aaand If we’ve learned anything yet, it’s that IT’S STILL WINTER YA DANG FOOLS, and there is no mystic land of warmth (save for maybe Florida, which is still a cruel several weeks away). In fact, Tennessee boasts our saddest travel moment yet. We ran out of propane heat in the middle of the night and woke up to frozen bodies (and, incidentally, frozen locks). We were pretty panicked, because up til this point we’d only been locked OUT of the trailer because of freezing locks, not inside. Luckily we remembered the emergency fire escape hatch, which Anna climbed out of to switch over to a new tank. Over the course of a few hours, this heated the trailer enough to unfreeze the locks and warm us back up.
Tennessee will be a great lesson to us about expectation, and what happens when we cling to it too much. When we drove out of the southern tip of Illinois, we were beleaguered, and knew that we had to slow down somewhere. Our route on paper had seemed ambitious, and we knew it- but actually getting through a state per week was (and will continue to be) exhausting. We had high hopes for Tennessee; to visit multiple cities, see family in Knoxville, and spend some time in the Smoky Mountains. All that said we decided to cut Memphis loose, even though it broke our hearts to do so. It seemed valuable to save ourselves a couple of days and an extra 300 miles.
Part of the Memphis compromise was that we’d do Nashville instead, a city we were both genuinely intrigued by. Having recently watched Robert Altman’s Nashville and the Master of None Nashville episode (on top of following several Nashville photographers on social media), we had strong ideas about what it would be like. Needless to say, like any situation where one believes they’ll encounter something specific, it wasn’t what we expected.
Nashville struck us as an odd city. We’d imagined a sort of hip southern wonderland full of cowboy bars and local flair. What we found felt a lot more like an airline magazine’s ‘top ten cities to go’, with landmarks like any major American city- but missing a more unique sense of place. It was hard to get around; the city felt poorly laid-out for people on foot OR in vehicles (we drove about 14 miles to go a cumulative distance of 3, since they don’t seem to have enough bridges over the Cumberland river). Several businesses we went to felt isolated- those in neighborhoods seemed lonely, without much neighboring support to create a fun neighborhood destination. Others were in strip malls that were very difficult to navigate in our van, let alone on foot.
Despite all of that, we went to some wonderful spots, met friendly people, ate the BEST hot chicken at Hattie B’s– and though we do feel that our impression is legitimate, we recognize that we went without a local to guide us- and we can’t stress enough, the winter weather makes getting around and seeing sights a lot harder. Neither of us is big into country music either, which excludes us from much of Nashville culture. Also, we are pretty sure that we were just plain missing something- people seem to love Nashville and continually sing its praises, so our impressions are a bit of a mystery to us.
Next up was Knoxville, where Anna’s 2nd cousin Kristina is a professor at UT. The day after we arrived we got to experience a snow day in Tennessee, which, like any solid northerners would attest, is kind of wimpy. Southern states sound alarm bells at any snow whatsoever. That said, Kristina explained that due to lack of snow removal infrastructure and continual freeze/melt temperatures, it really does wreak havoc. Since our trailer was parked in a driveway atop a very steep and snowy hill, we took it as a pass to stay inside and catch up on our work. It was pretty glorious to be curled up by a fire in an actual house, flanked by a basset hound and cup of coffee; we owe our lives to our hosts Kristina and Marcia.
Knoxville surprised and delighted us. It’s a modest and predominantly working-class city, and their downtown has been undergoing a revitalization process over the last few years. We loved the narrow cobblestone streets and quaint town square. Outside of downtown were neighborhoods with old houses, crumbling buildings, and signs of life and art in unlikely corners. If we’re comparing notes, we might say that Knoxville has “more spark, character and imagination in one fingernail than Nashville has in its entire body”- but we wouldn’t pick favorites (or misuse quotes from Rushmore like that). It’s an entirely different place; but we really hope to get back here some day.
Lastly, we set our sights on Smoky Mountain National Park. It’s the most-visited National Park in the USA- due in part to the roads that run through it, connecting Tennessee to North Carolina. Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are last-chance towns nestled at the base of the mountains. Upon learning that we were planning to stay in these towns, Marcia exclaimed that we’d be seeing “the worst parts of Tennessee!” We had no idea what she meant, but it became clear once we rolled into the outskirts of Pigeon Forge.
Dollywood is the largest major attraction in Pigeon Forge, if that’s any indication to the level of campy tourist trap this town revolves around. It’s incredible to see- Pigeon Forge seems to the the Wisconsin Dells of the south, the Disneyland of the almost-north. It smacks of Vegas, state fairs and family fun. Spectacles abound- faux-upside down buildings, King Kong scaling the outside of a Hollywood wax museum, dinner shows with rockettes and gunmen- it truly seems to have it all (and then some). While it’s not the first place we’d pick for a vacation, it was a really fun stop.
Poor road conditions prevented us from crossing the park into North Carolina as planned, so we ended up in Pigeon Forge 2 days longer than expected, snowed-in while the East Coast got pummeled with historic levels of snow. While it was a pain to be stuck where we were, we’re grateful that it was safe- several parts of New England weren’t so lucky. We did get a chance to explore a slice of the park via a side road, and although we were disappointed to miss out on the full great Smoky Mountain experience, we were grateful to see the beauty that we did.
Tennessee can have real winter, too! 10 degree lows and snow. Who knew?
Tennessee can be liberal, conservative, urban and country all at once.
Tennessee is culturally diverse and full of surprises.
US Anywhere is a year-long, cross-country documentary project by newlyweds Carl and Anna. They are taking the 52 weeks of 2016 and are using them to travel the country and make short films about all 50 states (plus Washington, D.C.). The project will seek to illuminate the states and the hugely diverse urban and natural landscapes of the US. They hope to inspire others to dream, travel, explore, and connect with the United States.