A Travellerspoint blog

July 2009


sunny 35 °C
View Road Tripping USA on NZBarry's travel map.

It took a couple of days to make the journey from Knoxville to Memphis, mainly uneventful ones. Knoxville is a funny wee place, once famous as the underwear capital of the world and before that as a way station for those heading west, which was pretty much the only function it served for me. After the horrible drive through Gatlinburg and Pigeon Ford, I was keen to just find somewhere to stay and then eat. That proved a little problematic: heading back into town, I somehow overshot and found myself on the wrong side of the river and half way to the south coast. I finally found a street with a couple of bars and a coffee shop and had to ask "where's town"? Turns out most of the action is centred on Market Square, which turns its back on the rest of the world so unless you know what you're doing, you don't know its there. Makes for quite a pleasant space once you find it - there were several musicians of various types busking, and a number of restaurants. There is a highly rated pizza place called Tomatohead, which I wanted to visit in honour of someone who comments here, but the line snaked all the way out of the building. I had to be content with a pineapple and prawn curry.

I've only just learned that Knoxville is where Cormac McCarthy spent a lot of time when he was young: walking around, there was no sign at all. Funnily enough, given my fruitless quest for John Barth's Cambridge book, I actually had McCarthy's Knoxville book, Suttree, in my bag.

I dithered in the morning, eating a very fine chocolate mousse thing pushed on me by a coffee man who might pass as a drug dealer, so seductively did he point out the charms of his mousse, and then it was off to Nashville. Only I didn't quite make it - evidently I missed a sign somewhere, because I was quite confident I was on the right road. Eventually I thought to check, and found I was just outside Chattanooga - which is south of Knoxville, right on the border with Georgia, not west at all. D'oh! A quick change of plans was called for. Dinner at the Blue Plate restaurant that night was curious: possibly the best fried chicken I have ever had and definitely the worst beans ever (green beans cooked in a gluggy white supposed sauce).

Of course, I checked out both the bookshops I found, looking for John Barth to no avail. One was a complete shambles, run by this funny old lady. The radio was evidently playing some Christian station, as a fellow was preaching. The funny old lady took one look at me and up went the volume on the radio! I'd also read of a fantastic homely place that did great pork dishes for lunch, but it wasn't open so I had to hit the road in anticipation of finding more chain food outlets.

Its a long drive from Chattanooga to Memphis - 6.5 hours according to Google maps on the route I took, which took me into Georgia briefly and then snuck along the top of the State of Mississippi - so I was on the road quite early for once. Luckily, in some random town in Mississippi I found, in amongst the chain food, a very busy looking Mexican restaurant, so went in and had an enormous, impossible to complete, meal of fajitas.

I'd actually booked a motel in Memphis, a classic looking Super 8, but it proved the most elusive to find of all the places I have got lost looking for. I even had a wee map with the motel marked on it. Ultimately, I followed their directions to the letter - found the right Interstate, the right exit, and there it was, pretty much the only thing at that particular exit. Leaving to go into town, I took the wrong turn and was suddenly in a different State, Louisiana.

I did drive out to Graceland but, no, I didn't go in. I was far more interested in Beale Street and the Stax Museum of Soul Music. I spent my first night at the former, which had a nice buzz although the action is confined to just a couple of blocks, starting with the BB King Blues Club, where he appears regularly (but not the night I was there). There were several bars with live music, but only one seemed to be offering proper blues, so I went in and had a couple of Yuenglings. Back in Cambridge, Katie had worked on me to try pulled pork, and I finally found the exactly right place to have it: a place called Pig on Beale Street. This was absolutely delicious - slow cooked pork pulled apart, incredibly tender, with a wonderful smoky flavour. Nice with corn on the cob, green beans and Yuengling.

The Stax museum was a good way to spend a couple of hours. I hadn't actually heard of many of the artists on the Stax Records roster - just Otis Redding, Booker T and Isaac Hayes - but it didn't stop me having a good time, as there was lots of music playing and exhibits devoted to each artist, such as Isaac Hayes' gold Cadillac (and a video of him performing Shaft at the Stax Records gig in LA in 1972, when Hayes seemed to be wearing just a few gold chains and nothing else). The story of Stax Records is an interesting one: it formed because lots of locals were congregating at the record store, Satellite Records, and they wanted to make some music of their own, to respond to the Motown sound. They became vastly popular, which attracted the interest of the big record companies: three times Stax did deals with one, and three times they were done over (they even signed over all their original music to one). But they attribute their failure to the shooting of Martin Luther King at the Lorrain Hotel, a hangout for all the Stax people. Until then, race hadn't been an issue but suddenly it created divisions, and Stax couldn't function.

Posted by NZBarry 23:36 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Blue Ridge Parkway


So, after deciding to avoid the Interstates and head southwest, you can imagine what I did next. Yep, I hopped on the Interstate and went vaguely north, with a fair bit of west in it. I wanted to see the Appalachians, but wanted to do a little more than just drive across them - they run north to south. My scouting about revealed something called the Blue Ridge Parkway - it runs for 469 miles, starting with the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and heading down through to southern North Carolina. For its entire length it is in National Parks, the southernmost one being the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was started in the depression, as a way of making work, but took fifty years to complete.

Looking at the map, the way to get a decent run down the Blue Ridge Parkway was to go to a town called Boone - quite a short drive of 160 miles. I didn't find much to distract me on the road, so was there fairly early: dead on 5:00. It is a pleasant town, fairly modern, dominated by the bush clad mountains and by the Appalachian State University. It has a very nice radio station, WASU, which plays contemporary country: so contemporary that the DJ played a quite wonderful song by a girl who is going to school with her brother. Its that kind of station. Boone takes its name on the basis that Daniel Boone camped there a few times! Driving in, I didn't see any of the chains of budget hotels, but there were a few old style motels - I picked one that gave me a good view of the hills.

The drive down the Parkway didn't get off to a good start: after about 8 miles, it was closed and, after numerous detours, I found myself back where I started, at the entrance to my motel. I had to go down to a slightly more posh looking place called Blowing Rock to get back in. As far as I could tell, there is nothing built on the Parkway at all, it doesn't have any major roads intersect with it - instead, it has little side roads head off to the nearby townships or to connect with the main road. It leaves you with a feeling of remoteness, even though I suspect it is a fairly narrow strip of forest at times, just looking at the map, and there was hardly any other traffic. At one point, I pulled off one of these side roads and found myself in a place calling itself Little Switzerland - just a cafe and a bookshop.

After lunch, and back on the road, there was a storm warning on the radio - it gave pretty precise instructions as to where it was aimed at, but because I didn't recognise any of the names, could only hope it was not aimed at me. One particular aspect of the warning that made me hope that was that it said to stay away from trees. The rain and mist and vestigial sunlight did make for some fantastic sights. I'd show you some photos but, since leaving there, I had an incident in which my camera was taken from me, including the last couple of weeks worth of photos.

My stop for the night was in Asheville, North Carolina. I actually had a hostel to stay in here and, thanks to a friendly policeman on a Segway, was finally able to find it, only to discover that the electricity in that part of town had been knocked out by the storms and the fellow running the hostel had gone AWOL. So it was back over the other side of town where I'd seen some cheap, old skool motels: the one I picked just happened to have an owner who liked to make people feel unwelcome: I was interrogated about the number of guests I was proposing to have, the location of my vehicle etc and then subjected to a long and quite freaky silence (Rolling Stone does say that Asheville is the #1 city for freaks). I was about to walk out, when he smiled and told me about his family in Wellington, and everything was sweet after that.

I liked Asheville - it provided me with a wonderful jumbalaya (that is a southern rice dish, not a song) for dinner and it was very pleasant to walk around. I found three good bookshops - no John Barth, but - and was intrigued to find one that had eschewed the fairly common combination of books and coffee: this one had a champagne bar. It has had some famous residents: to me, the most important would be F Scott Fitzgerald, O Henry and Thomas Wolfe but others might be more interested in Charlton Heston, or Robert Moog (he invented the Moog synthesizer).

A very famous family from these parts is the Vanderbilts: in the morning, I tried to see their home, Biltmore House, which is the biggest private house in the USA. There was no actual obstacle to seeing it, save for my repugnance at being charged $US50 for the privilege: nice to see the spirit of greed that made them one of the richest families is still alive and well, but there was no way I was going to contribute to it.

Instead, I rejoined the Parkway for a bit, and then cut through the Smoky Mountains - busiest road I've seen in a while, with older gentlemen on Harley Davidsons travelling in groups of 20-30 being a common sight. There was so much traffic, I basically had to just go with the flow. I was out the other side before I knew it, and if I had read my guidebook before setting out, would have taken the bypass up to Knoxville, Tenessee. But, well, I wanted to see Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge - they turned out to be two very tacky, endless strips of cheap food joints and motels, that went on for miles, with an enormous number of traffic lights. It was just awful.

Posted by NZBarry 13:59 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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