After waking up in the Motel 6 in northern Nashville, I had turned on the ancient TV in my cement-block cell to one of three channels that came in with limited static: CNN. As I rushed through my morning routine (eager to flee this cold, dark version of motel-hell), I watched the morning anchors go through their routine of reporting the news and making asinine predictions for the midterms, when suddenly, their faces changed from forced smiles to subtle panic. They were being told through their earpieces to get up and get out of the studio because a package bomb had been found in the mail room.
After the following evening’s encounter with some good ole boys at the Grand Ole Opry, I was acutely aware that there were people in America with vastly different opinions from mine: what they thought our country should look like veered to the extreme and perhaps some of them might have the additional anger, insanity, and access to weapons to take matters into their own hands. Now, here I sat on the edge of my sagging bed watching news celebrities hustle out of their building and on to the city streets, fearful that some nut-job had sent them a love letter in the form of a explosive.
My head spun. This is also America. My loving experiences of beautiful National Parks and helpful strangers came crashing into an alternate reality: one of fear, hatred, and ignorance. Suddenly, I had an urge to get in my car and just floor it back to my bubble in Boston. But that would be the coward’s response, so I calmed myself with the knowledge that only a few miscreants actually take that step into action and so I readied myself for the next leg of my journey: into Appalachia and the Great Smokies, followed by an evening in Asheville, North Carolina.
I checked out and headed over to the Waffle House, conveniently located to both my motel and the interstate. I had never eaten at a Waffle House, but was very familiar with the restaurant chain from Anthony Bourdain (may he rest in peace) and the Waffle House Index, that estimates the severity of a storm based upon whether the greasy-spoon shuts down. When Bourdain visited the one in Charleston, SC with his chef friend, Sean Brock, he famously said: “It is indeed marvelous– an irony-free zone where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts; where everybody regardless of race, creed, color or degree of inebriation is welcomed.” Perfect.
I settled into a counter seat and was brought a cup of coffee by a surly, yet charming, waitress who kidded around with the customers and other workers and as they waited and cooked up quick but filling breakfasts for the array of working men and women either on their way to work or having just left a night-shift. It is real, greasy, a little dirty, and above all comfortingly delicious. No frills, just familiar breakfast fare served up for a fare price.
Back on the interstate, I headed east, then south into what I thought would be pristine Tennessee. Unfortunately, I first had to traverse through what I can only describe as the tackiest landscape in America, and I have been to Las Vegas. Once you leave Interstate 40 and head south on old Rt. 66, you have no choice but to pass through Sevierville and Pigeon Forge. This is one long strip of shopping outlets, chain restaurants, cheap motels, Dollywood signs, and assorted entertainment destinations such as dragon Castles and the most horrifying, The Hatfields vs. the McCoys dinner theater – a humorous glorification of what was truly a stupid and deadly feud between neighbors over a stolen pig. Now, it is profitable tourist entertainment. P.T. Barnum was correct when he said, “Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public.”
Finally, after running the gauntlet of strip malls, the road seems to almost end as it disappears into the woodland of the Smokies. Once past the borderline of the National Park, the road becomes a twisting, country road winding along soft mountainsides covered in the turning colors of Fall. I am back on the east, and so the variety of trees in more diverse, yielding yellows, oranges, and reds as the green chlorophyl fades and reveals the tree’s autumnal glory.
Because this is almost peak season for the fall foliage, there are many leaf peepers on the road with me, but it almost seems empty when compared to the bustle of mall traffic I experienced just minutes before. I pull over into a turnout to take some photos. While I stand there, I take in a deep breathe of brisk air and expel the hours of frustrated driving, leaving the Tennessee Tacky behind me.
The native Cherokee people described this land as “shaconage,” or having a blue, like smoke. This bluish haze appears and rises up from the mountains after a rainstorm and for this reason, the mountains are called the Great Smokies. While, I wasn’t here this visit to experience this phenomenon, I have in the past.
The drive through the park only takes about an hour or so, but during this short visit, I recall the last time I was here in 1978, with a high school group hiking the Appalachian Trail. It was late February and the weather had turned foul the minute we started our 10 day hike. Later, we would discover that we had survived the Blizzard of ’78 – I, with nothing more than a summer-weight sleeping bag and a tarp to cover myself from the -10 degree nights of ice and snow. At the end of the week of slipping on ice covered trails and shivering ourselves to sleep, the two faculty members who led the trip, decided we might have had enough and led us down to the relative safety of the National Park. Here we found a campground with actual bathrooms with actual heat. We huddled next to the small heater in the bathroom as long as we could before we were called back to the cold, outside by the teachers. It was brutal.
Despite this negative memory, I felt a connection to the landscape, something had to describe. It was part of my past. Even it is was small. Even if it was cold. I felt the desire to stay longer, to explore more. But my agenda was moving me fast and furious back home, so this short stay would have to suffice for now.
I drove out of the park and through some small mountain towns towards Asheville. Along the way, I passed some old Trump signs and a Confederate flag or two. I was out of my element again, but thankfully, Asheville proved to be a liberal outpost where I could wander the streets wearing my Beto button and not get odd looks from the locals.
I checked into my very comfy Clarion motel for the night and was exhausted from the long day. I debated about driving into town for a nice meal, but the proximity of the Texas Roadhouse (directly next to the motel) ensured I wouldn’t have to get back into my car, so I strolled over and sat at the bar. The neon signs and phony Texas themed decorations made me smile. Despite the tackiness of the restaurant, I felt comfortable and the price of my steak dinner and IPA were hard to argue with. Next to me at the bar sat a father and his pre-teen daughter. They ate, chatted, and watched the baseball game on one of the large TVs behind the bar. Since it was a Wednesday night, I assumed this was a divorced dad on a mid-week night out with his daughter. The sight made me a bit sad as I thought back to the days my own son would go out with his father for a meal. It is so hard on the children, but not something uncommon these days. We have all learned to adjust and try to live a life in this modern age. Not a perfect life, for sure, but one we have adjusted to.
The following morning, I was up early to walk around Asheville. This small city has a handsome downtown built along sloping hillsides and is currently experiencing a building boom for all the new hipsters and retirees moving here. There are new, chic restaurants, bars, hippie shops, and art galleries popping up to accommodate the needs of these newbies. Asheville is happening and maybe growing a bit too fast. So many times over the past few years I have heard people say, “I’m thinking of moving to Asheville” and I can see why. It is a charming oasis in a beautiful, but poor area of the country. Still affordable by east coast standards, but with the amenities of college town.
I stopped into a super-hip coffee shop and bought a latte and an egg sandwich on a brioche roll to go. A quick turn around the shops, then back in my car. I headed past a nice hotel was putting up it’s Christmas decorations and the weather was cold and grey. It felt like snow as I drove through a neighborhood of Arts and Crafts homes, and then it was back on the highway, heading north. Soon, I would be home.