Last December, I flew to the U.S. for an extended Christmas break and spent three weeks with my parents at their eastern Tennessee home. The weeks flew by. Flash forward eight months and one permanent relocation later, and I’ve completed another two months of Tennessee living. Somewhat to my surprise, I like it here.
I live in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, 40 minutes east of Knoxville and roughly mid-way, as the crow flies, between Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. I am in a regional town that is small enough to be safe and quiet but big enough to serve as a feeder town for the dozens of small farm villages in the area. We have a shopping mall, a cinema, a junior college, the requisite Cracker Barrel, and – yes – a Walmart.
Okay so I’m not wild about the fact that there’s a Wally World in my town. It doesn’t really matter. My point is that as long as I’m here I can enjoy everything that a slower pace of life has to offer, while still being able to get out to enjoy myself, whether it’s to the movies or to the hiking trails.
There is quite a bit to do throughout the Tennessee Valley region. For the history buff, the area is dotted with numerous Civil War towns and battlefields. Crockett Tavern, the boyhood home of Alamo martyr Davy Crockett himself, is a summertime-only attraction. I went there with my parents (“folks” is what ‘rents are affectionately called down here) on the day of Davy’s 227th birthday celebration, and there was quite a bit going on. Just five minutes from my house, Cherokee Lake is a massive recreation area and a boater’s paradise. North of Cherokee Lake is Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, a scenic “corner” of the country where Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia come together. I still haven’t been to nearby Panther Creek State Park with its 17 hiking trails.
The twin tourist towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge – what I call the “Wisconsin Dells of the south” – offer much in terms of family-friendly entertainment. Dollywood is Dolly Parton’s country-themed amusement park with several formidable roller coasters; next door is Dollywood’s Splash Country. Further south is Great Smoky Mountains National Park, forever free and with roaring waterfalls, idyllic cabins, cantankerous black bears, and the highest-elevation stretch of the roughly 2,200-mile (3,500-km) Appalachian Trail. North of Pigeon Forge is Smokies Stadium, home of Tennessee Smokies minor league baseball, while to the south lies Ober Gatlinburg, a proper wintertime ski resort. West of here is Knoxville, a lovely old-money city of 182,000 people. Knoxville played host to the 1982 World’s Fair, but is most famous as the home of the University of Tennessee and “Vols” (Volunteers) football.
The western half of the state offers much of interest as well, although most of its attractions are far enough afield to require an overnight stay somewhere. Memphis is home of Graceland, Beale Street, and music industry heavyweights Sun Studios, Gibson Guitars, and Stax Records. Nashville is Tennessee’s grand capital and one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S. I recently visited its Parthenon, a faithful, full-scale replica of the Athens original. (My most recent “Where am I?” guessing game pic was taken there.) Eastern Nashville is home to the Hermitage, the plantation home and burial garden of seventh U.S. president Andrew Jackson. Several state parks are scattered across the hilly countryside between Nashville and Knoxville. Of these, I am most interested in visiting Fall Creek Falls State Park. Maybe this October.
It probably sounds as if I’m still in “tourist” mode. Well, I always try to take full cultural advantage of whatever region in the world I happen to be living or traveling in, but it really is true that Tennessee is especially rich in cultural and natural treasures when compared to the average state.
Tennessee is firmly in Red State territory. As such, it is an easy place for a worldly, Chicago-born progressive Yankee such as me to make fun of. Still…I’ve enjoyed these two immersive months. The weather has been delightful, and only really grew oppressively humid over the past two weeks. Life moves at a slower pace here (although most people still drive like maniacs), but it’s not too boring – this coming from a guy whose last residence was in a city with a population of 21 million. As for co-habitating with my folks, I miss my privacy sometimes but on the plus side, we are on an acre lot, have a full basement, and enjoy nightly lightning bug displays. So far, the trade-off is worth it.
In many ways, I still have work to do. I don’t know many people here, I haven’t found a job yet, and I still need to save money to buy a car. The job search is my biggest challenge. For one thing, I don’t have an advanced degree in a time when everyone else my age seems to have somehow earned an MBA. I am unsure if I even know what I want to do for a living! For these and other reasons, my chances at getting a high-wage job in the area are slim, but I know that I can’t give up just because I haven’t found work in my first two months of looking. Something will turn up. This, in turn, will open new doors in the form of networking, résumé-filling, and burgeoning friendships.
One thing at a time. I think I’m going to stay awhile.
A few warm-weather Tennessee pics:
Above pic: Crockett Tavern, where Davy Crockett spent his childhood.
Below pic: The Nashville Parthenon, a full-scale replica of the Athens original.
Above pic: Tennessee State House as seen from Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park.
Below pic: Fog-shrouded overlook at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.
Above pic: Random llama sighting because…why not?
Below pic: The Memphis Pyramid (former home of the Grizzlies NBA team) and Mud Island monorail.