Monthly Archives: August 2008

The Road In Between

On The Road

I’m backtracking a little here, but it wouldn’t be right to blog a roadtrip without some mention of the road and what we find thereon.

In the states there are many different types of roads, all driving on the right: Interstates (the big ones); Turnpikes (like Interstates, but you have to pay); US Highways (smaller Interstates); and Rural roads. We’ve been trying to steer clear of the bigger routes just because the smaller ones are more scenic and less manic, though occasionally we’ll do a “speed boost” and jump on I-95 or wherever just to make up some time.

Other road users are generally considerate and non-life-threatening, and driving is a pleasurable experience. the only issue is really around the big cities where two or more Interstates merge — we see accidents at those points every day and you really have to stay alert.

The signs are a little confusing at times, but we have maps. We haven’t found a map that’s really helped us yet, but we’re still looking….

 

Murfreesboro Civil War Battlefield

One of the nice things while driving is that you’ll suddenly notice, or you’ll remember that “hey! Aren’t we near that place? We could go take a look.” One of these places was Murfreesboro on the way into Nashville.

On December 31st, 1862 — one day before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclomation — 81,000 men from the Union and the Confederacy here enacted one of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles. The Union was trying to capture the Nashville Turnpike and Murfreesboro. The battle was known as Stones River and in all 23,000 men died in just two days of fighting. Now the site is well maintained by the National Park Service; we were given an explanation of what happened by a friendly park ranger, we toured the museum and battlefields, and it was all free!

Above is “The Battle Of Stone River near Murfreesboro, Tenn.” by Kurz & Allison, 1891. Below, pictures from the site today (including Nick wondering if he could shoot me with a cannon).

 

The Deep Blue In The Deep South

On the way out of Chattanooga, with a few hours to use, we ducked into the Tennessee Aquarium — the world’s largest freshwater aquarium, though they also have a great range of our salt-water friends too. This wasn’t free, but it was well worth our $20 a head ticket. They had everything: sharks, crocodiles, jellyfish, seahorses and a special exhibit of penguins. I won’t say any more on this, I’ll just put a few of the pictures up.

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Top Ten Things To Do In Nashville

Music City it is called, and justifiably so. Live bands and singers are on show in almost every Nashville bar and honky-tonk you could care to wave a guitar at. The people (those who aren’t tourists) are friendly, relaxed and helpful and this is one city I could live in quite happily. Probably, to appreciate this all properly you’d have to be a real country music fan, but there is something for everyone. Some folks are clearly just living it up and getting drunk at 12 midday. (Not us, you may be surprised to learn….) Here is a top-ten list of things to do in Nashville, Tennessee in no particular order. The ones we haven’t done yet, we are doing tomorrow.

1) Visit The Country Music Hall Of Fame (And Museum)

It’s not even necessary to be a country music fan. This place takes you on a journey through the whole of country music history and has orginal lyrics to some songs by Dylan and a whole host of other memorabilia. Do that thang.

Oh how I love guitars

Oh how I love guitars

 

2) Buy Cowboy Boots

Ok, so they’re expensive, corny, probably damage your feet, and are of little practical use if you don’t own a horse, Buuut, they are cool. Try and get respect in Nashville without ’em…. These are the third pair of my life, black, simple, real made-in-America, and look “good” with jeans or with smart clothes. And they’ll last. And you can go line dancing in them. There is one real expensive place to buy them in town: Nashville Cowboy, on 2nd Avenue and the folks in there were great. However, unless you want to pay 800 dollars for a pair, you’d better try someplace else. A good shop was Trail West — also on 2nd Avenue. They were less frills and spills than the other place, but still far better than the “buy three pairs of boots for 50 bucks” shops that plagued Commerce Street and broadway.

Mah boots!

Mah boots!

 

3) Get Tattoos

I’m just going to put these up, then sit back and wait for the shocked, scandalized and reproachful phone calls from my mother.

My ragged pirate flag tattoo

My ragged pirate flag

Nick's "To Dare is to do" tattoo -- motto of the Tottenham Hotspur Football Club and worthy advice in life always

Nick's "to dare is to do" tattoo -- motto of the Tottenham Hotspur Football Club and worthy advice in life always

 

4) Get Drunk In A Honky-Tonk

Well, we weren’t hugely drunk, but I’m afraid, a bit drunk, I really was. the band was loud, the food was spicy and completely unhealthy, the staff were refreshingly irreverent (though very friendly), the drinks were strong and the girls were easy (though, before you ask; no, I’m taken). It was a perfect place, but Nashville is full of perfect places. Our bar of choice was the Tin Roof on Demonbraun Street. Recommended.
Just a small sample of what you can drink

Just a small sample of what you can drink

 

5) Appreciate The Old Architecture
I don’t even know what this building is, but it’s great. Just sitting there on Nashville’s Broadway, about a stone’s throw from the honky-tonks.
Old and Beautiful

Old and Beautiful

 

6) Appreciate The Modern Architecture

I don’t even know what this building is. But it’s modern and beautiful and about a stone’s throw from the honky-tonks. (Yes, I will admit my ignorance regarding architectural matters. If anybody wants to enlighten me, then I’m very willing to listen.)

New and Beautiful

New and Beautiful

 

7) Listen To A Cowboy Radio Station

So they’re rough-and-ready; they make on-air mistakes, but they’re entertaining and if you like that kinda music, it’s great. And sure, I like that music. The conversation went like this: (both speakers are male, mid-fifties, with deep southern accents).

speaker 1: So I know you’ve got us a story bout good ol’ jack…”

speaker 2: Well, yeah I do. Y’see, he used to drive a hearst, filled up in the back with Jackie D and beer the whole time.

speaker 1: A “hearst”?

speaker 2: Yep, a you stab ’em or shoot ’em, we pack ’em, slab ’em and bury ’em kind of a hearst. He made one of my favourite songs too.

speaker 1: Well, why don’ you jes play it for us cowboy?

It happened exactly like that. And the song was one helluva tune too.

 

8.) Take Pictures Of All The Elvises On Broadway

There are loads of them. All different and with their own particular style, but all, nevertheless, quite similar. Here’s a sample of two of them. I’ll leave to you the thrill of photographing all the others. The legs always seem to be the same while the torso is in different positions — maybe they’re moldable or something. If you wanted to kit out the trashiest lounge room in the world, one of these would have to be on the to-buy list.

Elvis number 1

Elvis number 1

Elvis number 2

Elvis number 2

 

9) Visit Johnny Cash’s Grave

He was the man in black; always fighting for the poor and beaten-down, never stopping in his path to make a few things right, and his songs have that timeless quality that will ensure he lives on throughout the ages. A real legend, not just in country music, but in music in general. Johnny had a few problems in his time and if you haven’t yet seen “Walk the Line” I thoroughly recommend it. We had to go and pay our respects. Not actually in Nashville, but in Hendersonville which is close by. And, of course, we wore black.

And a white horse approached him

And a white horse approached him

 

10) Go Horse Riding

We actually have this booked for Monday, not tomorrow, but I figured it deserved a mention. The old trusty beast on which the west was won, the land discovered and the wars battled. Which other way is there to discover the real feel of the freedom of the great frontiers?

Get on your horse and... no, that's not right...

Get on your horse and... no, that's not right...

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Falling Underground

As we get further along our trail we are beginning to travel slower and take more things in. Maybe this is just a natural feature of longer trips in general, or maybe it has something to do with the good, honest, homely style of Tennessee in general and Chattanooga in particular.

One thing we’ve seen very clearly is that while every US town we’ve visited has its collection of chain stores, Starbucks, Mac Donald’s, et al there is no real homogenization here at the roots. Each town has its own character, dialect, cooking and way of life, and this is a wonderful discovery. In Europe the USA tends to be seen through one lens: take your pick from the government, the films, the American products etc.; but in reality it is all genuinely diverse. It takes more than rampant globalization and commercialization to destroy local culture. You heard it here first.

One thing commercialization does destroy, however, is specific points of local culture and heritage, as Nick (my brother) and I found out when we paid a visit to Ruby Falls, just outside Chattanooga.

The warning signs were all there: while our first cave visit (Raccoon Mountain) was off a tiny little road that one could have missed just by blinking, “RUBY FALLS!!!!” was pasted up on huge billboards for miles around. But we went, and it was definitely worthwhile, but just a real pity to see how damaged a natural wonder can be by people’s (the owners’) greed.

We went in and were presented with the usual tourist shack replete with pictures, mementos, etc., and I have no problem with that. But when we got down there we found no Chuck, our old guide from Raccoon Mountain, no personal touch and little love. We were literally herded down in a group of maybe 30 people, read stock jokes by the guide, and made to run through the caves with almost no chance to take photos or ask questions. At Raccoon Mountain we were forbidden to touch any of the formations except one at the very start, while in Ruby Falls this wasn’t the case and consequently they were all blackened by 40 years of dirty tourist handling. The curiously-formed stalactites and so forth weren’t pointed out by the guide’s torch and commented upon, but had huge signs up next to them Las Vegas style. It was a real shame.

But, it was worth it all to see the actual falls. A 145-foot high waterfall pouring from an opening at the top of a huge cavern which sits thousands of feet under rock. And to this day nobody knows from where the water comes. It’s a mystery and a wonderous spectacle. As soon as you enter the cave containing the falls you are hit by a gust of fresh, water-bespattered air; it’s as if you were entering a cathedral. Beautiful. How sad that it’s besmirched by over-tourism just so the owners can make a few extra bucks. Still worth seeing though.

One of the many, many, many oversized posters for the falls

One of the many, many, many oversized posters for the falls

This crevice has been lit up with false blue to make the caves seem more mystical (to get more tourists in). Ironically the same effect would have been achieved by just making it less fake mystical (and touristy)

This crevice has been lit up with false blue to make the caves seem more mystical (to get more tourists in). Ironically the same effect would have been achieved by just making it less fake mystical (and touristy)

But the falls were magical (despite the lighting)

But the falls were magical (despite the lighting)

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Atlanta To Chattanooga

After our small town experiences in backwoods Georgia we decided to make a break for the big city. We must be small town boys or something because we only lasted a day.

We are getting used to the layout of American towns, and one of the most particular things is that there is often no “center”. It has been said that when the Italian immigrants arrived in the US at the start of the 20th century they were dismayed to find that there was no social congregation point in the middle of town — something that any Italian who enjoys walking round the centro storico with an ice-cream on Sundays will tell you is nothing short of a disaster.

We’ve found this to be the  case in all the small towns we have visited and Atlanta was no exception. Even if there seemed to be some open spaces and squares, when you get in them it just feels like you’re on a road going someplace else.

So we went out looking for some shops (needed: phone charger; new phone number (sim card); a a bunch of throwaway t-shirts), but downtown Atlanta doesn’t have shops where you can buy stuff — just little bistros, conference centers and fast-food joints; all the good shops are outside of the city. We carried on walking and ended up on the wrong side of town. I don’t want to call it the ghetto, but if there hadn’t been the legion of cops that were there patrolling, I’d have felt a little scared. We found a shop selling telephones though, so we went in. We were there 30 minutes and I lost count of the number of perople who came in asking for their telephones to be plugged in and charged, then walked out again after discovering that this cost two dollars. As we waited outside while they activated the new sim cards I hadn’t smoked half a cigarette before two guys had come up to me asking for a smoke and one man tried to offer me clearly stolen jewellery. It’s never nice to see those levels of poverty, but the levels of show-off aggression that we saw along with it (and probably because of it) made us get out of there pretty quickly.

But Atlanta wasn’t all bad. We saw some beautiful modern architecture and we also found one of the coolest bars I’ve ever been in: the sidebar — we almost didn’t go in as it was so hidden, but it was a real gem of a find with a fun and lively atmosphere, a long bar with hundreds of cocktail possibilities and good ol’ rock n’ roll permeating the (smokey!) night air. Awesome.

But, all said and done, that city wasn’t for us.

So we left. One quick renewal on our car contract and 160 miles later we were in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It’s fantastic. Little shops, a real feel of community; people smile at you in the street and as soon as you tell anybody you’re from England they exclaim, “aah! You’re from the mother country!” And they tell you about one trip a friend of their’s took to Europe (usually not England, but Europe in general) and I love it. Here the streets feel like they were made to human size and for people to go around and do stuff rather than streets made for cars where human beings are an inconvenient afterthought. Here instead it’s fun, there are some cool bars, and you can walk the streets and feel happy and comfortable.

 

But, our first attraction to this town wasn’t the bustle of Main Street, but instead the depths of the mountains nearby. We took a tour of the Raccoon Mountain caverns with a guide, Chuck, who is a legend who was just waiting to be born.

We saw stalactites pouring down from the cave roof, unique formations, columns, spikes, whirls and stalagmites reaching up like they wanted to bust out of those labyrinthine caves and out into the sky. Those gnomic halls deep in the limestone deeps are mystical jewels, shining for all.

And it was all enlightened by the worldly and knowledgeable Chuck. He didn’t want to have his picture taken, so we took down a few of his quotes. Just to describe him, he was an old Tennessee country man, as rocky in face as the mountains he was showing us, but with a dark and glorious wit thrown in as well. He’d done twenty years “in the service” but wouldn’t say which one… an enigma.

Chuck’s Quotes

1) “Well up here on the wall you can see this lil’ critter, he’s a mountain salamander. They’re an endangered species now. They eat their young”

2) “See that little hole over there? We take potholers down there on appointment. We took one girl recently, she got stuck. Had to pull her out by her ankles! Hahaha! We tried not to laugh about it though….”

3) “And if you think that little crevice up there looks precarious from here, just imagine how it was when we had to get up there and put in new lightbulbs for when the tourists came!”

 

And the pearls of Chuck’s story will now resound forever. Go forth and tell the world! 

P.S. Please remember that this is the only blog ever about Chattanooga that didn’t say “choo choo”…  oh no, wait….

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Wet And Dry

We had planned to fly into Atlanta today, but seeing as we’d just about had enough of airports and queues we figured that driving had to be the way to go. So it was in the car and head north. We made good speed and got through most of Florida. Now, I had jokingly suggested we try to avoid any hurricanes, thinking that we wouldn’t see anything of the sort. However, I had to eat my words a little and also give thanks that we don’t live near Thomas Creek, Nassau County, Florida. Thomas creek is a little stream which ambles along, sucking up the overflow from the nearby St. Mary’s River; a little community is sited on its banks. But thanks to Tropical Storm Fey the river has been overflowing, and Thomas Creek has taken the worst of it: here’s their baptist church today:

The whole car park was innundated and apparently the water is currently receding — before it was worse. Faith and hope in the water level’s sinking were high though…

Seek and ye may well find. Some would add, “if you can swim” — but that would be cruel.

Ours, however, was to be the opposite problem. We picked a point midway between Jacksonville, where we stopped last night, and Atlanta. We lighted upon Eastman, Dodge County, Georgia. It looked great on the map, but once we got here disturbing things began to be told us.

It started with the motel receptionist telling us, “What, somewhere to go?” When I asked why she was laughing she just said, “You’re in Eastman!”

But, ok, so it was a little quiet, but still very beautiful. I longed for the calm lakes and soft blowing fir trees of this zone — especially after having seen nothing but palms as we drove up from Miami.

The weather is a little variable, sudden spells of rain come and go, the sun shines one minute then not the next and at one point my sunglasses just steamed up — so I couldn’t see anything — in the space of ten seconds as we left the motel. But I like variable weather: I’m English after all.

Then things got a little darker…

I asked the receptionist if she knew where we could find a bar. It was like I’d asked her where I could find a good crack dealer: “ohh no, I wouldn’t know anything about that,” she said. I guessed I’d just found a teetotaller and thought nothing of it.

I asked the cashier in WalMart. “Oh, gee, well… we certainly don’t sell any drink. I heard there was a place out on the hill up across the railroad tracks. In a red barn.” Well, I’ve heard enough about red barns to know that nothing good could come out of it, so I just asked somebody else. “Well, you know, I never went there, but I heard that if you go on up out back towards the I117, then on the side of the road there’s a little place where they could help you out: I never went there you understand, I just heard it from a friend.”

And then it clicked: after all, we hadn’t seen one liquor store all day long despite driving through the town 25 times trying to find our motel… I asked the same guy, “this is a dry town isn’t it?” he replied, “sure is sir. Dry county as a matter o’ fact.”

Damn. Of all the places we could have picked to come and stay in, we chose a dry one. I couldn’t believe it. Didn’t these guys learn anything from prohibition? Dodge County is completely dry — you can’t even get a glass of wine in a restaurant.

So we did what we had to: we crossed the county line, and sure enough, as soon as we crossed, there on our left was a liquor store. We bought a bottle of rum and a case of beer and never did either taste so good as they did tonight.

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And They’re Off!

And we begin!

It was a real good start darkened only slightly by a two-hour wait at Miami airport. I thoroughly recommend anyone who wants to come to the USA not flying in to Miami — go anywhere else, but not Miami. It is a cool city, but the airport sucks.

Figuring on just going to grab something to eat and then coming back to the hotel (after our long flight) we started looking for some direction and were very lucky to get right to the beating heart of the place, and it wasn’t the fake Miami Beach stuff you see on TV: it was Cuban.

Spanish really is the working language of the city. The magazine shaelves are full of all the same titles we have the world over, but they’re all Spanish; cab drivers are shouting “arriba arriba, andale andale!” Speedy Gonzales style and it was to our Cuban concierge that we turned for dinner directions.

We ended up in the back of a mall parking lot in one of the seedier districts at this Cuban restaurant — Casa Juan — and it was one of the best meals and nicest settings I ever ate in. The people were great, the food was cheap and the atmosphere was scintilating. Afterwards we took advice from two old guys who were hanging out in their pick-up truck in front about the best cigars to buy. We learned that you have to get soft ones: Habano Classicos are the best (and instead of costing 25 dollars, these sell for $1 each).

The Cuban guys were real gentlemen: I spoke my best Spanish (which is very bad) and we all got along great. “You know man.. you guys gotta get these cigars man, they’re the ones I smoke, only the best man.” When we said we were going to Atlanta next it was “ahh, you know man… I know Georgia.. I gotta house up there; it’s paaa–aaarrt-teeey man!” They even told us a few things to be careful of, “you know… watch out man. those Cubans, you know, they’s some baaad people you know. You gotta keep your money in your pocket…” But if these guys were anything to go by, they are great people and I’ll gladly hang out with them in front of Casa Juan any day.

The next day we got a car — the only one the shop had and it was a Chrysler 300. Happily we shall travel in style on this trip.

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The Moment Approacheth

Well, tomorrow we fly out to England, then it’s an overnighter and on Saturday we head to Miami. Naturally I am now immersed in preparations, last-minute special changes and panics. However, we’re getting there. Now in keeping with last-minute panics my friends have all been rather adept at instilling me with the most random of “Things To Dread”. Here I will list a few of the things I’ve been advised to avoid at all costs.

 

1) Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

 

Thanks to my boss for this irrational fear. Just before I left for the holidays he said, “You know Matt… just… be careful, yeah? I don’t wanna get a call saying ‘Hi, I’m in Guantanamo.'” I like to think it was his own special way of telling me that he valued my work and wanted me to be in one piece upon my return. So it was a sweet thing really. Thanks boss.

 

2) Losing all my money in Vegas, Nevada

Oh ho ho! No you don’t… not again. Last time I was in Vegas I did actually lose almost all my money. Actually it wasn’t so much on gambling as on all the little bits and pieces one inexplicably ends up buying and indulging in. Strange place. Suffice to say, despite us needing to go through Vegas en-route to the Grand Canyon we shall be giving it a very wide berth. Fool me once, shame on me…

 

3) Falling in the Grand Canyon, Arizona

Seeing as we’re in the neighborhood… I shall do my best to avoid falling in the Grand Canyon. We visit it on the last leg of our journey. But I’ve always wondered how they stop people falling in… they can’t have railings around it, can they? Just remember — it’s not the fall that hurts; it’s hitting the ground. Wise words.

 

4) Getting lost in the Charles Manson desert, Death Valley (appropriately), California

A very dark idea indeed. Bleak, actually. AND we even have to pass through here on our way out of San Fran. Pretty disturbing. New rules: no hitchers, no stopping to take a leak, no camping.

 

5) Hurricanes

Nobody likes Hurricanes. I’m guessing that we run more risk of this at the start of our journey (Florida) than elsewhere. How to survive a hurricane?

If you stay at home, make sure you have sturdy shutters securely locked to keep your windows (as well as everyone in the house) safe. If you do not have shutters, use heavy plywood and nail it to the window frame. Have your emergency kit handy and alternative lighting ready. Listen to a battery-powered radio for news.

(Thanks to secretsofsurvival.com for this advice). I think we might try to drive away quickly though.

 

6) Getting chased by the KKK

People hate the Klan more than they hate hurricanes. Justifiably. Scenes which spring to mind involving travelers and the KKK are: that “bridge scene” in Blues Brothers — even if they were up against Nazis (but hey: same difference), and in that George Clooney Flick Oh, Brother Where Art Thou… a musical with George Clooney: really good fun… and they outwit the Klan so it has a happy ending. I’m not out to outwit the Klan… if it happens then great, but “steer clear” is my overarching concern.

 

7) Falling in with Chicago Mobsters

My brother is trying to convince me of the benefits of this; I resist in my opinion that it’s something to be avoided. You never know who’s pulling the strings and the first one’s always free. Then you pay. Forgeddaboudit!

 

Naturally, if anyone has any ideas of what’s to be avoided I’ll happily add them to my list before we boldly soujourn into the unknown.

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