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.
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….