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.