Monday, February 15, 2010

Chattanooga to Greeneville

We were once again struck by the quiet of the traincar when we woke up. I guess most modes of transportation are built to be insulated from outside noise when they're moving, but one is not usually aware of this fact because one is not usually in a non-moving conveyance for any length of time. Our morning's repast was bagels and coffee and a newspaper in a small cafe across the street. (We had been perusing newspapers over breakfast at each of our stops in order to gauge the quality of journalism in the various locales. The Times Free Press wasn't half bad.)

By this point in our journey we were starting to fall behind. Since we didn't have a set itinerary it wasn't really possible to miss out on engagements or anything, but if we didn't start making some progress we would end up having some long highway drives towards the end of our trip. Given that that would defeat the point, it took us a while to decide to stick around town long enough for the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum to open, but ultimately we were glad we did.

The museum was situated out in the outskirts of town in an industrial district. We parked and took a look at the sculpture/fountain outside, which depicted a tow truck operator retrieving a man and child from a vehicle that was mostly submerged in the deep blue pool of water below. Very dramatic. If they've memorialized it in sculptural form, it must've happened, right? We then went in, paid our admission fee, watched a video about those hard-working, valiant men and women that are so often taken for granted. After the film we were allowed into the room that held the old trucks and various memorabilia. There were toy tow trucks, dioramas, tow truck-themed quilts, etc., etc., etc. The Hall of Fame was a literal hall, a corridor filled with pictures of the homliest group of people you ever did see. Next up was the gift shop, where I got some nice postcards featuring an ad for the very first tow truck.

From there we went to Dayton, where the Scopes Monkey Trial was held. The courthouse there had a small museum in the basement. The guy working there was elderly and animated and was having nothing to do with this so-called evolution. Fortunately he buttonholed another group of people in there and was lecturing them, so he mostly left us alone. Once they disappeared we fled to the second story courtroom where the trial was held. It was a toss-up between marveling over the events that took place there inside vs. watching them taking down a large old oak tree that had probably been there when the trial took place outside. The tree won.

There was a farmer's market going on outside, and although we weren't yet in mid-summer-full-on-produce mode yet, they did have a decent selection of items. We got a pound of raw peanuts and some South Carolina peaches. I wasn't quite sure whether the peanuts could be eaten raw or not, but once I tasted one I didn't have any qualms about digging into the rest. They were chewier and sweeter than the dry roasted ones, and very pleasant. So good, in fact, that I might have to try to grow them myself.

Lunch was fried clam boats and sweet tea on the shores of a nearby waterway. Then we continued back towards 11, crossing into Meigs County (surely named after my favorite Quartermaster General of the US Army). For an afternoon snack, we went on a tour of the Mayfield Dairy in Athens, where they bottle milk and make ice cream. We were separated by glass from the production lines, but nevertheless we all had to wear silly hairnets. I guess there's a lot of corporate espionage in the dairy industry, as we weren't allowed to take photos. Strangely, we stopped in front of a glass-enclosed office at one point to have a Q&A with our guide, and sitting out on the desk was the list of companies that they provide store-brand ice cream to. Surely that's no secret, but I would've thought that they'd prefer their customers to think that Mayfield was an exclusive brand commanding a higher price. The ice cream itself (purchased at the end of the tour) was okay, but not great. I wasn't sure what the fuss was all about, but perhaps it's just a good place to take your kids in the summer when they've about run through all your patience.

As the afternoon wore on, we continued to wend our way through eastern Tennessee, stopping at Knoxville to visit the site of the 1982 World's Fair, which figured prominently in my youth. The (surprisingly small!) fairgrounds are mostly empty aside from landscaping at this point, with the only remaining major landmark being the Sunsphere. Fortunately the Sunsphere was open for business, so we stopped in for a beer and watched the city below.

Dusk was approaching as we made our way to the tiny town of Greeneville, electing to stay at the Charray Inn. We were greeted by a most enthusiastic staff member, who seemed elated that we chose to stay there.

Greeneville had signs pointing to the historic center, so we went to check it out as dusk fell. There was the usual assortment of Civil War sites, homes of former Presidents, and so on, but the most striking item was a historical marker that had to do with the lost State of Franklin, the capital of which was situated in Greeneville (the reconstructed capitol building is shown). After the Revolutionary War North Carolina donated some of its land to the feds to help get it out of hock, but the landowners in the area were not terribly pleased by this idea. They elected to secede and become Franklin, an independent state, which lasted for all of 4 years. Greeneville itself hadn't fared much better, becoming a quaint backwater bypassed by the highway. That suited us just fine, though.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Tuscaloosa to Chattanooga

Our clean chemical dreams were shattered in the morning when we awoke to find bedbug bites on our bodies. Fortunately we each only had a few--we must not have tasted very good. Unfortunately there was not much we could do to avoid bringing them with us in our luggage if they decided to hitch a ride. (Thankfully there were no repeat incidents or home infestations.)

Breakfast was Waffle House on the way out of Tuscaloosa to Moundville Archaeological Park. We spent the morning wandering around the curious manmade hills and coming up with explanations for their existence. I favored the theory that they were built by the CCC in the 30s to bring some tourism dollars to a place that didn't have much going for it. We didn't find any artifacts, but we did see what appeared to be a boletus mushroom growing in the sandy bank of the Black Warrior River, and also some lifelike displays of the peoples who were supposed to have inhabited the area before the Europeans came and mucked everything up. It was hot, and I took every opportunity to drink from water fountains sprinkled about the property.

This was the day we were changing our car. I had grown quite attached to our spacious sedan and its Louisiana plates, but Birmingham awaited us with a vehicle that had a working outlet for the GPS. As we made our way into town, I couldn't stop saying "ain't no ham like Birmingham!" in a high, wheedling tone, in imitation of one of those oldey timey singers on the "Orange Blossom Special". We decided to take a look at the giant Vulcan statue situated there. He was sculpted to symbolize the growing industrial might of the city back around the turn of the previous century. He commanded a good view of the city on his overlook, but we declined to pay the admission fee to go up.

We rode on from there to the car rental place, where, after a really long time and many consultations, they gave us a massive red Chevy HHR, which I imagined would bring on speeding tickets like flies to cane syrup, especially once we got out of state (actually, we had yet to see a cop on the roads). I signed the paperwork even though it specified that drivers were not allowed in the state of NY.

We had a late lunch in a cozy cafe in Trussville, then headed on up the road. Our next destination was the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, where luggage from the airline industry made its way after being irreparably separated from its owner. I imagined that it would be a treasure trove of exotic items, but it was mostly like a thrift store that had slightly less worn stuff. All the really interesting stuff was in their museum, but that too was sparse. Jack managed to find a few reasonably-priced shirts, and I overpaid for a pair of shorts. Since I desperately needed shorts, though, I suppose I didn't overpay by too much.

We meandered our way back towards 11 and then spent a couple minutes in Georgia, a place where Jack had never been (aside from the ATL airport). He didn't feel like he spent a sufficient amount of time there after this excursion to add it to his list. Somewhere on this stretch he got it in his head that the only thing to do was to stop in Chatanooga and spend the night in a train car.
I called up the hotel and asked if they had any last minute discounts, and they did for regular rooms but none for the cars. We decided to spring for it, thinking it would make a nice contrast to the previous night. We rolled into town right around sunset, and entered the beautiful old train station to check in. Once they told us how to find our berth on the sprawling campus, we parked and entered the world of train geeks.

The train geeks were almost exclusively male and of any age, from about 3 to 85. They were giddy with the fact of being there, even if they weren't sleeping in a car (not a lot of people were).
Once we got in our own and got ourselves situated, we checked out the eating options. This was almost a mini-amusement park unto itself, with different eating experiences at different price levels. We opted to go off-site, to the old train hotel that had been converted to a microbrewery/restaurant, the Terminal Brewhouse, next door. We sat on their outdoor patio having some very nice beers and pizzas as the last of the sunlight left the sky. We had a great view of Lookout Mountain in one direction and the awesome "CHOO-CHOO" sign for the hotel in the other. And for once, we were not suffocatingly hot.

After we walked around the neighborhood a bit and saw a small slice of town that appeared to be simultaneously giving in to decay and resurrecting itself, we retreated to our private car for a very peaceful night.