Sunday, November 30, 2008

Southern Crossing: Nashville

We arrived in Nashville early afternoon, the sky iron gray and the wind kicking up. We met my friend John, who long time readers of this blog will know from my time abroad in Kunming, on the Vanderbilt campus, where we would be staying with him and his girlfriend Lisa, who was a senior there at the time. Lisa and her housemates were planning a barbecue for later that night, so we took a few hours that afternoon to go to one of Nashville's coolest /oddest landmarks, a full-scale model of the Parthenon in Greece. I'm told that even the statues inside are perfectly replicated. But you had to pay to get in, so we settled for frolicking in the parkland around the building and buying postcards at the tiny gift shop.

Shots of the Parthe-Non (geddit?)

We returned to the Vanderbilt campus in time for the beginning of the barbecue, which featured at least three or four different sauces from around the region. The food was delicious, and it felt lovely and freeing to meet people going to a school so far from mine, to see how their lives as students were both different and the same as what I was used to.

Vanderbilt campus, early Spring

The next morning we met Lisa after her class and took her and John out for breakfast at a local breakfast joint called the Pancake Pantry, which was insanely delicious. Emma tried out a traditional savory southern pancake style, while I opted for the decadent pancakes with cinnamon creme. Which: oh, man, party in my mouth. Pancake Pantry was a lovely, quirky restaurant with a huge dining room and interesting decorations. This one in particular:

Really, guys? Really?

We spent the rest of the day wandering from landmark to landmark around Nashville. We tried on cowboy hats downtown:

Made a visit to the Grand Ole Opry (sadly you can't go inside the hall without a ticket):

And finished with a historic tour of a cotton plantation. This was new territory for both Emma and me. Growing up in the northeast we had our share of American Revolution education, trips to Plymouth Plantation, Walden Pond, Boston's Freedom Trail, and whatnot. And of course we had read textbooks aplenty about the Civil War and the slavery era. But seeing it up close is, of course, profoundly different. So we drove out to Belle Meade plantation, which is now a museum, outside Nashville. It was late enough in the day that we were able to enter without buying tickets (good for our wallets; admission was a bit pricey) and spend a good hour and a half exploring the several-acre site. The museum has preserved the buildings beautifully and includes lots of information about conditions, as well as a few surprising elements like a great collection of old-style carriages and buggies.

Talk about a contrast in amenities: The main house...

...versus slave quarters

It was actually ideal to come to Bell Meade so late in the day. We had a lot of freedom to walk in the quiet and didn't have to deal with a lot of other visitors. It was a perfect atmosphere for serious reflection, and coming to site of former slavery induces that in a person. We didn't talk much as we made the rounds, but had a contentious discussion on the drive back. Coming face to face with your country's ugly past can be hard and scary but it's also necessary.

We found a lighter way to spend the night in downtown Nashville, putting the rigors of the afternoon behind us. We reveled in the tacky souvenir shops selling "You know you're a redneck if..." t-shirts and confederate flags on bumper stickers, wallets, shot glasses.

Emma communes with Elvis in front of a souvenir shop:
Nashville downtown had a great atmosphere. Homey, exciting, and completely unpretentious. We walked up and down the strip, enjoying ice cream and passing up a bar awesomely called "Cotton-Eyed Joe" in favor of another bar, Lila's Bluegrass Inn. The floor was sticky with beer and we settled in to a table halfway back in the half-filled room, watching a country band play, the singer stomping her high-heeled boots and whooping between verses. Neither of us can be called country music lovers at home, but more and more we found we could enjoy it in its cultural context. It just seemed right.

Outside Lila's Bluegrass Inn

Next stop: Birmingham

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Coming soon..... (!)

Hey, want to see something really cool?

(You can click on the image to see it bigger. Excuse my shoddy amateur photoshoppery)

Get excited.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Southern Crossing: Asheville-Knoxville

Asheville, North Carolina marks the beginning of the Great Smoky Mountains, which means that the terrain changes enormously in a small area, a landscape filled with the unexpected. Similarly unexpected: Asheville is a bastion of hippy liberalism in the Appalachians which (until this election!) tended to be thoroughly in the conservative camp. Asheville is a very walkable, pleasant city filled to the brim with art-deco architecture, touches of environmentalism, and lots of art and culture. And yet, right outside the city limits are the foothills of the Great Smokies and all of the Appalachian charm (and poverty) a person could ever want to see.

That Sunday Emma and I got up and left Bon Paul and Sharky's, heading to an adorable breakfast restaurant down the street, where they made their own granola and the coffee was strong and sweet. We then undertook a walking tour of downtown Asheville.

Art deco architecture in the heart of Appalachia

I was keeping count of Priuses (Priuii?) during the trip, and never did I see so many in one place as in Asheville. In the picture below, I didn't even mean to shoot the Prius. It just happened to be driving by.

You've got to be pretty liberal to fund a zero-emissions vehicle program for your city police force

We spent the morning and early afternoon exploring. There were art galleries to see, vintage shops to browse through. We were tempted by an upscale southern food restaurant (the first we'd seen) but saved our money. Instead, we opted to spend some time in a fantastic craft center where we learned about traditional Appalachian crafts like basket weaving. Then we made our way to Sandy Bottom, a tiny town about 20 minutes outside Asheville in the Great Smoky Foothills. We had seen a brochure for horseback rides and decided that this idea, while a bit out of our price range, was just too good to pass up.

The drive out to Sandy Bottom was almost worth the money we spent on the horseback ride. The road wound through green hills, cows grazing, ramshackle cottages and disintegrating barns picturesque against the blue sky. We were the only visitors on the 4 PM ride.

Horses graze in Sandy Bottom

We went out, just the two of us with a grizzled old farmhand who had lived in Sandy Bottom all his life-- in fact when we reached a particularly high ridge he pointed out the small white house in which he had grown up. Throughout our 45 minute ride we rode up and down steep cliffs and rolling hills with fantastic views of the Smokies, and he kept up a friendly patter in his fantastic West North Carlonian accent. He told us about the strangest rides he had guided, about growing up near Asheville and his love for horses. He explained the presence of old school buses on the farm's extensive property (the awesome answer: the owner buys them and puts them out so that the goats have somewhere to go when it rains.) He asked about our lives, teased me because my stirrups were too long and kept coming loose, teased Emma for not talking much. And yet when we left we realized we had never asked his name.

The beautiful view from a Sandy Bottom ridge

We arrived back at the barn sore and for some reason--the authentic, comfortable feel of the ride, the refreshing warm air, or the scenery-- wonderfully fulfilled. And so the next question presented itself: what to do for dinner? And, more importantly, what about St. Patricks' Day?

We had forgotten during the reide that the holiday had arrived. Some of the guests at Bon Paul and Sharky's had mentioned that an Irish Pub downtown called The Green Man would be hosting a party with live traditional Irish music, an event that sounded right up our alley. So after dinner at a tasty, reasonable restaurant with an amphibious name (I can't seem to remember it now... something like The Dancing Frog?) we moved the night to The Green Man. It was an ideal setting for St. Patrick's Day festivities (besides, say, Dublin). The crowd was raucous and excited, the beer (brewed in several varieties in the pub basement) flowed freely, and music was fantastic. A few enthusiastic souls got up to do some approximation of Irish step dance. Emma and I struck up a conversation with the group of twenty-somethings next to us: they were incredibly friendly and toward the end of the evening were laughing and joking with us as if we had known them a long time. And I tried my hand at a game of darts, stopping to show our new friends the route I took during my brief trip to Ireland in 2007.

Enjoying the music at the Green Man

We couldn't stay out too late, as the next day was to be a long and spectacular one. We hoped to get all the way from Asheville to Nashville (Tennessee) the next day, stopping along the way in Great Smokey Mountains National Park and Knoxville, TN. So we got up quite early to make the initial trek, planning to hit the park just as dawn broke. As we did, we drove through the only remaining Cherokee reservation in North Carolina after the trail of tears. Cherokee, NC is a little blip of a town. We stopped at Tribal Grounds coffee house (har har) for morning fuel, and I took the opportunity to pick up a set of promotional postcards for a local art show featuring portraits of local Cherokee people. I still have a few of them up in my room. Those are the kinds of interesting tidbits I like to serve as souvenirs.

We hit the Park just about exactly at sunrise, which made for stunning views as we wound through the thick woods, full of towering rhododendron bushes. For now they were prickly with green buds-- in a few weeks the woods would be in full, astonishing bloom.

The most lovely thing about driving through the Smokies at dawn was that we experienced sunrise several times over. We would crest a peak and see the sun coming mellow over the horizon, then dip down again and descend into twilight, and over and over, until we came to an overlook over the whole park. There, Emma set off to do a little hiking while I (with my lame ankle) enjoyed the view.

Smoky Mountain Scenery

After a few hours we drove out of the park, through several low-season tourist towns like Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, TN. Given enough time I would have loved to explore these towns: they are basically all road-side attractions, filled with wacky museums and off-kilter monuments. Unfortunately we only had time to stop at a delicious pancake house in Sevierville. We felt that if we didn't we would be missing out on some sort of essential cultural experience: we counted more than 15 pancake houses in one small downtown area!

Sated, we set off. Destination: Nashville.

One of the oddest monuments in the US: the Sunsphere, built for a world's fair in Knoxville. There's not much else to see in the city, although it was nice enough when we drove through.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Southern Crossing Part 1: Charlottesville-Asheville

So, I've made a decision. I've been attached for a long time to the idea of this blog having a strict chronology. That means that nothing gets posted out of order, and two trips aren't recounted at the same time in alternate posts. I suppose I wasn't even that strict about chronology in the past (there are some interesting loops that happened when I commented about my current adventures in China, discussed things that had happened weeks or months earlier, and then didn't get back to those current adventures until several weeks or months after that.)

I've been putting off blogging about the road trip I took in March through the American southeast, and because of that I haven't written at all about my preparations for the Around-the-World trip on which I will embark in January. So I'm making an executive decision (that's easy to do, since I am the one and only contributor to this blog.) I will intersperse discussion of the road trip with preparations and hopefully my readers will be smart enough to follow along.

Which brings me to: the road trip. March 2008, spring of my senior year of college. I was in the throes of writing my senior thesis (using research completed during the time I spent in China, see February-July 2007 in this blog.) It hadn't yet started to soak up all of my free time like some deranged academic sponge, but I certainly needed a break. I enlisted a close friend, Emma, to go on a trip. Any trip, an adventure.

For months we had planning phone calls which got us nowhere. There were so many options for adventure. Where could we go? Germany? Costa Rica? Hungary? The limiting factors were time and physicality. I had a whopping 21 days off for spring break but needed to use the first 10 for thesis work. Emma had taken the year off from college and was working--planning ahead allowed her to get all 11 days of our trip off. However, I had fallen and severely injured my ankle in December, and although the fracture was healed the multiple sprains were still a big problem and I generally walked using a big black boot reminiscent of Darth Vader's foot. We reluctantly axed Europe, where I would be unable to walk the 7-8 hours necessary to truly explore a city. When we thought about it, neither of us had spent much time (for me, not counting Florida, none) south of the Mason-Dixon line. Additionally, I had friends in Tennessee and Georgia and Emma had them in Virginia and North Carolina. After much discussion we traced a challenging but doable route that would take us south from Philadelphia through Virginia, western North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and eastern North Carolina.

So: after 10 grueling days of thesis work, I took a train south from Hartford to Philadelphia, where Emma met me with her trusty Honda Accord. It was a beautiful early spring day, and we were both excited to get to even warmer weather as we headed south. That day was comprised mostly of driving, and driving, and then driving some more (That day, including the train ride from Connecticut I spent time in 7 states.) We stopped briefly in Frederick, Maryland, whose bricked streets were reminiscent of Philadelphia, for lunch at a cute cafe. We traversed countless pastures, acres of cropland, skirted the outside of industrial cities, before finally arriving in Charlottesville, VA. We had a bit of trouble locating our hostel, which was described on the traveling website HostelWorld as "a yellow clapboard house." We unnecessary trespassed in the yards of several wrong yellow houses before finally realizing our mistake: in Virginia, there can be two or more roads with the same name but with a different suffix-- Brick Lane, Brick Road, Brick Avenue, etc. We found this to be extremely confusing.

Although we initially had ambitions to go out to a bar or restaurant, we ultimately opted to stay in and conserve energy for the long day the next day. And long it was, but equally wonderful. After a snack at an adorable old-fashioned donut shop, we spent the morning exploring Charlottesville, which is a college town that hugs UVA tightly. A free shuttle bus loops around the downtown, and we took advantage of it in order to explore an adorable (if scarily gentrified) line of cafes, bookstores, toy stores, and boutiques, followed by the UVA campus and its surroundings.

Classic Southern architecture at University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville

The free shuttle

The restaurants and stores around UVA were brashly pro-University life but had their own charm. Emma bought a "UVA Cheerleading" shirt for fun and I tried hot fried apples, which were buttery and strange but delicious. We bought sandwiches to each outside in the sunshine outside of this coffeeshop, with an amusing sign:

(If you can't read, it says "Is Caffeine a Nootropic drug? You tell me. While you're at it, please tell me what a nootropic drug is.")

We left Charlottesville to drive part of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which wends its way across the top of the Appalachian mountains from Charlottesville to Asheville, North Carolina (our next stop.) Emma didn't want to drive the whole way on the Parkway, as the speed limit was low and the road were winding. But we did spend a good chunk of time on the Parkway, stopping regularly to admire the beautiful views.

Wouldn't you stop, too?

About halfway down the Shenandoah Valley, we got hungry. It was raining lightly as we drove down the switchbacks that led us into Vesuvius, Virginia, a tiny town with all the ramshackle, half-broke-down Appalachian charm I (the elite northeastern girl) was expecting. We ate at Gertie's General Store, which had basic essentials (flour, bread, extra ammo, cigarettes) on one side and also sold fantastic pulled pork. Really. I made an effort to eat barbecue in each state we visited, and this was some of the best. The walls were signed with the names of people from all the world who came through the town while walking the Appalachian Trail.

Signs at Gertie's. I guess we're really in the south now.

About 3/4 of the way down the Parkway, we exited to visit one of the most exalted places in all of Roadside America: Foamhenge. This ten-ish year old roadside attraction was developed by an artist and left to slowly degrade, which it has-- much like the real Stonehenge! Foamhenge is in a tiny town called Natural Bridge, Virginia, which supposedly also houses a rock formation to rival the Grand Canyon, although we couldn't find it. Instead, we walked up the hill in light rain to Foamhenge, which was utterly empty, the red clay soil sticking in amazing amounts to our shoes.

Foamhenge, in all its glory

Just outside of Foamhenge, FoaMerlin casts a spell. There was quite a bit of FoaMerlin silliness to be had.

On the way back to the highway, we also found our way to this roadside attraction, a house shaped like a coffee pot. Complete with a handle and everything! I had seen it on a website which lists roadside attractions by state and had compiled a list, which we attempted to complete as we drove from state to state.

After driving briefly through Tennessee, we reached Asheville, which sits in far west North Carolina, very late at night. We settled into our hostel Bon Paul and Sharkey's (as quirky as its name) and got ready for a great couple of days in North Carolina.