Went into downtown Knoxville after breakfast at Panera. We were waiting to hear from the VW service center, so we ambled about Market Square and Gay Street. I had last been in Knoxville in 1998 on a westward-bound road trip, and the town looked nothing like it does now. It’s taken all its old brick buildings and turned them into a bustling city center, with shopping, business, and government activities buzzing all about. We stopped in at Mast General Store, a huge emporium that is two parts REI, one part candy store, one part general store, and one part pet shop: a worthy travel destination in its own right.
By 1:30 PM the car was ready. We drove the loaner back to the dealership, signed the papers, and drove away with our trusty ol’ Passat, complete with a new car wash and new catalytic converter. The mechanic warned us that the new part may give off a vaguely metallic smell, but that it’d wear off after a while. I think that’s a great cover if a mechanic farts a lot. He could stink up a car all he wants and just tell the owner to beware of a faint ass smell. “Don’t be alarmed, it’s just the new intake valve thigamajig.” Maybe he could throw a little party in a couple Passats, a Beetle, a Jetta, three Tiguans, and a Routan, and then warn us that we “may notice a vague aroma of partly digested bean dip and nachos, some undertones of back sweat and Skoal chew, a hint of used condom wrappers and bongwater.” Whatever: the car was fixed and, after an insanely delicious lunch of steamed turkey-and-smoked-cheddar sandwiches at Sam and Andy’s, we were on the road again.
The car drove like new. The smell faded. And the hills of eastern Tennessee rose up before us in leafy splendor. It occurred to me that this was our penultimate day on the road, and a certain wistfulness set in, matched by the excitement of heading into another National Park.
We passed through Sevierville, then Pigeon Forge, then Gatlinburg — a fourteen mile stretch of nearly constant schlock. Mini golf, pancakes, dinner theater, wax museums, haunted houses, shooting ranges, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Dollywood, and untold scores of gift shops, eateries, hotels shaped like castles, restaurants shaped like Alpine villages, upside-down buildings, Wild Western towns, and just about every imaginable tourist trap known to man or rat. Traffic was bad, but it gave us a chance to fill in gaps in our tally of state license plates (we’ve been keeping track; we have only Hawaii, Maine, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire left to see). Most of the traffic turned off at Dollywood, so we breezed through the park entrance.
Our first stop was the Sugarlands Visitor Center, to pick up a map (mostly as a souvenir, as it was already mid-afternoon and we’d be heading pretty much straight down Newfound Gap Road through the park) and maybe a souvenir. At Mount Rainier and Yellowstone we’d somehow settled on a refrigerator magnet depicting retro posters of each park, so we did the same here. It was inexpensive and a good thing to remind ourselves daily of our adventure, without going in for stuffed animals, Christmas ornaments, or park-themed GPS devices.
Signs proudly boasted that Great Smoky Mountains National Park was the most visited in the U.S., with more than nine million visitors a year, reportedly twice as many as any other park. I find that statistic a little hard to swallow, yet given the Smokies’ proximity to the urban centers of the Eastern seaboard and its relative car-friendliness, maybe it’s true. If I ever come back to do a re-wite of this blog I’ll have to fact-check that one. Certainly there were a lot of people in Gatlinburg and in the Visitor Center Shop.
Here’s the part where I bore readers with unsolicited amateur photos of scenery. The main road — I think the only road — that traverses the park from north to south is the Newfound Gap Road, and it only takes a leisurely hour to drive from one end of the park to another, provided you don’t have small children. It hugs a mountain ridge up to Newfound Gap, at about 6500 feet elevation one of the taller peaks east of the Mississippi.
Here at the Gap is a parking lot; a panoramic lookout point; a monumental stone stairway leading up to another, perhaps shabbier, lookout point; a sign demarcating the boundary between Tennessee and North Carolina; and another sign marking an entry (or exit?) point to the Appalachian Trail. Made me think of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in The Woods, one of the funniest travel books I’ve read.
Well, at any rate, we’d made it to North Carolina.
The second half of the drive through the park was a twisty-turny descent over the eastern flank of the mountains. Here then, finally, were the storied ridgelines with wispy tendrils of fog and distant cutouts of mountains, all in varying shades of blue. Thankfully this part of the drive seemed to have less traffic. We stopped at nearly every other pullout to snap a photo. unfortunately, my little digital point-and-shoot camera, for all its wonderful settings, has a very hard time dealing with differing lighting in the same frame. You had the top of every frame dominated by bright, glaring sky and cloud cover, and the bottom half filled with lush green forest. The camera couldn’t decide what to focus its light meter on, and I was at a loss to help it split the difference.
Before long we reached the Oconaluftee River and the turnoff for the Blue Ridge Parkway. Without actually having heard much about it, I feel as though I’ve heard many stories about this scenic byway. It’s a winding road through the Cherokee Reservation, a less direct route to Asheville. We took it, seeing as we breezed through the rest of the park.
Here now were the real money shots: with every turn we smacked into some dumbfounding vista of blue and gray and white and deep benighted green.
And then it was over.
We came to the highway and the land opened up to billboards and buildings and signs pointing us toward Asheville, just thirty-five uneventful miles away.
It’s a beautiful town, a small mountain college town reminiscent of Arcata or even Eugene. Very small, very walkable, lots of incredible architecture, some great Art Deco buildings, and a general aroma of reductionist patchouli wafting over the air.
We walked from our hotel — the lovely Hotel Indigo, much nicer and prettier than the one in Nashville — to the main town square (more of a triangle, really), where we put our names on the list for Tupelo Honey Cafe, which all reviews pointed to as the place to be. While we waited for a seat I took a moment to check out Malaprops Books up the street, a venerable indie bookshop that I had some dealings with when I was at Ten Speed Press.
Everything about this town is lovely (okay, except maybe for the Berkeley-style gutter punks, runaways who don’t bathe, eschew money, and then complain about the Man and just about everything else anyone likes. The buildings are magnificent — and we haven’t even been to the Biltmore yet; we’re saving that for another trip — the restaurants are amazing, original, fresh, and delicious, and so far there’s just been a great arty, funky vibe that I just find appealing. Maybe it’s because it’s a little blue oasis in a sea of red, but I don’t think the political leanings even cover it. It was everything, the mountains, the lightning storm that started as we headed back to the hotel, the posters for music and art festivals every other weekend… all of it. I will definitely have to come back to Asheville. Hell, it’s only four hours away from our new residence.
So now, my friends, it’s on to the last leg of this road trip. Angie’s already packed up and ready to check out. I must do the same. We have a four drive ahead if were lucky, and then who knows what the scene will be when we arrive at our new place. Hopefully we won’t be overwhelmed by the massive to-do list, or the tremendousness of it all.