This is the second of two posts on our road trip to North Carolina and Tennessee in late spring 2022. You can find the first one here.
If you just want to see the pictures from this part of our trip go here.
It was an easy drive from Corbin Kentucky south to Nashville where we arrived in plenty of time to meet our New York friend Nancy off the plane. I had been to Nashville once before in the late 1990s when I was invited to give a talk to the computer group of the Society of Biblical Literature as part of the the SBL annual conference. This huge conference took place in the Opryland Hotel next door to the self-styled Grand Ole Opry, the home of country music. It all seemed rather incongruous with so many, mostly male, clerics of many denominations wandering around.
But this time we were there to enjoy ourselves. We had got tickets for a show at the Opry and were staying in a hotel nearby. All three of us knew nothing about country music and so we decided we need to be educated and spent our first morning at the Country Music Hall of Fame in downtown Nashville. This is housed in a huge modern building of three floors.
Country Music Hall of Fame
The Hall is very impressive. There are displays for many artists including their history, their clothes and their instruments and, for a few, their huge cars as well. The whole is arranged chronologically starting with the origins of country music in the Southern Appalachians, where Bristol Tennessee which we had visited a few days earlier, claims to be its birthplace, right up to its convergence with rock and roll. It seemed like an alternative culture and was all very new to us until we reached the rock and roll era. Right at the beginning there was a special exhibition on singer and songwriter Bill Anderson who was 84 at the time of our visit.
Our education was completed at the evening show at the Grand Ole Opry. It was divided into two sections of 45 minutes each with four artists or groups. We were pleasantly surprised to find that Bill Anderson was appearing in our show. He was not the oldest performer.
There’s a lot more to Nashville than just “Music City”. It has a full-size replica of the Athens Parthenon temple complete with a frieze modelled on the Elgin Marbles. In contrast with the original Parthenon it’s not on a hill but is surrounded by a wide expanse of lush green lawn.
There’s a bit of an art exhibition inside but the interior is dominated by a huge gold statue of Athena – the Athens Parthenon once housed such a statue.
Athena in Nashville Parthenon
Outside five live-size suffragette statues are marching towards it and the distinctive tower of Vanderbilt University is nearby.
We also visited the Tennessee State Museum where entry is free. This is another big modern building. It covers the history of the state going back to the First Peoples at the end of the Ice Age right up to the present day. There are large curved screens showing video clips and plenty of well-designed information boards. There’s also plenty of information about Andrew Jackson who lived just outside Nashville and was the seventh US President serving in 1829-1837. In terms of information and design it’s one of the best museums I have ever been in. As we were leaving another visitor was heard to say “What a waste of tax dollars”. Right by the entrance there’s a long list of donors on the wall. People give very generously to support cultural heritage in the USA and you find these donor lists in every museum, art gallery and concert hall.
Andrew Jackson’s house called The Hermitage. It’s a nicely designed house and has a flower garden which is rather unusual in the USA. The Hermitage was a plantation where Jackson owned plenty of slaves. We learned that the best known of these was Alfred who became a tenant after emancipation and lived out his life in a small log cabin on the plantation. He is buried there, reportedly at the age of 98.
Alfred’s cabin, The Hermitage
Belle Meade is another plantation house on the edge of Nashville. As is normal in the USA we were taken round the house in a tour group where a guide spoke far more about the owners of the house than about the house itself. In the early 19th century the then owner began breeding thoroughbred racehorses one of which travelled to England and won several races including the Epsom Derby in 1881. I would have liked to have had more time to study the pictures some of which were of their horses in England. I think I saw Ripon on one of them. Belle Meade is now a winery and our tour finished with some free samples.
Belle Meade Mansion, Nashville
Dinner at the Caney Fork River Valley Grille in Nashville was almost another sight-seeing opportunity. A stuffed bear and heads of moose and other wildlife looked down on us as we ate a real southern meal.
Inside Caney Fork River Valley Grille, Nashville
On the middle one of our three days in Nashville we drove the 100 miles back north into Kentucky to visit Mammoth Cave. It is the world’s longest known cave system and some of it has not been fully explored.
You have to take a guided tour to visit the cave. When we were there in late May there was a choice of ten tours ranging in time from one hour to up to six hours. We selected the two-hour Domes and Dripstones tour which is in the middle of the range.
Three busloads of us were taken to a door in the side of a wooded mountain. Once inside, on this tour you first go down 280 stairs before walking along passageways and up and down more stairs. The walkways are relatively easy underfoot and there are plenty of handrails. We did not have to bend down at all. There was a stop in the middle where we could sit on benches and were given a talk by a park ranger. Two other rangers accompanied us, one of whom was always at the back. Eventually we emerged through a door in the side of another mountain and buses took us back to the visitor centre.
This was quite an experience. It’s a much longer trip than we have ever done in a cave before. The geology is particularly good on his tour with plenty of stalactites and stalagmites, but it can become rather claustrophobic. Two hours was about enough but I wouldn’t have missed it. The park website gives details of all the tours and you can book them in advance as we did.
After taking Nancy to the airport in Nashville we drove south to Chattanooga and enjoyed a meal at a Greek restaurant next to our hotel. Years ago we had stayed in Chattanooga on the way back from a trip to the north-west and ate in one of the restaurants in the Choo Choo complex downtown. There was no time to see more of the city then. This time we had two nights.
Chattanooga is mostly laid out on one side of the Tennessee River. Lookout Mountain rises to 560m on the other side of the river and is a popular tourist attraction. You can drive up to Rock City where there is a trail which winds round and through some interesting rock formations. We had to squeeze through narrow gaps between large rocks.
Inside Rock City
At one point there is a swing bridge which I finally crossed – there’s a way round if you don’t fancy it. On a clear day seven states can be seen from Lover’s Leap at the top. The way out take you through the Hall of the Mountain King which houses some large illuminated grottos.
Grotto, Hall of the Mountain King, Rock City
For the evening we had booked a trip on the river boat Southern Belle. Getting to it was something of an effort. It was easy to take the free trolley from where we had parked by the Choo Choo but then we heard and then found a music festival taking place by the river. We had to walk through it to get to the boat.
The trip was very pleasant. We got a sense of the width of the river which flows north for some way to join the Ohio River which in turn joins the Mississippi at the southern tip of Illinois. The water we were seeing reaches the sea at New Orleans. In Chattanooga people were out on the river in boats of various sizes including the occasional paddle-boarder.
Tennessee River, Chattanooga
The Incline Railway is another route up Lookout Mountain. Before leaving the next day we took a trip on this one mile funicular railway which in places is very steep indeed. There’s another excellent view from the top looking north over the river.
We had 1.5 days to do the 580 miles back to our house. Apart from a night in a motel in southern Georgia we stopped only twice. The first time was to visit the (Martin Luther) King Center in Atlanta. It was a Sunday and the main visitor centre was closed but the house where he was born which is now a bookshop was open. We could see the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he was a pastor and were a able to wander round the Center’s grounds. We were the only white people there.
Our other stop was brief. Adcocks is a large shop, more like a warehouse, just off I-75 in Tifton Georgia. It sells pecan nuts which must be grown locally. We have stopped there before to stock up on these nuts. It’s several years since we were last there. This time we found that more of the nuts were encased in sugary confections but we did manage to buy some plain ones.
We arrive homed at 8pm to find a blue tarpaulin over the roof and a large skip in the drive. The roofing company had kept to the time we had arranged with them. Five Mexicans arrived at 8am the next day and the job was finished by 2pm. You need to have all kinds of permits for building work like this in our area but the roofing company had dealt with all the paperwork as well.
The last time we had done a road trip in the US was several years before Covid. Not much had changed except that we found that we needed to book our accommodation in advance rather than just turning up. This is surely because hotels are all online now and they can control their prices depending on availability.
We chose an airbnb in North Carolina mostly because we wanted to be away from the very popular places there and because we planned to stay for four nights. All the other hotels and motels were easy to book on booking.com or on the IHG website where we get points towards another stay and where our favourite the Holiday Inn Express provides a good breakfast. There are clusters of hotels, restaurants and petrol stations around all major exits on the interstate roads.
Food is never a problem in the USA. There are plenty of restaurants with reasonable prices. Only rarely have we needed to end up with the meal of last resort in McDonalds, but at least you know what you are getting there. We do take a electric kettle with us as hotel rooms provide only a filter or pod coffee machine. For a picnic grocery stores are open until 9pm or later seven days a week. You often find a refrigerator in a hotel room but we also have a coolbox which plugs into a power socket in the car.
We rejoined the AAA and collected free maps and those of their guide books which were still available in paper form from their office in Lakeland. Our satnav has maps of North America and is useful for locating hotels and determining distances. Driving is very easy. There are (usually) good advance warnings for exits on the main roads and the backroads are often very empty. When you cross into another state on a main road there is almost always a Welcome Center which has staff on hand to answer questions as well as free maps and leaflets, picnic tables, clean toilets and often now free wifi. The Florida one even has free orange juice.
Driving gives you a sense of the vastness of the USA. There’s so much to see and information about it is all now easily found online. It’s just a wonderful country for a holiday.
Picture gallery: Going South to Florida: Cities and a Cave
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