After $300 of maintenance work, my Prius is ready for the great journey west. The weather forecast shows clear skies the whole way. As we begin the drive, I can’t help thinking how many times this car has made that drive – for two and a half years, every other week, I started out this way to get to Dima’s studio in Charlotte. Driven on the way there by excitement, on the way back by exhaustion, I probably listened to 20 audiobooks, and God knows how many hours of music.
Ben is by my side, missing a week of school to join me. He’s been working night and day since Monday to get ahead. The car is full – too full – I’m not sure how we’re going to fit Robert, Bonnie and all their things by the time we get to St. Louis.
We have our first meal at that Great American Institution: McDonald's. Just before the Smoky Mountains, I take a detour based on an intriguing sign, “Wheels Through Time Museum.” It turns out to be an enormous warehouse-style museum, containing hundreds and hundreds of vintage, driveable, rare motorcycles. The entry fee is $12 – Ben and I waffle for a moment - $24 is a lot for something we’re not so interested in. Ben comes out of the bathroom and the woman at the desk asks him, “Did you go in yet? Did you enjoy it?” He says, “No, I was just coming out of the bathroom, but yes, I did enjoy it.”
She laughs and her husband waves us in. “Come on, we’ll stamp you in,” he says, “I love young people!”
We begin to understand his statement later – there isn’t anyone in the museum under the age of 55. But it’s a magical place, with old photos of all kinds of motorcycles from the 1940s through today – from hill climbers, to police bikes, to cruisers and racers – not to mention ads through the ages of daring women in long skirts and heels on their motorcycles. There are vintage signs and memorabilia galore. We emerge feeling like we’ve had a rare glimpse into the culture that our grandparents helped create – the heyday of engines made for cruising.
The Tennessee side of the Appalachians is gorgeous. We drop in and out of little parallel valleys, densely wooded, deep green. The sunset is flecked by broken clouds, cut with sharp jet trails, the sun is a bright smile as it sinks to the horizon. Knoxville first, and then Nashville at last. We go immediately to dinner at Prince’s Hot Chicken. Hot chicken is a Tennessee special – tender pieces of chicken are crusted in cayenne pepper, then breaded and fried. We unfortunately ordered ours too hot. First my face started tingling, then my fingers, then my arms, then I started to lose motor control. Even Ben was sweating from the slow burn of the pepper. The chicken was delicious…but next time we go we’re ordering it “mild.”
Our last tourist stop for the night is Broadway, a wide promenade lined with 3-4 story brick buildings. Warmly lit and teeming with people, Broadway flaunts bar after bar, every single one of them with its own live band. Lose your heels here, put on your cowboy boots and Stetson, and kick it up to the sounds of country, classic rock, and blues. It’s not the energy of New York nightclubs, or the Las Vegas strip, it’s good, easy living in a town that’s not about the fashion of the day, that loves music because music is awesome.
It’s been a long day though, so we don’t last long in the Nashville party. We drive the last 45 minutes to Poole Knobs recreation area, find a site for our tent, and crash.