Friends: I arrived in Knoxville early this afternoon amongst throngs of orange-clad football fans flocking to Neyland Stadium for Tennessee's game against the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the lesser of the Alabamas. I hadn't seen so much orange since this past July when I was in Holland during the World Cup.
There was a much greater variety of orange jerseys here and quite a variety too of woman's wear--skirts and assorted dresses and wraps. Many fans were carrying orange T seat cushions and/or orange pom-poms. Cars had been passing me all day with window flags and cars plastered with orange T's. The T was prominently splattered on clothing as well. As I circled the stadium, I was offered tickets by a handful of scalpers. I lingered for a spell at the main entrance hoping someone might offer me a ticket for free, as I can count on at Wrigley Field, but no such luck.
Charity car washes are a popular item in Knoxville. Once I crossed the city line, I passed at least half a dozen organizations offering a wash--service organizations and athletic teams. Most had women in scanty outfits trying to attract attention. If I had a car needing a wash I would have chosen the girl's rugby team. They looked as if they would have given it a good vigorous scrubbing.
I arrived in Knoxville a little earlier than anticipated as the terrain moderated significantly once I crossed into Tennessee from North Carolina yesterday afternoon. I had several steep two-mile climbs between Marshall and Hot Springs that wore me down considerably. I lingered in Hot Springs for several hours to recover and to wait out the mid-day heat and to take a swim in its river and also watch the trickle of hikers doing the Appalachia Trail.
The small non-Carnegie library in Hot Springs had a sign forbidding backpacks in the library. The sign-up sheet for the Internet also forbade 'trail names,' as most hikers adopt. There was no sign forbidding concealed weapons though, as I had encountered in a few of these southern libraries.
The hikers were all well-tanned and well-traveled. One needlessly had a cardboard sign lashed to the back of his pack proclaiming "Appalachian Trail." One had two dogs on leashes, each carrying saddle bags. Another had a guitar strapped to the back of his pack. They all looked quite content and aglow, doing something that was giving them great satisfaction.
The Hot Springs library was a warm and friendly place in a small house of a building. It had the personality and character of one's favorite well-worn shoe. The library in Marshall, fifteen miles away, was a strikingly new building a mile out of town on a hill overlooking the river. It had four or five times the space of the library in Hot Springs, but lacked any local flavor. It has been heartening to see so many new large fully modern libraries, but they are almost as sterile and homogeneous as the fast food franchises that have taken over the land.
As I go in search of local flavor and Americana, it is harder and harder to find. The four-lane highway I traveled for more than 100 miles from Greenville, South Carolina through Asheville, North Carolina on to Knoxville was almost as generic and heavily trafficked as an interstate, lined with Waffle Houses and Pizza Huts and Midas Mufflers and Family Dollar Stores. The Blockbusters had yet to be boarded up, despite their recent bankruptcy.
I search out country stores hoping for something that lets me know I'm in the South. All too many of them are owned by Indians, and not Native Americans, who are brusque and impatient, and sell the same line of food and drink as all the rest. I welcome their ice dispensers and 99 cent hot dogs, but always appreciate something a little different, like the stores that offer chili and coleslaw to scoop on the dogs along with the standard condiments. I'm happy for the flavor and the additional calories. After discovering potato wedges for a quarter, I go into every store hoping for more.
As I head west from Knoxville, the population should thin and I should be luckier in finding less traveled roads and less homogeneity. The camping has been as easy as ever, though one night when I was caught in the sprawl of a town I didn't realize had such a sprawl, I pitched my tent behind a cluster of pre-fab sheds for sale, a big business in the South. They all advertise, "No Credit Check," as they are an easy item to repossess. It was a quiet camp site, other than having to put up with the barking of a pack of dogs on the other side of a gully. I don't think they were reacting to me, but rather to coons and other night critters that may have been casting shadows in the full moon.
I may be sleeping inside tonight, as I am set to connect with former roommate Brian, who lives on the outskirts of Knoxville. He had an errand to run this afternoon, so I will have time to explore downtown Knoxville a little more and partake in the throngs leaving The Game in an hour or so, before heading out to his house off Alcoa Highway.
I have had three roommates the past ten years allowing me to travel as much as I have. I will have visited all three of them now in my travels--Julie-Ann last year in China, Debbie in Seattle, indeed rescuing her from a boy friend gone bad and reclaiming her as a roommate, and now Brian.
I met Brian through Chicago's Film Festival, as I did Julie-Ann. We will have a lot of catching up to do, as we share many mutual friends, and he is well-tuned into the world of cinema. One of his claims to fame is programming Gasper Noe's "I Stand Alone," for a Knoxville art house many years ago. Noe's latest provocation, "Enter the Void," just opened this weekend in New York and Chicago after debuting at Cannes 16 months ago. It was one of my favorite movies last year. I hope it is still playing when I return to Chicago in ten days or so.