The Little Roads

We are in Tennessee.  It’s a layover day, since we found a really nice campground with showers and power, giving us the opportunity to clean up and recharge everything.  This has become quite the luxury, and I have gone from being a shower-every-morning kind of guy to one who is happy to get one twice a week if that.  We wash our clothes in the showers and sinks, and the little folding bucket has become a treasured object.  Who knew?

We’ve landed at Fall Creek Falls State Park, “voted by Southern Living as the best State Park in the southeastern US.”  Can’t argue with that.  Most all of the sites have power, and so the sound of a generator is not to be heard.  Blissfully quiet, we had a good sleep and are enjoying a warm, early fall day here under tall oaks, maples, hickory and pines.  Seems the pines have adapted to the vines that also grow here by having a scaly outer bark that can peel away, along with the offending vine, when the weight gets to be too much.  Just now, as I sit quietly at the picnic table, a prospecting squirrel passes slowly and pauses under my bench as it hunts around for prizes.  Only my head moves to slowly follow it.  I wonder if it realizes that the statue above is alive.

Elsewhere along the road we’ve been seeing kudzu vine, which is an invasive species, and it simply smothers everything under a thick layer of leaves, much like English ivy does along the coast, only worse.  It goes up power poles and completely covers the cross-trees, looking like a solid green cylinder.  Fences become green wall mounds.  It consumes whatever it grows over.

Many in Oregon made fun of my fondness for the once-daily diet Mt. Dew, but down here six of the 10 selections on the machine at the campground bathroom are Mt. Dew, and two of those for diet.  There is even diet and regular Mt. Dew at the soda fountains in restaurants.  This was never to be found in Oregon, or anywhere else as we crossed this country.  We have reached the Promised Land.

We had lunch at Lee’s Chicken in Hodgenville, in southern Kentucky the other day, and it was fabulous.  We got there just as church had let out, and it was packed.   Sunday chicken buffet, all you can eat for $7.95.  The fried chicken was awesome.  Not spicy or anything over the top, just perfectly done, moist and tender.  Gizzards, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, and red beans, too.  Jalene had the chicken potpie and declared it terrific, and ate all of it.  She always has something for a take-home box, but not this time.

Incredible expanses of mowed lawns around here - these people love their lawns.  I mean front yards measured in acres, with houses set well back from the roads.  The pond is a common feature, as is the concrete deer sculpture and pole with gourds for birds to nest in.  Often there is a flagpole with the US and/or state flags, and often the service branch, too.  It seems people are proud to live in this land and in this part of the country.  And so they should, this is a stunningly beautiful area, with green rolling hills covered in trees, great expanses of fields growing corn, soybeans, and now the occasional field of tobacco.  I want to know more about how the tobacco is grown and harvested, and must find someone to talk to.  The roads wind along ridgetops and then occasionally drops down into hollows before ascending the next ridgeline and following it.  These roads tend to follow contours, as they are the old roads that horse-carts followed many, many years before the gasoline engine came to be.  In Kentucky the land was a very gentle, rolling undulation, and here in Tennessee the hills are more defined.  The roads bend more sharply to follow the hillsides and now-steeper elevation changes, and we have fun twisting through here on the roller-coaster ways.  Outcrops of sandstone are more common, and the ridgetops may be a few hundred feet above the creek bottoms.  And always the road winds along, wrapping itself to the contours as we move with it.

After crossing down into Kentucky, I was dying to ask someone “Are we in the south yet?”  I’m not sure if one could draw a line, but the Kentucky accent and very polite and friendly people seemed to tell me I’d arrived.  This is a welcoming land, and with every new greeting comes a story or two, and no one is in a hurry.  And even though I’m not exactly a talkative type, I love interacting with these people.  After talking with a few about this, it seems that the south is a frame of mind, and when you feel it, you’ve arrived.  In one conversation a local gentleman explained that Kentucky was a free state and Tennessee slave, but that was a civil-war time definition of north and south.  He agreed that there are many ways of defining what it means to be “in the south”.  It seemed to me that when I chatted with the family selling Cub Scout popcorn outside the grocery just after passing down into Kentucky, that I has arrived in the south.  So welcoming and open, and the conversation comes so easily, you seem to have been friends all along.  It really helped when one kid enthused “I sure like your dirt bike”.

Jalene and I are a little disappointed in ourselves for not stopping and interacting during one chance in Kentucky.  Several times we overtook horse and buggy along the smaller roads, and they looked to be Amish folks.   The kids waved at us out the back, and the adults up front look cheerful and friendly.  Woven hats, and plain white shirts and dark pants, dresses and a white cloth hat on the ladies.  The buggies themselves looked beautifully crafted, and shone glossy black like lacquer paint.  We never did bother to stop and greet them as curious Oregonians, and find out about who they were, and compliment them on such a fine carriage (there was always going to be a better place we could pull off, etc…).  We were both upset with ourselves about not stopping, and have promised ourselves that next time we won’t miss the chance.  The whole point about sticking to the “little roads” is to give us these opportunities!

And sticking to the “little roads”, the fine grey lines on the map, has proven to be the key to everything.  On the main roads and interstates, we see the “new” country – that is, they take you through the retail sections of the towns, if you go through the towns at all, or the touristy places, and you don’t see the real land out there.  We have been rolling along through rural America, and all the little towns and places along the way.  This is the way people travelled before the interstates, even before the US Route system, when one simply followed the roads that lead in the general direction one wanted to go.  And this is what we’re doing now, just picking the small fine lines on the map that go in our general direction.  The result?  As Arlo Guthrie sang, we “roll along past houses, farms, and fields.”  The traffic is nil, and we simply go as fast or slow as we please, generally about 50 mph.  We see the country both now and as it used to be, with long-abandoned barns and houses, vines growing through them, old signs for long-forgotten businesses, old foundations, overgrown roads off into nowhere.  Everything is so unexpected and so different and so beautiful that I find myself wishing I had “video eyes” that could record and transmit what I see to all of you.  Every now and then the road will fly over an interstate, and it’s a shock to see the world of today (seems like Disney’s “World of Tomorrow”), then just as quickly, it’s gone.  I try to imagine that it was never there, and it’s surprisingly easy to do.

Our speed has come down to what the bikes are happy at, or what we are happy at, depending on what we’re seeing.  Often we find we’re doing far less than the limit, but with no traffic to back up and nowhere to be, who cares?  The immediate becomes the most important – I want to see what I’m moving through.  I find that the slower we go, the more we can “be here now.”  I don’t find myself listening to music as I ride anymore.  The phone is turned off nearly all the time, no signal anyway.  I check email when there is wi-fi around at a campground. 

I also ponder different questions now.  By that I mean that the questions I’m concerned with are what interests me right now.  I’m no longer responding continuously to the concerns of everyone who can ring my phone (no one does anymore, anyway). I respond only to my own thoughts as observations influence them.  “Gonna need to order tires to be sent ahead of us to Texas”; “Why do silos in the eastern US have hemispherical domes tops, while those in the west have flatter tops?”  I also don’t see the news anymore, or even read the papers or magazines.  I talk to local people about subjects where they matter.  This morning, in Tennessee, I asked a local man about the Confederate flag, which we’ve occasionally seen flying here.  Just before we left, it was in the news a lot, and so I wanted to know more about what it meant and how I should think about it.  I’ve had enough of what the news says is important, and I want to find out, for myself, about this and many other things.

And it’s always quite amazing.

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Here are some updated photos to add some visual oomph to the story. The campground wi-fi is slower than molasses and, try as we might, we could not get the videos to upload. Hope ya'all enjoy the photos!