Greeted by The Smokies, we ventured from the wilderness of the Ocoee River to the honky tonk of Nashville and ended up at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee.
Tennessee marked our 15th state on this trip so far. We eventually want to do them all but being Canadians, we’re only allowed to stay in the US for six months out of every year. We could probably spend six months in Arizona alone so we don’t want to rush through discovering each state for all it has to offer. For example, the only places that really ever came to mind when thinking of Tennessee were Nashville and Memphis. But the amount of stunning mountains and rivers on the eastern side gave us a new impression of the music-famous state.
Not without stopping for some authentically Tennessean BBQ first, we took the rocky winding road down to Tumbling Creek where we got to enjoy being back in (almost) completely secluded nature. No cell service, a sky full of stars and the sounds of a soothing creek made for a peaceful evening where we were able to sit by the fire long after the sun clocked out for the day – which wasn’t until 8PM I might add. Going off of our bible, freecampsites.net, this particular place had a lot of questionable reviews about rowdy locals who apparently like to cause a ruckus here. I generally take most negative reviews lightly because people complaining about slight road noise or not having restrooms doesn’t really bother us but this place seemed to have a thread going about redneck stereotypes and wild parties. It was a Friday night so we were admittedly a little bit excited for the characters that might roll through but no one seemed to join us all evening. It wasn’t until after midnight when everything was pitch black that a few stray trucks drove past but didn’t seem to stick around. The wee hours of the night and early AM brought some heavy rain so we decided to head out before the roads got washed out and veer toward the Cherokee National Forest.
Luckily the rain meant that the roads were pretty empty and we had the gorgeous views all to ourselves. Looking uncannily like BC, the Ocoee River and views of the Smoky Mountains looked extra eerie and mysterious with the damp haze hovering over the usual blue-tinged fog that gives the mountain range its name. There were trickling waterfalls around every corner and various kinds of rocky formations that made the area feel so alive. Signs for white water rafting and paddling made this area seem like it’d be a hot spot in the warmer months but was just as unusual and desolate as ever on the rainy March morning. This was not at all what we had imagined Tennessee would look like and were so stoked to be proven otherwise. We dreaded getting back on the interstate after the scenic drive through the mountains but we had a destination in mind and that was Chattanooga.
We had one main draw coming to Chattanooga and that was to see the Ruby Falls. We had a busy day on our roster coming from the Smokies and eventually spending the night in Nashville but photos of this place seemed like it’d be worth the stop. And I’m sure it usually is but once we got to the top of Lookout Mountain, we were informed that a water pipe had burst about 20 minutes before we arrived so they had to evacuate and were going to be closed for at least 2-3 hours. Well, shit. Guess we’ll just have to keep admiring the Falls from Google Images until the next time we pass through Tennessee. On the bright side, at least we saved ourselves the $20 admission fee?
Driving through the mountains is undeniably a little intense with tight turns and steep hills but the drive into Nashville was a whole other level of madness. Granted it was a Saturday, the highway was slammed with aggressively impatient drivers and their love for not using their signals. This made us question why we bother with cities at all but we couldn’t go to Tennessee without making the stop. First things first, we popped into Third Man Records and relished in the analog-heavy media and entertainment that Jack White has revolved his label around. You can watch monkeys play cymbals or even record yourself saying something dumb and have it pressed onto a vinyl. Cool spot to empty your bank account at and you might even catch a gig there if you’re willing to fork out a good bit of cash in some variation of a repeated three-digit price ($111).
From the industrial outskirts of SoBro where Third Man was, we crept our way into downtown, which was a huge mistake. How could we have forgotten that it was ye olde St. Paddy’s Day?! It was around 3PM and the streets were backed up with pedaling beer wagons while the stationary bars were literally spilling out people. We love to drink beer but not when it’s green and you’re squeezed in a place like a sardine drinking it. Luckily for us, Nashville’s got plenty of bars that aren’t downtown. We stayed the night in East Nash, just on the other side of the bridge at the TA Travel Centre. There were a few RVs and tour buses there but we were shocked that more people weren’t taking advantage of a free spot to park that’s a mere 15 minute stumble from downtown. With a staggering amount of chicken bones filling the sidewalks, we booted around to a few different bars in East Nashville and enjoyed the company of other folks that were also in search of non-green beer. All in all, we had a good time in Nashville but definitely left a pin in it to check out again on a non-holiday weekend. When we left the next day, there was already live music in full swing by morning and there seemed to be lots of cool spots to check out another time.
Next stop: Memphis. Nashville’s famous for its country music scene but how could we come to Tennessee and not stop in the home of the blues and of course, Elvis?! One thing that Memphis also has going on is “The Pyramid”. All we knew is that we were allowed to park there for the night but man, was it so much more than that. Right on the Arkansas River just minutes from downtown is a giant mirrored pyramid that is a Bass Pro Shop + restaurant + hotel. This is America at its finest. Innocently wanting to just use the washroom, I entered the building and was amazed that it actually had a river running through it that was stocked with fish and docked boats. Taxidermied forest animals and game were on large displays covered in fake trees and bushes while children took their turn at target practice at the hunting simulation. I’ve been to a Bass Pro Shop in Canada before and it was crazy but this was like Disneyland for hillbilly adults. For hilarity alone, this place is definitely worth the stop and if you’re into that kind of stuff, it’s a playground.
More heavy rain and warnings of a tornado left us cruising down Beale Street by car but still solidified that Memphis is a pretty rad spot. And to make it more rad, we were about to tour Elvis’ mansion at Graceland. Unlike modest Hemingway’s in Key West, Graceland is a full-on compound with a well-oiled operation of stores, restaurants and shuttle services ready to take you on the full Elvis experience. We opted for the bare bones mansion tour simply because prices are borderline extortionate. With John Stamos as our guide (lol), we were decked out with iPads and brought over to the house (across the street from the entrance) by shuttle bus. Pouring into the mansion, folks are enchanted by the tackiest and most 70s décor possible. Fabric-covered walls, shag carpet and an excessive use of velvet made this place feel very Elvis. My only advice would be to visit later in the afternoon because even though it was a Monday, the mid-morning was so jammed that you barely even got to hear John Stamos’ sweet voice explain about Elvis’ affinity for fur-covered furniture and mirrored ceilings before someone was prodding you onto the next room.
After touring all but the upstairs of the house, you can go outside and check out the descendants of his horses and visit his meditation garden where he, his parents and his grandmother are buried. Apparently Elvis and his mother were originally buried in a regular cemetery but his father, Vernon, had their bodies moved to Graceland after someone tried to steal his corpse. If you wanna pay some more cash, you can tour his airplanes, see his automobiles and stand a few feet away from his jumpsuits but that was the end of Graceland for us.
Tennessee was full of surprises and that’s our favourite part about travelling – learning new things and seeing things from different perspectives. We’re onto the Midwest next and are eagerly hoping that it too will be full of surprises and won’t be as boring of a drive as we expect!
We won’t take away all the splendour of gaudy Graceland for you, but here’s a few more snaps to tie you over until you visit 😉