Canadas at Play: Postcards from Tennessee


July 29-30, 1997: Visiting Nashville, a city we have wanted to see for years, meant driving a few hours out of our way on the way back to Indiana to visit our families, but the trip was well worth the effort. Founded in 1779 and originally named Nashborough after Revolutionary War General Francis Nash, Nashville is famous for its association with country music. As Waylon Jennings sings, "Old Hank made it here, and we're all sure that you will." In addition to Hank Williams, the singers who have made it in Nashville include Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, and Loretta Lynn. Indeed, just about every major and minor country and western musician has some association with Nashville. Clint Black, Wynona Judd, and many other stars live here, and of course scores of performers have appeared at the Grand Ole Opry.

The Opry house, now located at Opryland just outside the city, was our first stop. Just getting there, however, was an adventure. We left Asheville, normally only five hours from Nashville, at 8 a.m. and expected to arrive in plenty of time for the 3 p.m. show at the Opry. But a rock slide in the Blue Ridge Mountains had blocked Interstate 40, and we took a long, tortuous detour on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is both one of the most beautiful and one of the slowest routes in the country. Winding along the side of mountains at 40 miles an hour or less, we spent more than four and a half hours driving to Knoxville, Tennessee, which is only about two hours from Asheville on Interstate 40. Still three hours from Opryland, we just tried to accept, though with disappointment, that we were going to be late, perhaps by a half hour or more. When we showed up at the theater three hours later, however, we found long lines of people, and Lisa marveled that so many other people were as late as we were. I asked a woman in front of us in line if we would have to wait for an intermission. Not responding directly to my question, which probably made no sense to her, she said the doors were supposed to open at 2, but no one had opened them yet. Looking at my watch, which read 3:25, I asked her what time it was. She said, "2:25." We had forgotten about the time change! According to time in North Carolina, we were a half hour late; in Tennessee, though, we were a half-hour early. Within 30 seconds, the doors opened, and we leisurely strolled in, took our seats, and relaxed.

The Grand Ole Opry began in 1925 as a radio show called "The WSM Barn Dance." Coming on the air one day after a radio program of opera, announcer George Hay said: "For the past hour we have been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera, but now we will present, 'The Grand Ole Opry.'" The Opry, which drew large crowds over the next two decades, moved to Ryman Auditorium in 1943 and stayed there until 1974, presenting many of the most famous acts in country music: Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and many others. That year, the Opry moved to its present location in the Opryland amusement park, and it continues to draw both country stars and large crowds. We enjoyed attending the Opry because it has so much history--maybe a little too much. Nearly all of the performers we saw--Porter Wagoner, Little Jimmy Dickens, Skeeter Davis, Bill Anderson, and others--were about as old as the Opry, as were their jokes. The closest we came to seeing Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Martina McBride, Lorrie Morgan, and Joe Diffie was gazing longingly at their pictures on the front of the program.

We have the good fortune of knowing a Nashville native, Brian Carpenter, who attended graduate school with me at Carolina. After checking into a comfortable guest house at the Commodore Inn, which Brian had found for us, we joined him for dinner at a fabulous restaurant called the Sunset Grill, where had the pleasure and frustration of choosing from scores of exotic dishes. Lisa finally settled on a filet mignon, which turned out to be best steak she had ever tasted, and I had a fine jerked chicken. Later, the three of us split a dessert trio of pecan pie, chocolate cake, and coconut clusters. Even more than the meal, we enjoyed catching up with Brian, whom we hadn't seen since moving to Laurinburg in April.

There's no better way to tour a city, I think, than to jog through it in the morning. Unlike driving a car or even riding a bike, jogging allows me to see things up close and stop easily to read signs or go into buildings. For me, running is even better than walking because I can cover three times as much ground in 30 to 45 minutes and get in my daily exercise to boot. I like mornings because most areas are quiet and uncrowded and because I can spend my time productively before the attractions open. On our second day in Nashville, I got up around 6 and went for a jog around the Vanderbilt University campus, located just a mile or so southwest of downtown. Founded in 1873 by the industrialist George Vanderbilt, who donated 1 million dollars for the project, Vanderbilt has a campus of breathtaking beauty. The red-brick buildings and their stone columns are majestic, and the landscaping is beautiful. My favorite structure is the Social Religious Building, which sits atop a hill at the end of a huge courtyard in the middle of Peabody College, now a part of Vanderbilt.

Later in the next morning Brian picked us up and took us to the Pancake Pantry, a modest restaurant known not only for its pancakes, but for its celebrity customers. Because it is only a few blocks from Music Row, where several record companies and recording studios are located, stars such as Garth Brooks and Clint Black sometimes pop into the Pantry for breakfast. We got a taste of both of the Pantry's specialties; while we were eating some of the best pancakes we had ever tasted, Michael Johnson--who wrote the song "Bluer Than Blue"--sat down in the booth behind us. After breakfast, Brian took us for a driving tour of downtown Nashville, which has a more distinctive and appealing personality than most large cities I have seen. On our tour, Brian pointed out Music Row, the renowned honky tonks along Broadway, Ryman Auditorium, the riverfront, beautiful Centennial Park, and Nashville's most distinctive landmark, a full-scale replica of the Parthenon.

After saying goodbye to Brian and thanking him for his extraordinary hospitality, we spent our last hour in Nashville in Centennial Park, where Lisa rested in a lush garden while I visited the Parthenon. Built for the 1897 Centennial Fair to reflect the rich culture of Nashville, then known as the "Athens of the South," the Parthenon is modeled after the Greek building where Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and other ancient intellectuals congregated. Builders originally intended to make the structure only strong enough to last as long as the fair--about six months. Residents liked their Parthenon so much, however, that the city supported a renovation to give the Parthenon a longer life. Today, as it enters its third century, the building is undergoing a third renovation. Impressive enough in its size and general outline, Nashville's Parthenon also is authentic in its details. Inside, I saw a 40-foot-tall statue of Athena, modeled after one that used to reside in the Greek Parthenon, as well as replicas of the friezes that appear on the facades of both the original building and the replica. Like its predecessor, Nashville's Parthenon also promotes culture. In the basement, I saw an art exhibit featuring works by Albert Bierstadt and other giants of the Hudson River School, a group of 19th-century American painters known for their depictions of grand landscapes.

Delighted by our short visit and eager to visit again, we left Nashville and set out for our next stop, New Harmony, Indiana.


August 1, 1998: On our way home to North Carolina from Indiana, we took a little detour to visit Sewanee, home of the University of the South. Our curiosity about the school had been piqued when we read that students there dress up for class and professors teach in their academic regalia. We had heard all about Southern gentility and even experienced a bit of it since living in North Carolina, but we had never known it to manifest itself in college, where students are supposed to show up to class in T-shirts and tennis shoes. When we got to Sewannee, however, we entered a quintessentially genteel academic atmosphere. We wandered through a huge Gothic church, up narrow stairwells, past cloistered courtyards, even into what appeared to be a mead hall, complete with carved wooden walls and suits of armor standing by the fireplace. Even the residence halls, generally the pariahs of campus architecture, were elegant; one of them featured a beautiful courtyard with wrought iron and what appeared to be clay tile. The grounds are impressive, as well. Nestled high in the Smoky Mountains, it is densely wooded and features a spectacular view of the valley below. The 1,000 or so students who go here should feel fortunate to be part of such an extraordinary place of study and scholarship.

Great Smoky Mountains

August 7, 1999: On a trip from Indiana to North Carolina, I stopped in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and went for a jog on the Appalachian Trail, the famous 2,155-mile route extending from Maine to Georgia. The exhilaration I felt once I was on the trail, though, had little to do with its name or fame. Instead, the thrill came directly from nature--both outside and inside me. For starters, although the temperature in the sun at Newfound Gap Road, where I started, was in the 80s or 90s, the air on the shady, higher trail was remarkably cool, perhaps in the 60s. Although trees blocked my view most of the time, I knew from numerous glimpses of sky and distant slopes that I was running along the side of a mountain and perhaps sensed unconsciously--as I suppose I always do when I am in the mountains--that I had risen above the earth, transcended it. The greatest source of exhilaration, though, came from inside me. This portion of the trail, which stretches four miles from Newfound Gap Road to an overlook called Charlie's Bunion, is one of the greatest physical challenges I have faced. It climbs perhaps 1,000 feet, and, as a ranger warned me, the air is thin at that altitude. Although my goal was Charlie's Bunion, I guessed at the start that I might do 2 miles and have to turn back. My body, with a little help from my mind, responded, though, and I made it to the 1.7 mile mark and then the 2.7 mile mark without considering turning back. I slowed down to walk a few times when the terrain was especially rocky or when I needed a break, but mainly I ran, completing the 4 miles in 52 minutes, 55 seconds. I didn't set any records, I'm sure, but I showed myself what I could do. I felt as strong as I have ever felt. While that feeling was the greatest reward of the climb, a secondary one was the breathtaking view from Charlie's Bunion--the most spectacular I have experienced. From a ledge where there was no guardrail, I gazed out at fields of giant slopes--six in all, layered like the sets on a stage. I looked down on a mountain. Immediately in front of me, in remarkably clear relief against the backdrop of the softer peaks and slopes, were three clusters of rocks jutting almost vertically out from the ledge where I stood. I sat there for a while, amazed by the stillness and quiet, and then returned to earth.

© Mark and Lisa Canada, 1999