Terrific Tennessee

Visiting Tennessee, a place of both cultural and natural beauty, Barbara Barton Sloane was overwhelmed by affection for a place she had known nothing about

Delta Queen, the renowned 1926 steamboat, bills itself as “Chattanooga’s Most Memorable Overnight Stay.” It is. I can attest to that from an up close and very personal experience. This beloved boat, a fixture of America’s rivers, was the last traditional vessel carrying overnight guests on inland waterways. It is an historic landmark, a member of the National Maritime Hall of Fame and, today, a hotel on Chattanooga’s vibrant riverfront. 

After a long, tiring flight and an equally long dinner, I finally stepped aboard the Delta Queen and was shown to my room — small, neat and cozy, with a bed that beckoned me to hop in. Finding this more appealing than joining my fellow travelers for an after-dinner cocktail, I happily surrendered to the pull of the pillow and began drifting off. Suddenly, abruptly, I was jolted by a face that appeared before me — that of a woman — gentle, soft-featured, benign and — just there. I immediately knew, sensed, that this was not your run-of-the-mill image that one sometimes sees before dozing off.  No, this was the face of a lady from long ago — real, true, and insistent on being acknowledged. I was left feeling slightly unsettled and wondering, “What the heck was that?”

The next morning, a guide gave us a tour of the boat, beginning her talk by saying that the Delta Queen has a resident ghost named Capt. Mary B. Green. Bingo. I immediately knew who my nocturnal visitor had been. I asked if there was a photograph of her and when shown — you guessed it — the lady herself. I told the guide about Mary’s visit and she showed no surprise. “Happens all the time,” she replied. Mary was the first woman ever to be licensed to captain a boat, and I further learned that she lived in the room just opposite my own. The Discovery channel’s “Ghost Lab” has done a fascinating story on her and I must confess I felt quite special that Capt. Mary had chosen to visit me.

At one time, Chattanooga had the lamentable distinction of being the dirtiest city in America. Then came, a turning point. In 1992 the Bluff View Art District was born, thanks to founders Charles and Mary Portera and a group of forward-thinking citizens. Today this area is home to a collection of cultural delights sprinkled atop a bluff overlooking the Tennessee River. There’s an art gallery, specialty kitchens, gardens, fine restaurants, a coffeehouse, a banquet/conference center and a bed and breakfast — making Chattanooga now a contender for one of America’s favorite cities.

Into the woods

Celebrating its 85th anniversary this year, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is America’s most visited park. It straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina and is one of America’s 20 UNESCO World Heritage Sites — a showcase for some of the most inspiring natural and cultural treasures that the Southern Appalachians have to offer. What a delightful photo op it was to wander in the morning light through the forest canopy’s lush mountain wilderness. Water is a constant companion on this journey — cascades, rapids and falls adorn the trails with the sound of rushing water never far away. The air is cold, pristine, perfect, and, when you’re in the park, you inevitably feel energized. That mountain over yonder? I’ll just climb on up and take some pictures. Planning a four-hour hike? Count me in! You feel, well, really healthy. 

 Healthy — mmmmmm — mustn’t forget to stop at the Ole Smoky Moonshine Holler, that purveyor of liquid pleasure. Tasting your way through the woods is not such a bad idea. In these mountains, Tennessee’s moonshine tradition runs strong. Irish-Scots ancestors brought their knowledge and skills of whisky — and whiskey — making with them as they came to Appalachia. Conditions in the area were good for growing corn, but it didn’t take long to realize a lot more money could be made from a gallon of corn liquor. Once the law began cracking down on the industry, the nature of these people and the rugged mountain terrain made way for the heyday of bootlegging.

Out of the woods

Besides forests, there’s much in this part of Tennessee to experience, to learn, to discover. My visit was four full days and yet, upon leaving, I wished I had more time. There’s the amazing little town of Sevierville, about 25 miles from Knoxville with a population of just 15,000. It calls itself “Your Hometown in the Smokies” and its offerings are many — amusement parks, mountain adventures, unbelievable shopping with more than 120 high-end outlets, galleries, antiques, boutiques, flea markets and dining that ranges from down-home to international cuisine and authentic mountain cooking. 

The village of Gatlinburg has mountain peaks rising higher than 6,000 feet and an aerial view of the Smokies aboard the Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway, a 120- passenger, 15-minute, 2.1-mile tram ride up to the summit of Mount Harrison. I took a nighttime stroll through the downtown area. Gatlinburg’s Winter Magic program brightened up the night with millions of spectacular lights and Christmas displays. This fun, festive program will commence once more mid-November.

And then there’s the little burg of Pigeon Forge. It may be small but its major attraction is grand. That would be Dollywood, known the world over and larger than life, exactly like the person it’s named for — Dolly Parton. This park was given the International Applause Award for being one of the world’s best theme parks with attractions, crafts, music, shows, special events and rides — lots of rides, at last count more than 100, with the latest, the Wild Eagle, being a thrilling roller coaster that takes you soaring over the Smoky Mountains. 

Mountain Arts & Crafts

Taking a break from all the hijinks and frivolity of those irrepressible Smoky Mountain towns, I visited the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. Founded in Gatlinburg in 1912 by Pi Beta Phi, the first fraternity for women in the country, Arrowmont was designed to discover, preserve and promote knowledge and appreciation of traditional and contemporary crafts of the Appalachian region. As Bill May, the executive director, says: “We don’t try to tell the story of how art was…but rather what it is today.” This beautiful campus, nestled on a 14-acre hillside, mere footsteps from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, feels like a world of its own. 

Walking through classrooms offering education in ceramics, fiber, metals, jewelry, painting, drawing, woodworking and photography and admiring the students’ art exhibits was exhilarating. The place pulses with creativity, yet equally important, Arrowmont offers students a time apart from the everyday. Experiences here revolve around conversations, shared meals, evening lectures and quiet reading in the wood-paneled library. The entire place puts you in mind of a simple, peaceful Frank Lloyd Wright design — inspiring in itself. The hours we spent here were seductive enough for me to make plans to return soon, take a class and submerge myself in the imaginative and inspired ambience that is Arrowmont.

Leaving Tennessee, I was overwhelmed by warmth and affection for a state that, prior to this visit, I knew nothing of. I thought of the words of a Tennessee poem by Adm. William Porter Lawrence: “Strong folks of pioneer descent…simple, honest and reverent.” Not wanting to seem irreverent, may I offer a few words from that philosopher, Dolly herself, who once said, “The way I see it, if you want a rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.” 

Although in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, it seems to be always fair weather.

For more, visit tnvacation.com.

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