A Trip to Chattanooga

 

I’d arranged with two of my graduate students, one graduated (Eli Bamfo) and the other just finishing (Tonia Capotorto), to present papers at the Society for Conservation Biology annual meeting scheduled for mid-July in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  Economy dictated a road trip—and, for diversion, a few stops of interest.  We managed 10 states, Georgia simply thanks to a few miles on a southward loop of I-24 west of Chattanooga.  Most of what’s below is a travelogue with a bit of commentary.

 

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Eli with her poster at SCB in Chattanooga

 

I’ve been to Mammoth Cave National Park twice before.  The last time about 15 years ago just on a long weekend jaunt.  It’s the world’s longest cave system—with over 560 km of cave passages on five levels down to the current level of the Green River.  It’s like a plate of spaghetti under just over 200 km2 of Kentucky’s limestone heartland.  I still remember the fascination and claustrophobic dread in the 1970s of reading The Longest Cave by Roger Brucker and Richard Watson about the efforts sliding through slime and contorting through narrow passages to link the Mammoth Cave System with that of Flint Ridge (actually, at the time the Flint Ridge system was the longer and by convention the entire system should have taken that name—Mammoth, however was the more celebrated).  There are a bits and pieces of other, sometimes extensive, cave systems nearby—like with the Flint Ridge cave system, Mammoth’s size will grow if and when the joining passages are plumbed.  It has been suggested that the eventual length of the system may exceed 900 km.  Unlike most tourist caves, Mammoth exhibits little in the way of decoration.  Except in a few spots, the sandstone cap at mammoth effectively keeps dripping water with its supplies of dissolved carbonate from the cave, so there are few of the stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, cave popcorn, cave bacon, etc. to adorn the cave.  What are left are the stark remnants of the cave making process—from phreatic water flow and roof collapse.  Unfortunately, the educational content of the park’s interpretation programs seemed to have waned—larger groups and shorter times allotted than I recall.

 

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Mammoth Cave, KY

 

We looped through Nashville and had to stop for a look at Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center.  With almost 3000 rooms it is the 18th largest hotel in the world—with the opening of the Palazzo resort, the over 7000-room Venetian in Las Vegas moved ahead of the First World Hotel in Malaysia as number one.  The Opryland is very much in line with the Vegas tradition of Disneyesque destination developments—huge atria, canals with barges, restaurants and souvenirs.

 

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Opryland Hotel, Nashville, TN

 

On day 2 we were in Chattanooga, an interesting city with a history to exploit for tourism.  The key Civil War battlefields of Chickamauga and Chattanooga lie just to the south—they as much as any swung the war in the North’s favour.   From Lookout Mountain, just over the state boundary in Georgia and reachable by what is touted to be the steepest railway in the world, one is supposed to be able to see more than half the states of the Old South: Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama.

 

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Incline Railway, Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga

 

The city has parlayed the familiarity of the old tune “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” to develop a segment of railway-themed tourism.  The old railway station has been converted into a Holiday Inn and in the railyard is the Choo-Choo and refurbished sleeper cars where one can spend the night.

 

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Chattanooga Choo-Choo Hotel                                     Chattanooga Choo-Choo hotel in the railway station    The Chattanooga Cho-Choo

 

A few years ago we discovered Jane and Michael Stern’s book Roadfood, “The cost-to-coast guide to 7000 of the best barbecue joints, lobster shacks, ice cream parlors, highway diners, and much, much more.”   We’ve had entire vacations seeking out their recommendations and never had a bad meal.  We had to travel a bit quick on this trip to have the time to head for the back highways and small towns, but we did have lunch at Zarzour’s in Chattanooga (open 11:00 am to 2:00 pm, 5 days a week).  The Sterns also have a website: http://www.roadfood.com.

 

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Zarzour’s Café, Chattanooga

 

The overwhelming impression of Chattanooga’s downtown was that there has been a lot of investment, but there were no people.  One could have stepped out onto the streets without looking and been fairly certain you’d cross safely—no traffic.  A warehouse conversion into retailing, with two stores open.  The SCB occupied only half of the large convention centre—the rest unused for the week.  Lots of vacant space throughout downtown.

 

In a most civilized venture, free electric busses ply downtown with two routes linking the north side of the Chattanooga River south as far as the Choo-Choo.

 

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Electric Shuttle, Chattanooga

 

We were glad of the investment in the Tennessee Aquarium, especially the half focussed on the Tennessee River.  I’d never seen a live paddlefish before.  They’re certainly one of the strangest freshwater fish—they grow large (2 m).  But the strangest thing is that they are filter feeders—like some little mutant whale shark, they drift around the enormous tank in the aquarium, mouth agape.  Once they were found as far north as southern Ontario. 

 

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An aerorium inside the aquarium?                                Paddlefish in Tennessee Aquarium

 

Conference successfully over, we headed north (sort of).  The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the U.S. system.  Arriving on a Friday in mid-July I dreaded facing the sorts of hordes I’d seen there before, but other than the requisite traffic jam in Gatlinburg, nothing really.  Maybe because U.S. National Park attendance has been dropping over the last couple of decades, but it’s still hard to believe how light the traffic was.

 

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Smoky Mountains National Park

 

Tonia’s thesis is on invasive plants, so we had to stop for one shot of kudzu on the way north.  Introduced in the 1870s from the Far East, kudzu was promoted as late as the 1930s as a solution for soil erosion and as cattle feed.  It takes over entire landscapes and has earned the nickname, “the vine that ate the South.”  It now occurs as far north as the Ohio River, not that far south of the Great Lakes—climate change anyone?

 

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Kudzu

 

We just happened to note that the North Carolina Arboretum was just south of Asheville, North Carolina and dropped in.  Serendipity.  Other than the nice gardens and walks, they’ve also got a wonderful bonsai collection with about 100 on display.  If you’ve not seen a good bonsai collection, you can’t imagine how compelling they are.  I think that John, one of the volunteers, convinced both Eli and Tonia to take up the hobby/lifestyle.

 

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Bonsai at the North Carolina Arboretum

 

The last stop (other than an obligatory one at an outlet mall north of Pittsburgh) was, in a sense, to honour Booker T. Washington.  Washington is one of the most compelling figures of the history of civil rights.  Born a slave on a hardscrabble tobacco farm in northern Virginia (our destination, the site of the Booker T. Washington National Monument), he rose to become the most prominent Black leader and spokesperson of the turn of the 20th century.  His 1901 autobiography Up from Slavery is still in print.  However, I can’t but think of him, at least in part, as a tragic figure.  Labelled as “The Great Accommodator”, his ideas of subordinating demands for civil and political equity in order to achieve economic gains and respectability were, in his lifetime, overtaken by the demands for full civil rights by individuals such as W.E.B. DuBois.  Washington’s ideas did evolve, but he died at a fairly young age.  His story: http://www.nps.gov/archive/bowa/bowaexhibit.htm

 

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Tobacco kiln, Booker T. Washington National Monument, VA

 

EMAIL ME: bardecki@ryerson.ca