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America's Outback: Knoxville Tennessee

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

“A culture fed by those who teach and those who learn never lacks for exhilaration.”

I’ve forgotten what it’s like to break a nine-to-five workday with lunch in a wooded park where spring is rampant. And I can’t remember the last time I laughed at kids running with feigned trepidation through sidewalk fountains: those mini-geysers that squirt from cement circles in outdoor malls. And dinner at a sidewalk café on a warm evening – it’s been years. 

It’s nice to go back and have a serious look every so often. It keeps things in perspective and memories fresh. I’m in Knoxville, Tennessee. Not an overly big city, but it has more people in one place – 185,000 – than any that I am used to in my travels. 

The 400-acre campus of the University of Tennessee is here. A university always makes a place more vibrant, with its sports and special events, museums and libraries. A culture fed by those who teach and those who learn never lacks for exhilaration.

It’s healthy for a city to have an allotment of young people that’s higher than average. It raises the energy level. It gives the place a feeling of being relevant, contemporary and even on the edge. And Wi-Fi is in the air everywhere.

 Knoxville is also a county seat. Here in the South, that means stately brick buildings – courthouses, old and new – each with a dignified steeple or at least a colorful dome.

The World’s Fair was held here in 1982. From that, Knoxville emerged as a major metropolis.

The key player in its economic stability is the Tennessee Valley Authority. With its headquarters here, the TVA oversees regional networks of dams, among other things. It was one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s solutions, created in 1933, to lift the nation out of the depths of the Great Depression. 

During the excavation process to build the dams along the Tennessee River, the TVA crews were careful to preserve the artifacts they uncovered. Those vestiges of earlier times are now in the McClung Museum at the university, rooms full of them actually.

To get a close look at the river that goes right through town, I joined a group going out on the Volunteer Princess. It’s a 96-foot yacht that urbanites take to for everything from a Sunday brunch to pizza and taco cruises. The boat was made in Wisconsin and delivered here using our inland river system. 

Underway, I was chatting with the skipper. He gave me the wheel, saying that if I could navigate an RV across the country, I could probably get his $2 million boat safely between a couple bridge stanchions. The correlation escaped me, but I did it.

Looking at a map, he showed me how the Tennessee River does something unique: It shows itself at both ends of the state, but does not pass through it. Forming here in eastern Tennessee, it heads south, exiting at the bottom of the state. Then it takes a westerly course across Alabama. Turning north, it re-enters Tennessee near Savanna, ending up in the Ohio River and completing a 652-mile U-turn. 

We think of Nashville and Memphis, west of here, as being the core of country music in Tennessee. A musician told me, “Knoxville is Nashville without the industry pressure and with lower rents.” Where else is there a live radio show that showcases county music performers? Broadcast on two FM stations, it happens here every weekday at noon at the Café Gourmet in the Knoxville Visitor Center. 

I had lunch there. A couple dozen country-rooted music fans made an appreciative audience. It was great.

And so is Knoxville. But that’s enough of the city. I’m outta here.

Welcome to America’s Outback. 

Bill’s email address: roadscribe [at] aol.com Next month Bill will visit Virginia’s Poplar Forest. 

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