THE HAPPY WANDERER – TENNESSEE


11/06/2008 CONTRA COSTA TIMES.COM


TWO OF MY neighbors have recently moved south. Yes, they were boomers and no, they didn’t retire in Palm Springs or Phoenix. They picked a place with affordable property taxes, low utility costs and no state income tax. They picked a place with mountains, lakes and southern hospitality. They picked Tennessee.

From the Great Smoky Mountains to Memphis, Tennessee is actively wooing Californians to settle in their part of the country. In fact, California is one of five states targeted by Tennessee on a new Web site called retiretennessee.org. So let’s take a trip to the Volunteer State and see what the hubbub is all about.

Tennessee is divided into three regions the east, west and middle. A recent road trip from Nashville to Memphis showed me there’s more to Tennessee than just corn fields and country music.

It’s true that Nashville is the epicenter of country music in America. It drives the economy, with dozens of recording studios and clubs playing crossover hits from artists like Brooks and Dunn. But this city will surprise you because the creative vibe spills over to opera and art and cultural offerings too numerous to mention. Nashville is eclectic without being snobbish — and the energy is contagious.

Heading due south, the landscape softens to rolling green farm land and southern-style homes. Bucolic towns dot the landscape with their band shells bedecked in patriotic bunting. Men tip their hats and women say “y’all” and there’s a sense of civility that makes you want to stay awhile. Lynnville is one of those towns, where folks meet at Soda Pop Junction for lunch. A big, juicy burger is under $3 and you can wash it down with a peanut butter milkshake. Next door is an American icon Colonel Littletons. His handmade leather goods are designed to pass down through the generations. Across the street is the train museum and just outside town is a ranch where you can buy a peculiar breed of animal called a fainting goat. Unlike dairy goats, fainting goats stiffen up and tip over when they’re startled. In Lewisburg, there’s a festival for them each fall.

Continue on south and you’re in Tennessee Amish country. The tiny town of Ethridge is home to about 300 Amish families who shun modern conveniences like cars and electricity. A buggy tour of their farms lets you talk to the Amish and buy their products, everything from furniture to cakes and jams.

Throughout Tennessee, you’ll find signs of the Bible Belt. But the birthplace of Southern Gospel Music is in Lawrenceburg. The first radio station in Tennessee got its start playing gospel music here in 1922 and there’s a museum in the heart of town that celebrates the rich history of this music.

Almost conversely, Tennessee is home to a number of award-winning wineries and a little hard liquor you may have had occasion to try. Jack Daniels distillery is more than 140 years old and open for tours in the town of Lynchburg.

One of my favorite things about Tennessee is its architecture. The gracious river town of Savannah has some of the best examples of Civil War-era architecture still standing. You can almost picture Gen. Ulysses S. Grant dining in the Cherry Mansion (on the historic homes tour) when he received word that his troops had been attacked near Shiloh. This battleground site is one of the many things to do around Savannah. So is a ride on the Pickwick Belle, the town’s own authentic paddleboat that takes you lazily along the Tennessee River. A catfish and hush puppy dinner make it even more enjoyable.

Much has been said about Memphis, the westernmost city in Tennessee and the home of the blues, the civil rights movement and Elvis.

There are so many layers to this Delta town, it’s impossible to touch on them all. But to understand the struggles our nation has endured over the past 150 years, stay downtown at a historic hotel like the Madison or Peabody and take in the National Civil Rights Museum (attached to the infamous Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated); Beale Street (the soul of Memphis and epicenter of the blues); the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum; and, of course, Graceland. Even a backwoods canoe trip like we took along the scenic ghost section of the Wolf River gives you a sense of the history. You can almost picture Davy Crockett emerging from the woods with a rifle at his side.

When you consider the beauty, the history and the abundance of things to do, its easy to see how my Bay Area neighbors ended up moving here. Like a southern drawl — Tennessee is seductive.

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