I had never been south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Well, except for in that one way everyone has: I’d been to D.C. And Ryan—the tall white man from Tennessee I had married a few weeks earlier in New York—was quick to point out that D.C. is not the South. Then what was it that defined this romantic swath of America—so culturally distinct, and yet so integral to the soul of this country? Not geography, surely. Not the presence of Chick-fil-A; there was one of those near Times Square. Its Confederate history? Gone with the Wind? I’m not sure I knew.
What I did know is that as the plane tilted toward Charlotte, North Carolina, and I caught a glimpse of red earth, I felt the throb of something powerful, impressionistic, and familiar. A line from a James Baldwin essay went through my mind: “The Southern landscape—the trees, the silence, the liquid heat, and the fact that one always seems to be traveling great distances....”
In Charlotte I changed planes for Nashville, where I was meeting Ryan. It was from there that we were to set out on a road trip that would take us through his home state and finish up in Asheville, North Carolina. Along the way, there would be welcome diversions: the Smoky Mountains, Dollywood, the rustic luxury of Blackberry Farm. But there would also be the thread of something personal. In Chattanooga, I was to meet Ryan’s mother for the first time. Very soon the South would cease to be an abstraction, and become something real. Ryan, though he may have lost his accent, is as Southern as fried okra. The South was not merely a tourist destination; it was, for better or worse, now a part of my life.
I arrived in Nashville, “Buckle of the Bible Belt.” As we drove away from the airport, everywhere there were churches and highways, and for a moment I was reminded of another land of faith, half a world away—Saudi Arabia. There was that same emptiness that religion can fill so easily. “If you’re a teetotaler,” Ryan said, “you have nothing but church.”
But slowly, exit by exit, the bleakness fell away, and something wonderful came in its place: streets streamed with music, party bikes filled with tourists drinking beer began to circulate, and I knew I had nothing to fear. Faith there may have been, but this was no Saudi. And at Edley’s Bar-B-Que there were long-legged girls in shorts daintily gorging on pork ribs to prove it.
We made a quick stop at Vanderbilt, Ryan’s alma mater, and on that campus of white oak and magnolia, my sense of enchantment grew. The weather was mild and beautiful. I felt my guard come down; that famous Southern charm was making inroads.
“Nashville has a very distinct personality,” Ryan said, to help me make sense of the sprawl. “Downtown is a caricature of that personality, but that is not all there is.” And it was true. The collegiate frenzy of those hectic streets, the aging tourists, the cowboy boots, can quickly get to be too much. When it does, the places to go are Midtown, Green Hills (where, by the way, you should not miss Greenhouse Bar), and, my favorite of all, East Nashville.
“When I lived here, this was a place you did not go,” Ryan said as we drove into East Nashville through streets that still, at times, felt derelict. There were signs of gentrification, but the area was at that sweet spot when the Turnip Truck, a crunchy grocery store where “93 percent of the produce is organic,” could coexist with 3 Crow Bar, where the drinks were cheap and the crowd a little rough.
“Can you smoke in here?” I asked the blond woman in aquamarine tending the bar.
“Oh yeah,” she said. “Smoke ’em if you got ’em.”
I returned with drinks and found Ryan nestled in next to a few old-timers—one particularly grizzled, in a black bandanna and sunglasses.
“Wow,” Ryan said. “Drinking with my husband at a dive bar in East Nashville. No part of that did I ever imagine!”
We honky-tonked our way through the night. The air grew heavy. In the garden of a bar called Rumours East, a bastion of gentrification, somebody slipped me a fruity tribute to native daughter Miley Cyrus: a Came in Like a Melon Ball. I had to drink it fast, because we were sitting outside, and it had started to rain.
“The Devil is beating his wife,” Ryan said on I-24. That’s apparently how people down here describe the sun-showers we drove through on the road to Chattanooga, two hours away. Somewhere near Monteagle, flatness gave way to the gentle undulations of eastern Tennessee, and the Smokies began to feel near. Suddenly Ryan slammed his hands on the wheel and uttered a triple expletive.
“What’s the matter?”
“Such a rookie mistake!”
He’d forgotten that right outside Chattanooga we would cross a time-zone boundary and reenter Eastern Standard Time. That meant that we would now be a full hour late for my first meeting with Mrs. Davis, Ryan’s mother. We were already nervous. Like many Southerners, Mrs. Davis had not totally adjusted to the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold our right to marry. Lunch had been arranged with some difficulty, and now we were late and would lose our reservation. It was Sunday, and the restaurant—Tupelo Honey Café—had nothing until 2:15 p.m. Everything else was closed. “Because,” Ryan said, being needlessly hard on his people, “they’re all puritanical! A perfect storm.”
Except that it wasn’t. The Devil stopped beating his wife, and the sun came out. One hour later we were at the bar of Tupelo Honey Café— Ryan, his sister, his beautiful mother, and me— dousing our nerves in white wine. Mrs. Davis recommended the fried okra, oddly enough also a delicacy in India, where I grew up. Then we did what all strangers do when they have someone in common: we made fun of Ryan. And once our nerves had settled, we walked around Chattanooga, where the streets were a testament to the rise and fall, and rise again, of the South: disused factories overlaid by new shops and hotels. An aquarium. After years of economic malaise, it felt as if the inner city was coming slowly into flower again.
Carol was our name for the British voice on our GPS. She was a little prim, using terms like slip road for raw American motorisms like ramp. Ryan hated her; I thought she had a certain ballsy defiance. And she was nothing if not reliable. On Route 411, after 90 minutes of driving through some of the poorest country we had seen so far, Carol announced that Blackberry Farm was 11 minutes away. Impossible! How could this hardscrabble country throw up the Lucullan pleasures of that property so quickly? But Carol was right. The road veered off, and glimpses of luxury appeared: golf carts and Lexus SUVs. Blackberry Farm, like a rich stepmother, drew us close to her bosom.
And for the next 24 hours she held us there. Mean-knuckled professionals set to work ironing knots out of our backs; doe-eyed college kids brought us Old-Fashioneds; and that night we dined under wrought-iron chandeliers in the rustic splendor of the Barn, the hotel’s fine- dining restaurant. Federico, who had come to us via Italy and Buenos Aires, brought us simple foods to which exquisite things had happened: a hearth-fried farm egg, say, sitting plumply on a bed of watercress, garlic confit, chili oil, and chicken cracklings. Afterward, a uniformed driver conveyed us back to our cabin in pitch darkness. On the deck, the celestial lights peeped through a black fretwork of foliage as an orchestra of cicadas performed their atonal symphony.
In the morning, a long, slim island of cloud lay over the valley. There was blue sky overhead. We left Blackberry Farm after a vast barbecue lunch of beef brisket and lemonade. Less than an hour away, up Route 321, a bosom even more ample than that of Blackberry Farm awaited: we were going to Dollywood!
Ryan had always been clear: “Elvis is our king, Dolly Parton our queen.” We had once even dreamed that she might officiate our wedding. As we entered her capital at Pigeon Forge—a motel town that seemed to exist largely at her pleasure—we were assailed from all sides by stories of her munificence. She grew up in the Smokies, and she is everything to everyone there: a pious, childless Madonna to the faithful, a heroine of gay rights, a protectress of the bald eagle, paramount chief of Appalachia, singer, actor, visionary…and now, hotelier.
I adored the Dollywood theme park, but when it came to DreamMore, Parton’s new resort, I wished our Dreamer-in-Chief had been—how does one say it?—a little bit more herself, a little less discreet. Where was the madness, the famous kitsch? DreamMore was a Holiday Inn with Dolly accents. It was only in the Dolly Parton Suite that one got a sense of what the place might have been: there at last were the bright pink carpets, the white leather sofas, the butterfly light fixtures. “Could there not have been more of this in the hotel?” I asked the staffer who showed us around. No, he explained: Dolly is very self-effacing, and did not wish to leave her stamp all over the place.
For the rest of our stay, I had visions of Dolly. I saw and heard her everywhere. That evening, after Ryan and I proved too cowardly for even the mildest of thrill rides at Dollywood, and feasted instead on cinnamon bread and funnel cake, I thought I heard a siren singing to me: “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” Was it Dolly, serenading us over the sound of children splashing in a swimming pool? No. Wrong again. It was Norah Jones.
We were very near the end. As we drove off along I-40 east, I could feel something vital fading away. Don’t get me wrong: Asheville, less than two hours from Dollywood, is wonderful. It was just that a strange, unnameable element was being replaced by something more familiar. There were Tibetan prayer flags in the streets, and book exchanges; Luke, the assistant manager at Hill House Bed & Breakfast, where we stayed, spoke of craft this and craft that.
Sure, vestiges of the Old South remained: the crape myrtle was in bloom; in a wine bar, a man in a straw hat sang “Louisiana Fairy Tale.” From the rooftop of a snazzy bar called the Social Lounge, clouds appeared sooty against a pale orange sky. I was full of an odd sense of loss.
What makes the south the South is not easy to say, but an image comes to mind. It is of Ryan’s 87-year-old grandma, Lira, working in her garden. She was pushing a wheelbarrow as we drove past; under her floppy hat, her face was flushed. There was something so solid about her, so unbreakable, and yet feminine somehow. I wanted to say hello, but Ryan said she would be mortified to meet me in such a state. That is the South, I thought: hard as nails, yet dipped in honey.
I drained a basil-infused cocktail, and it returned me to the rooftop where I was sitting. I felt as if I had glimpsed the essence of the South, and then lost sight of it. An old song went through my head: something about a chap named Virgil Caine. “Just take what you need and leave the rest, but they should never have taken the very best.”
Road-Trip Cheat Sheet
Day 1 Nashville
Edley’s Bar-B-Que Deservedly famous barbecue joint—not
to be missed. edleysbbq.com; entrées $6–$23.
Greenhouse Bar An utterly distinctive bar in the Green Hills area. thefoodcompanynashville.com.
Rumours East Order craft cocktails at this stylish bar in gentrifying East Nashville. rumourseast.com.
The 404 A chic boutique downtown hotel. the404nashville.com; doubles from $305.
3 Crow Bar Classic East Nashville dive bar. 3crowbar.com.
Day 2 Chattanooga
Clumpies Ice Cream Co. Seek out a branch of Chattanooga’s memorably good artisanal ice cream chain. clumpies.com.
Clyde’s on Main Hard-core Southern cooking, including artery-clogging specialties like candied bacon. clydesonmain.com; entrées $9–$24.
Read House A historic, characterful hotel in a town slightly short on options. thereadhousehotel.com; doubles from $129.
Tupelo Honey Café A soulful Southern restaurant serving regional delights such as fried okra and grits. tupelohoneycafe.com; entrées $8–$26.
Day 3 Smoky Mountains
Blackberry Farm This luxurious resort near the Smoky Mountains is known for its excellent homegrown food. blackberryfarm.com; doubles from $845, including some meals.
Day 4 Pigeon Forge
Dollywood Dolly Parton’s deliciously kitschy amusement park in Pigeon Forge has terrifying thrill rides and a surprising emphasis on history and culture. dollywood.com.
Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort Contemporary, Dolly Parton–owned hotel purpose-built for visitors to Dollywood. dollywood.com/resort; doubles from $159.
Day 5 Asheville
Hill House Bed & Breakfast You’ll find idiosyncratic décor and a first-rate breakfast on offer at this quaint B&B. hillhousebb.com; doubles from $175.
Social Lounge Superb cocktails, local beers, and small plates
on a great rooftop. socialloungeasheville.com.
12 Bones Smokehouse A peerless barbecue spot in the River Arts District of Asheville. 12bones.com; entrées $5–$22.