I often have a difficult time writing travel posts. My musings are very rarely the normal fodder for that genre: a description of a Michelin star meal, how crunchy is a salad or how al-dente a bowl of pasta. Whether the bouquet of a glass of local wine is “oaky” and whether the hoppy bitterness of a tavern ale is “too bitter”. Not that there is anything wrong with this writing, it is quite relaxing in an Anthony Bourdain kind of way; but I am the king of lost places after all, places where discussions so rarely revolve around these things, for better and for worse (mostly worse).
Notwithstanding, even we who reign over the unreachable realms at times need a break. You can’t eat fufu and linga-linga and stringy goat meat forever. So here I am, wandering through the American south. Trying to get a feel a little bit this Christmas season for what still makes her tick, away from the takers and their madding crowd in Washington DC (which is the one part of America where I do frequent, its own lost place of sorts – but for different reasons and those perhaps much sadder, a lostness of spirit).
Yesterday I went to Chattanooga. We all who are Americans know the song; but that is pretty much it, the town itself is so far from the urban archipelagos that those who come here do so either extremely deliberately or accidentally. Mine was the first. Driving south along the back roads; bails of hay stacked high, restaurants and gun shops and pawn shops and fast-food outlets. Through Dayton Tennessee famous only for the Scopes Monkey Trial (where a Tennessee court ruled in favor of evolution curriculum in public school); that singular moment perhaps when America fell to the unnatural and unnecessary need to bifurcate the human condition and (inadvertently? no?) set the ball in motion for the anti-culture which now governs us all. Dayton now hosts a little museum commemorating its brief moment of infamy and a major Cristian University (Bryan) founded as sort of a temper-tantrum in the aftermath of the Scopes trial as an act of Christian rebellion.
Chattanooga is a small town in a bend of the Tennessee River which drains the surrounding valley a few miles from Georgia, and famous for the railway which turned it into a boom town in the heady days of locomotive power during which we were conquering our continent upon two small steel rails. It still reverberates of the Civil War battles over her railroad (Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain) during which 13,000 Americans died, marking the beginning of the end for the confederate armies in this part of the country and one of the turning points of the war. A war in penance for the wickedness of human slavery and a wrong for which we paid every cost to right and in which we purified in blood our universal understanding of liberty.
From here two great and terrible marches were enjoined, one east and one west: the Trail of Tears (today it would be called ethnic cleansing) when the Cherokee were force-marched to Oklahoma following the enacting of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. And Sherman’s great March to the Sea which might have been the first western manifestation of total war where “old and young, rich and poor, (were made to) feel the hard hand of war”. A type of war which has come to dominate the 20th and 21st centuries and to which we have become tragically accustomed.
But these things do not define Chattanooga: just as the French are not defined by the Napoleonic advance upon Moscow or the Guatemalans by the acts of their emperor priests in the days of their great civilizations. Time moves on like the Tennessee River; people move on, history marches forward presenting us new opportunities every day to learn from our rich past and to build upon the sacrifices (both good and bad) of those who came before with sacrifices of our own which too one day will probably be despised by those who come after and are not privy to the hard decisions of now. That is our only collective responsibility to those who suffered; a responsibility that requires wisdom and understanding product of knowledge and study and a filling of consciousness with the hills and knolls and the turns of a sad old river now at peace. Chattanooga today is a lovely little town. I went with my son to the Chattanooga Aquarium which has one of the greatest displays of fresh-water fish I’ve encountered (far from the deprivation of the lost places where we live and over which, also, we have no “collective responsibility”). Selections of fish from the lost rivers and lakes like the Congo and the Amazon and Tanganyika, from lost worlds I have visited.
There is an old hotel which hums with the revitalizing energy of a time after the war when we as a country were rebuilding and men were making their fortunes.
There is another Christian University atop a hill – a reminder of the faith that sustains the south and gives her the calm tranquility which is so much a part of her charm as are the little churches which dot the rural landscape and provide the “salt and light” which illuminate the countryside with a warm glow this lovely Christmas season.