Travel Story: Road Trip to Tennessee the WPA Way

Looky what came in last week’s mail. The only thing better would have been stumbling across this in a Vermont antique store or at a local tag sale. Well, that, and maybe a first edition, instead of this third edition. I did locate a first edition in excellent shape in another online vendor’s inventory, evidently with its folding map still intact inside the back cover. The Chef encouraged me to go for it, for this one book, because it’s the first in my collection (I want them all, as I mentioned), and because it’s the guide for my erstwhile home state. I simply couldn’t justify the expense, and settled for this nice one in excellent condition, printed in June of 1949. The first printing was December a decade earlier, and the second one in February of ’45. I wish this one had a fold-out map like the first edition, but will make my peace with the maps printed on the bound pages of the book. And anyway, I am just plain tickled about this volume, have not been able to put it down for long; yesterday I brushed my teeth while reading it, in fact, and finally relented when I started gagging on toothpaste.

These travel guides were written during the Great Depression as part of an ambitious undertaking known as the Federal Writers’ Projects, an effort by the US government to employ out-of-work writers, and in so doing, also to boost tourism across the country. That was the hope, anyway. The Federal Writers’ Projects fell under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency. Not long ago I posted about John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, a beautiful piece of non-fiction writing wherein I first learned of these guides; Steinbeck hints that some of the best writers in the country penned them. I wish like heck I knew who wrote this one; “edited by James R. Aswell and William H. Bunce” is all we get. Neither of those names rings a bell, but I believe one Wilma Dykeman wrote the foreword for a later edition. Sadly, we’re left wondering. I suppose when you’re out of work and desperately poor, you don’t get to lobby for a byline.

I know this guide is hopelessly obsolete for travel now, but that’s beside the point. And anyway, when I was a young grad student in urban planning, I loved looking at old Knoxville city maps, and then driving the modern roads, trying to ascertain where an old street or highway ran before development changed its course or obliterated it entirely. One afternoon I discovered a hint of old streetcar tracks poking up through asphalt in an older part of town, which helped me figure out the trajectory of a line that routinely took Knoxville residents out of the urban bustle and into the northern countryside to enjoy bathing in natural spring waters, thought to restore the health during a time when tuberculosis was a scourge on the land. I find this kind of detective work thrilling. The Tennessee Guide is full of clues like that to past, more thrilling still when you know the places to begin with. The map of downtown Memphis, the city where I grew up, includes the old Ellis auditorium, listed as a noteworthy structure. It’s long gone now, but I’ll cherish it always as a theatre where my mom and I danced together in many a Nutcracker in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I have a relic of the frieze salvaged from that building, in safekeeping for the time being with a friend in Knoxville:

But the Tennessee Guide (and I suspect all the rest of them) is not a thing you read cover to cover. Instead, you thumb through it and find what you want, as you might in a modern travel guide, if you’re going old school instead of relying solely on Google and your car’s nav to get you there. About halfway through the book you’ll find ‘tours’ organized by region—ostensibly the ‘boosting tourism’ effort. Our upcoming trip encompasses several of these tours; I’ll use the guide as a resource to try to get us off the Interstate and onto the state highways, if the Chef will relent without too much grimacing. (Remember, no Interstates yet in 1939.) I am certain this action will drive the car navigation lady to desperation: “MAKE A U-TURN WHEN POSSIBLE. DAMMIT.”

This book is also a history, though, a time capsule in words. The notion that the three regions in the state—West, Middle, and East—are distinct and unalike in “manners and customs,” might still hold true, less so now than then to be sure, in the same way the regional dialects that once identified a person’s provenance in the US are now so sanitized of their idiosyncratic inflections and affectations. We all tend to sound alike, if we come from a city with any size to it.

Best of all, there is beauty in this writing. Here’s how the first chapter opens:

Tennessee is an agricultural State, and the culture of its people has grown out of their struggle with the earth.

What an artful way to say, ‘the difficult life of farming shapes you.’ This is why I can’t be troubled to put down this book to brush my teeth.

I leave you with a beautiful discovery. When I ripped open the mailer last week, pulled out my new book and set it on the kitchen table to thumb through it, look what I found:

I don’t know the type of leaf (please tell me if you do). But what a rare and wonderful treasure pressed between the pages of this book to inspire our upcoming adventures. And all this makes me realize, I really do love Tennessee. And though I may never live there again, I remain deeply connected to its earth, like my own struggling farmer ancestors were.

Next up in the Guide crosshairs: Vermont, of course.

7 thoughts on “Travel Story: Road Trip to Tennessee the WPA Way

  1. Pingback: Travel Story: Writer with a Wanderlust | Sycamore Stories

    • First, what a cool website! Second, I’ve had several folks on fb suggest ‘some kind of maple’ or ‘red maple,’ so I do believe it’s in that family. But, still, I’m stuck on that fabulous website: thanks for linking it here!

    • Howdy! Raising my glass of warm-evening-gin-and-tonic to you! And thank you! I had more insights from my dad today from some off-the-beaten path highways to try on our way down. Now, just to convice the “gotta get there” chef. 🙂 Will be reporting some from the road, probably, so stay tuned….

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