Travel Journal: Knoxville in a Day

one of my favorite art installations in downtown Knoxville

I feel less connected to Knoxville every time I go back there, a thing that makes me all kinds of sad, but also somehow helps propel me forward, make my peace with where I am now. Don’t get me wrong: I shall never be a proper Yankee, but will remain forever a Southerner, wherever I hang my hat. In fact, truth is I’m actually more a Southerner now, even, than I was seven years ago when I moved from Knoxville to Vermont. Still, I have exactly no roots or kinship way up in this underserved, oft-forgotten state, outside of my beloved David and his family. (In fact, I beseeched my dad to try to find me some family lineage in Vermont, however remote, when we were in Chattanooga: Just one relative, I implored, find me just one Vermont connection, please. Best he could do was somebody who settled over in Upstate New York.)

But I realized in 2012 there was exactly nothing left for me in Knoxville, Tennessee, with my family unglued as it had come, the ballet school in a hole (it is gone now, by the way—the building it occupied has been demolished, a fragment of the west wall in what would have been my office the only palpable evidence anything was ever there to begin with), and my employment prospects there slim to none, at least for work I could actually support myself doing. But I assumed, somehow, Knoxville would always feel like home to me; it does not.

when we first arrived in Knoxville, the kiddo took us to East Japanese Restaurant, a favorite eatery in a nondescript shopping center—but it is the real deal

If you’ve read Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, you have some idea, maybe, of why one New York Times reporter might have felt inclined to bestow upon Knoxville its ‘Scruffy Little City’ moniker on the eve of the 1982 World’s Fair, an identity it refuses to shake, and perhaps more accurately, embraces. (If you have not read Suttree, drop what you’re doing now and go read it.) McCarthy lived for several early childhood years, oddly enough, in the same neighborhood where my ex and I raised our own child; what do you think of it now, I wonder, Mr. McCarthy? My own emotions are mixed. I beseeched my kiddo to drive me around, past the exquisite house he grew up in, despite the painful memories it evokes. It’s all so familiar to me, every mile I routinely ran with each of our dogs, every bump in the neighborhood streets I daily navigated for several years with a malcontent preschooler riding in his Radio Flyer wagon, every tree (and now, every missing one). All due respect to the Times reporter, it’s not so bad.

Downtown, and the adjacent World’s Fair Park, though: I’ll give them their Scruffy. The Chef and I stayed in a downtown hotel so we could walk over to the park for July 4th celebrations, and to any number of interesting eateries and watering holes nearby, where we might bump into my beloved friends (indeed we did). They’re empty nesters, too, and we had much to talk about in our brief, happy time together. We were missing another pair of friends who have since relocated to the Gulf Coast. Being in the company of dear friends, and later reflecting about how life looks now—it all makes me realize in the seven years since I left Knoxville, Tennessee, I haven’t found my ‘tribe’ so to speak, and I’m not likely to now. There are too many moving parts, and not enough of a binding agent. It’s not all bad, just a new chapter with different pages.

look closely at the name of this Gay Street establishment

Asheville more properly lays claim to Mast, but Knoxville added one a few years ago; worth a gander if you have not been

we tried ice cream at no fewer than three downtown establishments (research, said The Chef); this one is called The Pharmacy

this concoction, which Bentley’s friend ordered, is called ‘The Cookie Monster’

Knoxville’s downtown has changed so much in the last 30 years, following the trends of comparably sized cities whose downtowns suffered when commerce moved to suburban malls. Most of the problems that are part and parcel of urban living have worked themselves out (read: parking, housing where you want to live), others not so much, but many of the quirks that remain, some might say, are the very ones that add so much more interest to a city center than its sanitized suburbs possess. (My friends emphatically take exception to the new motorized scooters that are the scourge of downtown Knoxville at the moment; other cities have introduced and then outlawed them for the headaches they create for walkers and motorists.)

We had no unfortunate scooter encounters, but witnessed a few near misses. We did enjoy a lovely dinner with my former English professor John Zomchick (now Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs at UTK, as you can see). I’ve been meaning to catch up with him for a few years, and to have the chance to say thanks in person, for being a sterling educator and mentor back in the day when I was an undergrad student. It’s important, I believe, to thank the people who’ve helped form you, nudged you along a pathway that ultimately bore fruit, as mine has. I’m glad we could find a moment to sit down and chat for a while, and look forward to the chance to do it again.

‘A day in Knoxville,’ though, is not entirely accurate: It was really closer to a day and 7/8, or thereabouts. After arriving on July 3rd, We managed an impossible agenda on the 4th—after we lingered over a relaxed breakfast with my brother and his wife, the Chef dropped me with my kiddo in a far west Knoxville shopping center and headed back downtown to explore on his own, while I had several precious hours of my twenty-something all to myself. We shopped, went over to his place to visit with his dogs, ate again, and generally simply enjoyed each other’s company while we could.

my brother Tom and his wife Kathleen make a lovely couple

this is Atlas, my kiddo’s German Shepherd who pinned his ears back when I shot this photo…

…but stuck out his tongue for me in this one

and this is Prometheus, a Shiloh Shepherd (giant version of a GSD), who is a sweet doggie

this butt shot gives you some idea of the size difference between a GSD and a Shiloh

my kiddo and I had lunch at Calhoun’s, a favorite locally owned eatery, just as we did often when he was growing up

We wrapped up our time together in World’s Fair Park with the Knoxville Symphony’s annual Independence Day concert, followed by a massive fireworks display. I haven’t prowled around in that park for probably 10 or more years, but I love that my great-great-great grandfather Dennis Donovan helped lay the railroad tracks that still bisect the park, and remain in active use today.

KSO in the park

you’ll recognize the Sunsphere from the 1982 World’s Fair, a familiar sight on Knoxville’s skyline

we found a good spot to park our bums for fireworks viewing, on the Clinch Avenue Viaduct that connects downtown with the nearby Fort Sanders neighborhood, where I was born; the building in the foreground is the Convention Center

After the fireworks, my young man-child and his friend walked back to our hotel to hang with us while the traffic thinned, for one final visit. Then I stood there like the sentimental mama I am, with my nose pressed into the hotel’s plate glass window, and watched him disappear across the street and into the night.

As ever, I remain grateful for the wisdom that comes from life’s challenges, and the joys from its triumphs. Next week: a final travel post before Way Down South, Part the Fourth disappears in the rear view.

2 thoughts on “Travel Journal: Knoxville in a Day

  1. Change is a constant even if that sounds like a contradiction. The photos were delightful – from the food to the fireworks. The one thing that struck me was your statement that you “haven’t found my ‘tribe’”. We all yearn for connections. Sometimes we have a multitude like ropes on a ship and other times only a few delicate ones that like spider silk are only visible when highlighted by the dew. I’ve found that a tribe can consist of 2…

    • My tribe, in fact, is a tribe of two, for these last seven years. What’s dawning on me is how special my Knoxville connections were. Actually, I already knew that: The epiphany is that I’m unlikely to have that kind of camaraderie, with that many families, ever again. I shall cherish the memories, and move on. 🙂

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