Everyone's heard of Chattanooga because, pardon me boy, that's where Glen Miller's old 'Choo Choo' came from. Well, actually the train don't Choo Choo no more because the railway's closed but Chattanooga is nonetheless a fine old town and an excellent place to be based if getting to know a little bit more about life in the Deep South is what you are after.
People are often very derogatory about the US having no history but Tennessee is riddled with ancient curiosities. Just north of Chattanooga, for instance, is Nickajack Cave where Paleo-Indians were playing scrabble long before our Neolithic ancestors had mastered the chisel. Johnny Cash crawled into this cave one lonely night in 1967, fully cranked on amphetamines and determined to kill himself. "I lay there for a long time before I felt that warm presence - that all-knowing presence, that sweet presence - say, 'Get up, and get out of here. I'm not ready for you to die yet.'"
The indigenous Muscogee and Yuchi tribes fared less favourably when the Europeans arrived in the 16th century, succumbing to the traditional cocktail of bullets and disease. In time, the turban-clad Cherokees also came a cropper. One of the best trips you can make from Chattanooga is a road cruise into the Great Smokey Mountains, 550,000 acres of gorgeous misty parkland which bills itself, curiously, as "the oldest mountains in the world". This used to be Cherokee country but they were all booted off to the deserts out west long ago - although there might be a few found work in the casinos up yonder.
In 1796 Tennessee became the sixteenth state to join the Union. It got stuck in a rut half a century later when the State took up the Confederate cause in the Civil War and its been slowly clawing its way back ever since. I met a few old timers and you could tell they still hadn't got over the fact their grampaws had lost the war. This epic conundrum was revealed to us on a tour of the Chickamuga battlefield where a particularly brutal Civil War showdown took place. The two armies had pitched camp just a few hundred yards from one another. The night before, a band started up a tune called "Home Sweet Home" and all 78,000 soldiers, North and South, began humming along. It makes your throat lumpy just thinking about it.
By the close of the battle, 34,000 men lay dead. Our guide was more 'innerested' in showing us how life on the frontline would have been for a soldier a "hunnert an' fifty years back". So we looked at the difference between the North's super-slick repeat-fire rifles and the Confederates lousy muskets. Then he made us pretend to load and fire a real canon. For lunch he produced a gammy chunk of meat and an oat biscuit, saying this is exactly what a soldier would have chewed on for months on end out here in 18 and 63. History might not be your thing but it certainly enlivens the past when even lunch tastes ancient.
'Tennessee - Sounds Good to Me'. At least, that's the legend inscribed on the State's car registrations. Maybe its because of the Glen Miller song or maybe its just proud to be the birthplace of Samuel L Jackson, but Chattanooga is a cut above those nondescript American big towns where the city centre drops dead the instant dusk kicks in. A straight up spin around town yields hours of fun, just checking it all out. Bright young things chewing boiled peanuts and drinking Coke. (Coca Cola's first bottling plants were here at Chattanooga). A constant soundtrack of Dixieland jazz and bluegrass banjos, sometimes divinely dandy, but on occasion perhaps a touch too 'Deliverance'. Massive neon signs hint at "killer ribs" and "hearty steaks", Tex-Mex burritos and 'Doggy Style' beer".
You generally breakfast on grits n' omelettes but the slash n' burn catfish is to die for. A woman who looked like Winnie the Pooh tricked me into eating a Krystal burger which was just about the foulest thing I have ever eaten; I literally gagged and had to spit it out into my handkerchief. I exchanged cheery winks with a beat up auld lad standing outside the Mattress Warehouse holding up a sign that says: "How did you sleep last night? Invest in a good night's sleep". The nightlife is better than most - bring your ID. "But I'm a 42-year-old lawyer!" protested our Joe in vain. "Don't matter. No ID, no in". The Chattanooga Billiards Club on Cherry Street is less fussy with bourbon, beer and a dozen billiards tables. And you can't get alcohol anywhere in the whole of Tennessee or Georgia on a Sunday.
This is still the Bible Belt so there are churches every which way you look. A load of them are just tax dodging scoundrels, but the Church of God is the one to go to if y'all wanna see some real fruit-bats. These were the folk who went to see "The Passion of Christ" twice a day. They handle snakes to prove their faith. One such handler got bit a few months back and he plum gone straight to Hell.
Chattanooga is home to the biggest freshwater aquarium in the whole wide world. They have a pair of leafy sea horses there, the weirdest looking yokes imaginable - part plant, part animal and worth $25 grand a head apparently. They say seahorses are the only animals where the fathers give birth. So why don't they just call the fathers' mothers?
As for other local highlights, the Ruby Falls provides a jolly trek through a warren of caves - the promised cascade comes complete with a John Wayne style soundtrack and disco lights. White water rafting and hang-gliding are popular pastimes but unfortunately when we visited they'd turned the river off and made the sky windy. A less exerting pastime is to throw a bunch of crickets in a lake and gamble on which one will make it to the shore before a fish munches it.
And then, of course, there is Dollywood, a hurdy gurdy hillbilly
theme park a few hours north of Chattanooga. It is dedicated to Dolly Parton
and manned almost exclusively by her cousins. We befriended a band of blue
rinse regulars who got us in for free on their "Buddy Passes".
It was gut-bustingly good fun. Sadly there is absolutely no reference at
all to Dolly's most famous assets, not even in the parks' lingerie store.
But scuttling down the triple loop 70mph Tennessee Tornado through the Daredevil
Falls and out onto a wooden Thunderslide provided the scariest ride I've
had in my life. Yeee-hah!
This article appeared in Abroad in February 2007.