Days 30-32/ Mar 28th-30th – Bristol, TN to Kingsport, TN: The hanging of the elephant

Tennessee!  It’s one of those places that you’re always vaguely aware of but never really expect to visit, like Paraguay or Didcot Parkway, so I was oddly excited and still slightly surprised to wake up there this morning.  It’s also one of those American place names, like Mississippi or Punxsutawney or Chattanooga, that are just plain fun to say, and I wandered down to breakfast savouring the nasals, fricatives and sibilants of it – Tennessee, Tennessee, Tennessee.

Tennessee!  A narrow little parallelogram of possibilities – Nashville and Memphis, Graceland and Dollywood – but our planned route through it will miss them all, skimming across its northern edge like a spoon across the surface of hot soup.  Our goal is Cumberland Gap, about five days’ walk away, across the valleys of the Holston, Clinch and Powell rivers.

Rainclouds near Bristol, Tennessee

This is what a 90% chance of heavy rain looks like, our meteorological authority on this walk, indicated a 90% chance of “heavy rain and thunderstorms” today, and sadly their prediction proved extremely accurate.  I walked 19 miles today, most of it in cold, pelting rain.  I was soaked after an hour.  Even the sighting of the first yellow newspaper box for the Kingsport Times-News couldn’t lift my spirits.  The sides of the road began streaming with water, and I had to break into a run at several points to avoid being drenched by the spray of passing cars.  When the intensity of the downpour became too much, I was reduced to taking shelter in the porches of Baptist churches – placed, conveniently, every two miles along the road.  By the time I arrived in Kingsport the joys of Tennessee seemed much less apparent.

Wet Jesus statue

Even Jesus gets wet when it rains

Kingsport was a mixed bag.  It was originally centred on an island, several miles long, in the Holston River, which local Indians called ‘Tana-see’, meaning ‘meeting place’, from which the entire state got its name.  Daniel Boone and his axemen came through here in 1775 when they were constructing the Wilderness Road to Kentucky, and gave it the imaginative name of ‘The Long Island of the Holston’.  It became a major departure point for early settlers travelling by river south-west into the rest of Tennessee.  The Long Island was a sacred place to the Cherokee, and was the last piece of land that they ceded to the Europeans, in 1806.  I’m not sure they’d be too wild about the vast, white, smoke-belching monolith of the Domtar paper mill that now sits alongside it.

The town’s real moment in the historical spotlight, though, came in September 1916, when the Sparks World Famous Shows Circus came to town.  Among its attractions was Mary, a five-ton Indian elephant, who was, a trifle unwisely, put in the charge of Walter Eldridge, a local hotel bellboy who had, one presumes, very little experience of the proper care and management of large pachyderms.  He seems to have goaded Mary once too often, because she threw him to the ground and stamped on his head, killing him outright.

Outraged townsfolk refused to allow the circus to continue touring if Mary was included in it, and, recognising an irrational, baying mob when he saw one, the circus owner, Charlie Sparks, decided that the best course of action would be to execute Mary publicly.  And so, the next day, the luckless creature was hanged from a railway crane in front of a crowd of several thousand people.  This story immediately made me think of Hartlepool, where during the Napoleonic Wars a shipwrecked monkey was once hanged as a French spy.  Perhaps the two towns could twin with one another and exchange an animal for hanging each year as an expression of mindlessly ignorant fellowship.

The hanging of Mary the elephant

RIP Mary the elephant, hanged in 1916 in Tennessee

Few of these historical glories are visible in Kingsport today – Center Street was a dispiriting strip of emergency loan offices and abandoned furniture warehouses, where the most thriving business was a large corner building with tinted glass whose sign proclaimed it to be the Tri-Cities Casket Store.  Even the Goodwill store was closing down and offering its premises for rent.  It would have been hard to feel much fondness for Kingsport were it not the place to which Sally returned safely from her wedding trip to rejoin me on our walk.  So let’s say it again – Tennessee!


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