Day 35/ Apr 2nd – Rogersville, TN to Bean Station, TN: Tennessee

Spring summer is here!  Only a few days after being pelted with freezing rain, heat has arrived in eastern Tennessee in a big way.  The same trailer-park dogs that have been cheerfully launching themselves at our ankles now lie listlessly panting in patches of shade.  UPS drivers have changed from trousers to shorts and trundle past us on the roads with their doors open.  By midday, our bars of chocolate are molten, our bottles of juice warm and the waists of our trousers soggy with sweat.  Naturally, we’re already looking forward to July in Nebraska. 

We walked out this morning from Rogersville, the second oldest town in Tennessee, and with plenty of fine historic buildings to prove it.  Its Main Street was a pleasant avenue of grand clapboard houses with sprawling lawns hemmed in with box hedges and shaded by vast willows.  The area was first settled in 1775 by Davy Crockett’s grandparents, who were killed almost immediately in a massacre by Indians who clearly saw which way the wind was blowing.  This only bought them a decade’s breathing space; Joseph Rogers founded the town that bears his name in 1789 and set up the first post office, newspaper and courthouse in Tennessee.  The courthouse still stands in a handsome square at the centre of town, where we bumped into Danny Breeding, a cheerful man of about fifty who runs Rogersville’s veteran’s services office.  He pointed out to us the war memorial at the centre of the square, with a yellow ribbon tied around the oak tree beside it as a reminder of the town’s soldiers serving overseas.

“It’s been around that tree since 2001, and I can’t see it coming off in my lifetime.  We haven’t lost anyone yet in the Middle East, though we’ve gotta be pushing our luck by now.”

We followed back-roads beside Route 11, alongside the apparently endless Holston River.  By a cut through the hillside were three foot-high white crosses, a cluster of blue plastic flowers and a pink teddy bear, all in memory of ‘Jeffrey’ who died at this spot in May last year.  A little further down the road was another memorial, this time to a boy of 17 who had died there in 1998, with fresh flowers beside it.  We see one of these little roadside shrines most days, as well as plenty of young lads screaming past us in turbo-charged pick-ups who stand a good chance of getting one of their own one day.

Roadside memorial in eastern Tennessee

Roadside memorial near Rogersville

On a narrow bridge over an almost-dry arm of the Holston we saw more evidence of youthful exuberance – a thirty-foot long, richly veined penis, daubed on the road in spray-paint, bearing the exultant caption ‘DICK ROCKS’.  Nearby, the same artist had depicted a pair of breasts, this time accompanied by the legend ‘FUCK YEAH’.  Sally and I struggled to conceive of the chain of events that had led to the creation of this great piece of Tennessean public art.  Was it a celebration of fertility, like the Cerne Abbas giant, carefully positioned on some sacred Cherokee site?  Or was it, possibly, the desperate act of a closeted trucker lashing out drunkenly against the stifling social norms of the local Baptist mainstream?  Truly it was a conundrum for the ages.

I found Jesus

Tennesseans: Not ones to wear their faith on their sleeves

In Bean Station, after I’d showered sufficiently not to stun small rodents as I passed, I went for a haircut.  Above the entrance to the barber shop was a poster listing the Ten Commandments, and the walls were hung with signs ordering ‘Pray for the Troops’ and ‘No Vulgar Language’.  I was shorn very satisfactorily by Veronica, while in the next chair Grant gave a trim to John, evidently a regular customer.  John made most of the conversational running.

“You know what Obama’s gonna do now?”

“What’s that?” replied Grant.

“Gonna ban tannin’ beds.”

“Tannin’ beds!  Now, why would he do a thing like that?”

“The Lord knows”, said John, and we all shook our heads at this latest evidence of socialist tinkering.  John stood up to leave, fixed me with a meaningful look, and handed me a flyer for Sneedville Baptist Church.

“Young man,” he said, “I wanna wish you luck with your walk.  And may I ask – what will Easter mean to you this year?”

I could see where this was leading.

“Well,” I began, trying to be upbeat but non-committal, “we’re going to be walking through Cumberland Gap, so we’ll be having breakfast in Tennessee, lunch in Virginia and dinner in Kentucky.  Amazing, eh?”

“Well, I want you to remember that it’s also the day when Jesus died for us all and triumphed over sin.  I hope you and your wife stay safe in His keeping on your walk.”

He left, and I breathed a sigh of relief at having got through some clumsy proselytising without breaking out any of my favourite bits of Dawkins.  Veronica and Grant looked approvingly out at John driving away.

“Now there goes a very good man.  You know he paid for your haircut?”

I was flabbergasted, but it was too late to run after John and thank him.  This keeps on happening in Tennessee – people fart in public, bark orders at waitresses, leave their vicious dogs untethered, daub genitalia on the road, shout random obscenities at us from cars and try to enrol us as Baptists, but then turn around and refuse to let us pay for anything and go out of their way to help us with our walk.  It’s infuriating and heart-warming, distasteful and enchanting all at the same time.  It’s Tennessee.

Before haircut

Before: Atheist, liberal, tea-drinking socialist Brit

After haircut

After: God-fearin', gun-totin', Dew-chuggin', Republican Tennessean

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4 Responses to “Day 35/ Apr 2nd – Rogersville, TN to Bean Station, TN: Tennessee”

  1. Jamie Parkins Says:

    Richard – fantastic updates. Really enjoying your travels.

    I’d love to hear what kit you walk with most days? How much are you carrying – the bare essentials?

    All the best
    Jamie

  2. londonmum Says:

    loving the mix of snippets of every day america interspersed with the history of each place you visit. Don’t envy you the near death encounters with giant trucks but the rest sounds totally fascinating!
    Anna

  3. Steve Says:

    Ah, a good haircut makes a world of difference! So sorry about your recent trim. (Re the transformation… have you tried Red Man yet?)

  4. Jackie Says:

    . . .and all that would leave me a bit green, too.

    You’re confirming again why I don’t leave the Left Coast, though my father came from Cottontown, Tennessee, and I once visited their log cabin a long time ago. He escaped at a young age and so we never held it against him.

    I have enjoyed your posts immensely, and my friends now follow you too. I frequently have to be careful that I don’t snort my coffee through my nose guffawing at your pithy observations!

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