Monday, June 27, 2011

Exploring Southern Middle Tennessee

Friday June 24 - Sunday June 26

Ben had an inspection in Statesville, NC scheduled for Friday. Jane planned to accompany him and after the inspection we planned to spend the weekend in the NC Mountains. Nothing exciting had shown up on a web search but we wanted to escape from home so we were just going somewhere! At the last minute the inspection was delayed; on the spur of the moment we threw some clothes in a suitcase, packed up our computers and headed out – not for the NC Mountains but on an exploration trip we’d been considering for some time. We headed to Chattanooga and Southern Middle TN – a part of TN we had never spent time exploring.

The drive to Chattanooga was uneventful with a brief stop for a quick sandwich. Our first stop was Chickamauga National Battlefield Park. GPS directed us to the Park which is actually across the line in Georgia. This area was the home town of the runner-up on this year’s American Idol competition – there were still “GO LAUREN” signs up along the road.

After getting the stamp for our US National Park Passport book we took in the highlights of the Visitor Center. The film was good and explained the Union and Confederate campaigns. Ben had visited the Park years ago with his scout troop and earned a patch for hiking much of the battlefield. The visitor center had a huge 300+ collection of rifles that had been donated to the National Park Service by a benefactor. As we were leaving the Visitor Center the rain that had been threatening began so we skipped the driving tour.

Cannons at Chickamauga Visitor Center

We plugged the TN Aquarium in the GPS and began our journey back to downtown Chattanooga. The sky opened up and dumped rain. I only recall once hearing as heavy rain and hail in the Sprinter. We could certainly not tell you much about Rossville GA or the part of Chattanooga we drove through! I do remember many Mexican groceries and cantinas so there must be a large Mexican population. The downtown Chattanooga area has been turned into a tourist destination. It was busy but not super crowded so we did not have to battle bad traffic – probably due to weekday and rain.

The Aquarium is two large buildings and along with an IMAX theater and numerous other tourist attractions seems to have transformed downtown Chattanooga. We found parking fairly easily and hurried into one of the Aquarium buildings avoiding much of the rain only to discover we had to go to another building to get tickets! We finally got started on the exhibits without getting too wet.

River Building from the Ocean Building

There are two buildings – one is the river or fresh water fish and the second is the ocean. We started in the river building. The seahorse exhibit was very interesting with numerous varieties of seahorses – all small but some were tiny!

Seahorses in Aquarium

We rode an escalator up about 4 stories before beginning the journey down through the various rivers and water displays. Going up the escalator was one of those times Jane did not want to look up or down! There were many varieties of fish from small varieties to huge catfish. Of particular interest were the fish of the Tennessee River – Ben was very disappointed there were no mussels.

We walked to the Ocean building and again went up an escalator but it was not quite as high as the first one. The view out to the Tennessee River from the top was great and would have been fantastic on a clear day.

TN River from Ocean Building

When we arrived at the top we had a surprise – a tropical center full of wonderful orchids and bromeliads. There were fish too but for us the plants were outstanding!

Ben loving the plants
Orchids and Bromeliads

We then began the journey down through the various waters in this building. For us the highlights were the penguins and the jellyfish. The penguins were delightful to watch and the jellyfish were beautiful. There was even a display of art inspired by the jellyfish.

Penguins in Ocean Building

We left the Aquarium about 5:30. We decided to stay in the area to eat supper and then look for a place to spend the night. We settled on the Genghis Grill, which was interesting and quite good. It was Mongolian barbeque similar to what we had in Okinawa years ago. You selected meat or fish or both, then spices, then veggies and finally a sauce. You took your ingredients to an area where it was cooked for you with rice or noodles. We both were pleased with our selections. They also had some great desserts so we ordered some “to-go”. Pineapple coconut cream torte with raspberry sauce – it was mmmm good!

Dinner Being Prepared at Genghis Grill

We entered a nearby La Quinta Inn into GPS and began a round robin trip through downtown Chattanooga – there was some sort of festival which blocked off streets and caused some delays. We arrived finally and found a room easily with quick access to Interstate 24 where we would leave the next morning. The bed felt very good. This was Jane’s first day at travel in van and walking significant distances since her back attack a couple months ago. It went better than anticipated but the bed was really welcome! We read, watched a little TV and caught up on some internet.

Saturday morning we headed downstairs for the regular complimentary breakfast to discover they had scrambled eggs, biscuits, and gravy in addition to the waffles and all the expected items. We had a good breakfast and headed north towards Lynchburg.

We drove along I 24 as we had many times headed to Birmingham but took I 24 north to Nashville instead of I 59 to Birmingham. The road climbed as we had thought it would as we headed to Monteagle. The cuts in the mountains were deep and the two sides of the interstate went on opposite sides of the mountain. For about 10 miles there was no sight of the other half of the road – it was 2-3 miles away on the other side of the mountain.

There are several large lakes made by TVA dams in the area. We also observed Arnold Air Force Base – a large installation in the area with nothing seen from the roads. Their work is in aero-dynamics and wind tunnel research. Jane had never heard of the place but Ben had known of it as a scout attended some sort of training camp there. We continued towards Lynchburg by going through Manchester and then Tullahoma. Our call back from Miss Mary BoBo’s – finally came and we were able to secure reservations for their 1 PM seating for lunch in Lynchburg. This old boarding house serves lunch 6 days a week to small groups in a family style setting.

We arrived at the Jack Daniel Distillery about 10:00 and were quickly sent to a bus for a free tour.

Jack Daniel Distillery

They drove us in a 20 passenger bus to the top of the hill and let us out to begin our walk down the hill. (Today Jane thought she would try wearing her back brace since there would be some walking involved and it might mean less stress on her back than yesterday. It worked! )

The first part of the tour showed us how the sugar maple charcoal is made. The amount of wood was staggering but the charcoal for the filtering process is what distinguishes TN Sour Mash Whiskey from other bourbons.

Then we walked down to see Jack’s original office and the cave spring – origin of the clear spring water that also makes Jack Daniels so special.

"Jack on the Rocks" Sculpture

We saw how they made the white oak barrels that are vital to the aging process. We then toured the first of several manufacturing buildings. They did not allow photographs inside the buildings so we have to rely on memory. There were several huge vats for the fermentation which took about a week. The fermenting mixture was rye, corn, and barley.

Ingredients in Jack

Then the mixture was distilled where the alcohol is separated from the water. The alcohol is then filtered through 10 feet of charcoal to filter out any impurities. The next step is into the barrels for aging. The premium level Jack is put through an extra 5 feet of charcoal filtering. The result is an even smoother taste. The bottling of the Premium Jack was not operational on Saturday so we only observed the machinery. We did see the Hall of Honor where people/organizations are given a plaque on the wall when they purchase an entire barrel of the Premium Jack. One barrel equals 10 cases or 240 bottles. When you purchase the barrel you get the barrel and all the cases of Jack delivered to your home or business. Some of the plaques had numerous stars on their – a star for each barrel purchased.

The barrels are stored in barrel houses until they are “ready”. Jack does not have a set number of years but relies on tasters to determine when it is ready for bottling. They have 70+ barrel houses in the area. All are not on the site of the distillery but are all nearby some holding many thousands of barrels. The government gets a lot of tax from the manufacture of Jack – the tax is per barrel – estimated at $13 million dollars per barrel house – that makes for a LOT of tax dollars!

Back at the Visitor Center which was not in full swing – we entered into a huge bar area – now remember this is a dry county so they served lemonade at the bar – it was very good lemonade!

Lemonade served in the "bar"

They did have special legislation passed that they could sell special commemorative bottles from their site – so Ben had to purchase one! Wonder who the lucky friends will be who get to sample with him?

We left the Sprinter parked in the lot at the distillery and walked across a bridge and down about two blocks to the “Square” in Lynchburg. They were having Frontier Days and the town was full. The population of Lynchburg is about 5,000. On the Jack label it says 360 – that was when it was copyrighted and they can’t change the number without getting a new copyright. The entire square around the courthouse was tourist related – eateries, antique shops, souvenir shops, and of course the Official Jack Daniel Store. They did indeed have everything with the Jack Daniel label here for sale! Our lunch reservation was for 1 PM so we stopped in one of the shops for lemonade, scone, and coffee before visiting most of the shops around the square. We were treated to the Frontier Days Parade and a Gun Battle while we waited for our time for “dinner” as they called the huge mid-day meal they served at Miss Mary BoBo’s Boarding House.

Jane playing checkers with Jack

Frontier Day Parade

About a block off the square Miss Mary’s was originally a boarding house that is now an eating establishment – owned by Jack Daniel’s it seems. Monday through Saturday they serve dinner (the mid-day meal) in two seating (11 AM and 1 PM) of about 90 people in 8-9 dining rooms throughout the house. On Saturdays during the busy season they also have a 3PM seating.

Our table was composed of a hostess from the area and 10 other people – in our case all related folks who were having a family reunion. They were primarily from Goodlettsville which is near Nashville. The dishes served were fried chicken, pork roast, squash casserole, fried okra, green beans, cucumber salad, fried apples (with Jack in them), some sort of greens, corn muffins, and for dessert chess pie with real whipped cream (again with Jack in it). The favorite dish seemed to be the fried okra. Our other favorites were the squash casserole, fried chicken, and the pie. It was a good meal and was very nicely served by students from the community college. The students have scholarships from Jack Daniels for their two years in exchange for their work at Miss Mary’s. Do you get the impression this is a “company town”? The Jack Daniel Distillery is now owned by Brown Forman which is headquartered in Louisville KY. They know the Jack Daniel label is successful due to the quality and they do everything to maintain that quality and label identification – so they are good community citizens it appears to us.

After the lunch we would have settled for a nap but instead walked the probably ½ mile or more back to the Sprinter and headed off in search of Pritchard’s Distillery. They were a much smaller operation – we found it in Kelso TN which is basically a crossroads. The facility looked like a small old school house and when reading the small print on their pamphlet – it said call ahead to be sure we will be open…well they weren’t. We had thought we would go here since their best seller was a well known TN rum and Jane is not a whiskey drinker but does like rum on occasion..oh well. Next time read the small print!

We were rather tired anyway so headed north to our next destination - remember we were exploring southern middle TN… We drove through hilly terrain into beautiful rolling farmland as we neared Shelbyville, the walking horse capitol of TN. The farms, hay fields, and really good looking horses were all along the roads until we reached Murfreesboro. Murfreesboro is one area of TN that has shown remarkable growth over the past 10-15 years. Jane visited here many times over her years with the Red Cross and would not have recognized most of what we saw today. We entered Stones River National Battlefield into the GPS and were soon at another Civil War Battlefield. We viewed their movie and learned about a battle that was very bloody and considered a Confederate victory one day and by the next was a Union Victory. The most memorable scenes were of the large Union cemetery. There were over 6,000 Union dead with over 2,000 of them not identified. Interestingly the Confederate dead were buried in another cemetery at another location in Murfreesboro.

Stones River National Cemetery

We had considered looking up some friends in Murfreesboro but we were tired and chose to head on towards home stopping when we were completely tired out. Turns out our friends were in Kingsport for the weekend so we could not have visited them anyway. We only made it as far as the interstate in Lebanon and called at a day. After a couple hours rest we made it across the highway for a very light supper and then found the beds exceedingly comfortable!

Sunday morning we got an early start by East TN standards and headed towards home in fairly heavy rain. We stayed in the storm that was headed east until we passed through Knoxville. We had an otherwise uneventful trip east on I 40 and I 81 reaching Kingsport about 2:30.

It was good to be back on the road after not traveling due to Jane’s 95 year old mother’s up and down health issues over the past 6 months and finally her death in May. A couple of health issues of our own slowed us down a little too but we are ready to get back to more travel – one of the reasons for our retirement!!

This short trip through southern middle Tennessee reinforced for us that TN is a very diverse and beautiful state. We still need to take in the northwest part of the state including Reel foot Lake which we hope to do as we travel the Great River Road along the Mississippi later this year.