Category: Tennessee

22 Dec

Main Street Chattanooga, revamped

Chattanooga, Tennessee 3 Comments by Christina Cooke

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Walk down the sidewalk of East Main Street in Chattanooga, and you’ll see dilapidated, falling apart, crumbling-right-before-your-eyes buildings next to freshly-renovated places open for business. You’ll see graffitied walls next to iron sidewalk sculptures, brick streetscaping next to weeds in the cracks on the curb.

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The shell of a brick building, no roof on the top, glass in the windows… or doors, for that matter.

Having recently spent millions building parks and paths along the Tennessee River that runs through downtown, the city has turned its attention to revitalizing a four-block stretch further inland. The idea is to move restaurants, businesses, galleries and art studios into the once gritty part of town, and to encourage people to live there.

Even as I strolled down the street during my visit to Chattanooga last week, change was happening: jackhammers pounded, construction workers in hard hats yelled conversations at one another, signs proclaimed “Coming Soon” and “Will Build to Suit.”

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The mural painted on the side of Madia’s Healing Arts studio

Private foundations have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into the project, and it seems to be working. The Bluegrass Grill was packed with lunch goers eating Greek salads or corned beef and Swiss cheese sandwiches, Madia’s Healing Arts had a full schedule of yoga classes and spa treatments available and people were tapping away at their computers in the office of CreateHere, an organization that supports the economic and cultural development of the city.

I stopped into Niedlov’s Breadworks, an organic, artisan bakery in a refurbished building at 215 E. Main, where the motto is “We love to knead. We knead to love.” The ambiance was simple and nice — wooden tables, walls of exposed brick and pumpkin-colored plaster, a barn-like wooden ceiling — and the baked goods were delish. I had a cinnamon roll made with Indonesian course-ground cinnamon. I could taste the difference. OK, not really, but it was light, fluffy and melt-in-your-mouth.

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My breakfast

With all the changes taking place on Main Street, I can guarantee a year from now, it will be a completely different — and a really cool — place to be.

Here are a few other pictures of Chattanooga. Sorry, I can’t resist:

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The Walnut Street walking bridge across the Tennessee River, which connects the shops and parks on the North Shore with the arts district downtown

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The Tennessee Aquarium as seen from the opposite side of the river

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The really-old, sort-of-old and new wings of the Hunter American  Art Museum, taken from the Walnut Street Bridge

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The Hunter Museum and the Holmberg glass pedestrian bridge. (I hear they put that metal strip down the middle of the bridge so people on the road below can’t look up women’s skirts.)

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A glass and iron sculpture around a balcony in the Bluff View Arts District

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Broad Street, from the Tennessee Aquarium

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A bench and trash can in front of a grassy hill in Renaissance Park

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My sister Laura on the stadium-seating steps at Ross’ Landing, in front of the aquarium. (This is right before she broke out in a dance routine to the Britney Spears’ “Womanizer.”)

21 Oct

Close call on Mount LeConte


“DANGER!” read the signs posted around the three-sided wooden shelter atop Mount LeConte. “BEARS ARE ACTIVE IN THIS AREA. DO NOT APPROACH THEM. ATTACKS ON HUMANS HAVE OCCURRED, INFLICTING SERIOUS INJURY AND DEATH.”

My friend Cheri and I were aware of our position on the food chain during our backpacking trip through the Smokies last weekend, but we didn’t let it bother us too much. We explored the mountaintop, cooked and ate dinner and watched the sun set from a west-facing lookout, all without giving much thought to the 250-pound mammals that average two per square mile in the national park.

But then, as we were talking with fellow campers outside the shelter after dark, we heard snorting and blowing from the trees nearby. Everyone, immediately, went on edge.

“What was THAT?” whispered Randy from Atlanta.

“I dunno. What WAS it?” responded Tim from Knoxville, a tinge of panic in his voice.

We heard the thick huffing sound again and squinted into the darkness, trying to identify the source of the sound. I shone my headlamp into the blackness and, no more than 30 feet away, made out the silhouette of a head and two ears. A bear.

“I SEE it!” I said. At that, everyone in the group — all men, except Cheri and me — took off running toward the shelter.

Now, when you see a bear, you are NOT supposed to run, because it only activates the animals’ chase instinct, and the odds are pretty much stacked against you (bears can run up to 30 miles per hour). Instead, you’re supposed to speak to the bear in a quiet, monotone voice and back away slowly, avoiding eye contact, which can be interpreted as a challenge.

Rather than be the only one left in the bear’s path, though, I took off with the rest of them. “We’re not supposed to ruuuuuuuun,” I yelled as I sprinted behind the group, determined not to be last.

Once back to the “safety” of the three-walled shelter, a couple of the men started shouting and making guttural noises to threaten the bear. Another banged together his hiking poles (a la The Parent Trap).

Just then, a figure emerged from the trees. It was Sam, a hiker from Jackson, Tenn., back from brushing his teeth and spraying his spit in a wide arc across the ground in true Leave No Trace form. He saw us lined up on defense along the edge of the shelter, posturing at the dark.

“What are you guys doing?” he asked, toothbrush in hand.

We burst out laughing at our mistake and immediately started making fun of each other.

(Check out this Web site and this video to find out what you’re REALLY supposed to do if you encounter a bear.)


Our stuff sacks of food, suspended out of bears’ reach on the ginormous industrial-strength pulley near the shelter

At 6,593 feet, Mount LeConte is the third highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Starting from Newfound Gap, Cheri and I hiked 2.7 miles along the Appalachian Trail and 5.4 miles along the Boulevard Trail to arrive at the summit (maps here). In many places along the way, spruce and fir forests scented the air like Christmas, and at the higher elevations, the leaves were just about at the peak of their brilliance.

We contributed stones to the cairn marking the highest point on the mountain.

And watched a spectacular sunset from the Clifftops lookout.

Cheri and I walked through the LeConte Lodge camp to look around, fill our water bottles at the pump and use the composting toilet. LeConte Lodge, which sits on a grassy slope atop the mountain, consists of seven one-room cabins ($75 per person per night) and a dining room that serves homecooked meals ($35 for dinner and breakfast, $9 extra for wine). It’s so popular among hikers who want more than a three-by-six-foot space in the shelter that it’s usually booked a year in advance.

The living spaces are cozy and rustic, with bunks for beds, kerosene lanterns for light, washbasins for sponge baths and rocking chairs for porch sittin’ and great views. Would be a great option if I ever had $120 to drop on a camping trip.

On Sunday morning, we followed the ever-popular Alum Cave Trail down the mountain 5.5 miles and 2,800 feet.

The Alum Cave Bluffs

And now, a few other photos:

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Cheri

Neon green lichen

An adelgid-eaten tree

A pretty stream

15 Oct

Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Eww.

Hellhole, Tennessee 6 Comments by Christina Cooke

“Here, we fill our spirits, seek inspiration, and continue the journey toward what we know is right. In Gatlinburg, we Reach Higher Ground.”

– The Gatlinburg Chamber of Commerce

If the Smoky Mountains National Park were to have an opposite, it would be Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the city at its doorstep. In just a few short blocks, the tourist trap contains 400 shops and five malls, plus a mess of arcades, mini golf courses, wax museums and mirror mazes. Though Gatlinburg claims to be about “the simple goodness of small town life,” where people gather to “stand in awe of nature’s glory,” the only thing green inside the city limits is the bills constantly changing hands.

My friend Cheri and I ventured into the Smoky Mountain town to grab dinner before a backpacking trip this weekend. We ate burritos under the beer flags on the No Way José’s Cantina patio, then strolled along Greenbrier Road, the main strip, to take in the sights.

Things you’ll find along Gatlinburg’s main strip, over and over and over again:

  • That “Grandma’s Punkin” airbrushed T-shirt you’ve always wanted.
  • Leg lamps (which can make “the soft glow of electric sex” glow from YOUR window TOO!)
  • Sailboats, elephants and unicorns sculpted of clear glass, perfect for the top-lit curio cabinet in your living room.
  • Chinese knives, swords and cutlery (because… this makes sense in a Tennessee mountain town?)
  • Hotels advertising their dance floors, hot tubs — and AARP specials.
  • Pancake houses. Seriously, there are like 15 in five blocks.
  • Tuxedo and wedding gown rental shops beside white-washed wedding chapels.
  • People pushing their dogs in strollers.
  • Old Tyme Picture Shops, where you can have your photo taken in a saloon or with the money bags from the bank you just robbed.

As we passed the front door of one of these picture shops, we saw woman in a frilly red dress posing in front of the saloon backdrop with a man who was completely naked, save the top hat he held as a codpiece. A fellow passerby, a woman in her mid-40s, yelled at him from the street. “Tip your hat!” she said. Then she clarified, “Not your HEAD, your HAT!”

Once you leave Gatlinburg and enter the national park, you will fall to your knees and weep with relief, if you’re not too sick from all the fudge and candied apples. And then you’ll feel like you’re a whole lot closer to Reaching Higher Ground.

07 Aug

I say “Chatta,” you say “nooga”

Chattanooga, Tennessee 1 Comment by Christina Cooke

Whenever my friend Amy introduced me to people we encountered in Chattanooga, she would say, “This is my friend Christina. She’s just got back from South America. She was there for nine months, the length of a pregnancy.”
The person would look at me.
“Just a coincidence,” I would say.
Before I headed south a gestation period ago, I lived in Chattanooga for two years. I knew nothing about the city when I moved there to take a job at the newspaper, but I quickly grew to love it for its downtown parks, hilly old neighborhoods and position on the slow-moving Tennessee River at the base of Lookout and Signal mountains.

Coolidge Park and its carousel, on the river

I went back to visit my friends there last weekend and found the city a lot like I left it and a little different.

Things that did not change while I was gone:

  • The same stained white curtains are hanging in the bottom half of the nine-foot, wavy-glassed windows of my dear old apartment at the corner of Mississippi Avenue and Summer Street.
  • My former landlord, a bleached blond in her late 30s, is still crazy. The last time I saw her before my move, she proudly shouted to me — and everyone sitting on the grass behind me at an outdoor concert — “I got new boobs! Check ’em out!”
    When I ran into her this time, she introduced the man on her arm, then performed a song and dance. “I got a boyfriend, I got a boyfriend!” she yelled, shaking her hips back and forth. The man on her arm looked mortified.
  • The cathead biscuits, omelettes and grits at the ever-popular North Chattanooga establishment Aretha Frankensteins are tasty as ever. Stuffed crows, movie villain heads and rock ‘n roll posters decorate the walls of this turquoise house-cum-restaurant perched on the steep side of Tremont Street. The porch, patio and inside tables are still packed on weekend mornings.

  • The homeless man with a bushy white beard still sits on the bench at the end of the Walnut Street walking bridge that spans the Tennessee River (he has a new pair of overalls, though).
  • Friday evening Nightfall concerts at Miller Plaza downtown still draw a crowd that’s not afraid to dance. Texas-based soul singer Ruthie Foster performed while I was there and completely rocked the place.
  • The Pickle Barrel, a rickety downtown pub with rooftop seating, will still give you Tater Tots in place of French Fries, and it will still make your night.
  • My running route along a section of the 10-mile downtown-to-dam riverwalk still makes me happy. As do the hiking trails on Lookout and Signal mountains, which overlook the river valley as they weave through hardwood forests and granite formations.
  • I still wish I could rollerskate through the Times Free Press newsroom, which has expansive hardwood floors that just BEG to be skated.

Things that DID change since I left:

  • Holy riverfront condos! Honestly, are there THAT many people clamoring to live in condos to justify building 50 MILLION of them along the river’s edge?
  • The Yellow Deli, run by the long-haired members of the Twelve Tribes Christian sect, is back in town. The religious community opened the original Yellow Deli in 1973, but left town after stirring up controversy and arousing suspicion they were a cult. They returned to the Scenic City this spring for Try #2. Tribe members, dressed in modest handmade clothing (which means long, flowing skirts for women), serve dishes like fresh chef salads, reuben sandwiches, papaya smoothies and carrot cake. Every aspect of the building — from the doorways to the walls to the banisters — has been meticulously hand-carved or painted. The quality of the food and décor is almost enough to make you forget the misgivings you have about the group that runs it.
  • Greenlife Grocery closed its store down the street from my former apartment and opened a big new megastore closer to the river. With the addition of second-story restaurant seating, there’s really no reason to ever leave. Pick up breakfast burritos from the hot bar, the best blueberry muffins in the world (I’m not kidding), made-on-the-spot sushi, gourmet salads, smoothies, fruit, whatever, and hang around.
  • And, perhaps the biggest change of all: VW is coming! VW is coming! The German automaker Volkswagen announced last month they’ll be building a $1 billion production facility in the Scenic City in 2011. This means an additional 2,000 jobs in the area. Everyone is elated about the economic boost the automaker will bring to Chattanooga. “Willkommen” signs hang from the side of all the street lamps downtown. I can only hope the city plans its growth and expansion wisely and with taste and that it doesn’t ruin its charm by erecting cheap, cookie-cutter neighborhoods, strip malls… and more condos.

Arethas photos by Dorie Turner

03 Oct

Adios Chattanooga, hola Chile!

After more than two years of writing for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, I quit my job. No longer will I write about what the children of Hamilton County are learning in their classrooms and whether the school board thinks seatbelts on buses improve safety.

I am moving to Chile, to the Torres del Paine National Park way down at the Southern tip of the country. Someone I met there two years ago when helping repair the park’s most damaged trails offered me a job — actually, two — last month. I start on Monday.

I will be marketing for Fantástico Sur, a Chilean company that arranges treks for hikers and naturalists. As part of it, they have asked me to start a bi-lingual magazine, which I have happily agreed to. I’ll also be guiding for AMA, a company that educates visitors about the park’s environment and helps them complete projects that conserve it.

In addition, I hope to publish some travel articles on my own… and soak up the language and lifestyle.

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Deciding to leave Chattanooga was incredibly tough, and I went back and forth with it for weeks. I loved my full-time writing job at the paper, which allowed me to interview, for example, the governor and a first-grade teacher in the same day. I enjoyed hiking, cycling and paddling in and around Chattanooga, and I knew I’d miss lounging around my sunny apartment on Saturday mornings and listening to my friend’s bluegrass band practice on her porch. Plus, I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving my friends and boyfriend.
But I decided to take the leap, to find out what I don’t know and to let the experience take me where it will.

I found this passage in the 2001 Best American Travel Writing, which I picked up at McKay’s Used Books in Chattanooga the other night:

We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring ourselves what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again — to slow time down and get taken in, and to fall in love once more.

Pico Iyer, from “Why We Travel” in Salon Travel

I may encounter frustration and loneliness in the far Southern reaches of the world, but I may also have experiences that change how I see the world and live my life. I just don’t know, and that’s the fun part.

And now, for some fun facts about my destination, for my sake as much as anyone’s:
* Chile is tall and slender, stretching along the southwestern coast of South America. It’s as long as San Francisco is from New York, but only 150 miles wide at its widest point.
* The northern part of the country is desert, the mid-section is a fertile river valley, and the southern landscape is made up of a string of rivers and volcanoes that dissolve into a labyrinth of fjords, inlets, canals, peninsulas and islands. The Andes Mountains border the country to the east.
* Chile is a republic. Michelle Bachelet is Chile’s first woman president, elected in 2006.
* About 85 percent of Chile’s population lives in urban areas. About 40 percent live in greater Santiago. Most have Spanish ancestry.
* The local currency is the Chilean peso.
* About 89 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, about 11 percent is Protestant.
* The average Chilean expects to live about 76 years.
* Chileans are required to attend 12 years of school, and 96 percent of adults can read.

I have three short days before my plane departs for Santiago. Time for the business of shuffling boxes and realizing exactly how much stuff I have accumulated.