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Diary: This American Road, Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville

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We pulled into Memphis at night and drove to Knoxville the following day, stopping in Nashville somewhere in the middle, then rolled on to North Carolina the morning after that. If you need to see the three biggest cities in Tennessee and have absolutely no more than 36 hours in which to do it, I can tell you how we did it.

We began with a bracing shot of déjà vu, dragging ourselves into the lobby of the Memphis Courtyard by Marriott that looked and felt in all respects identical to the lobby of the Oklahoma City Courtyard by Marriott in which we’d drank away the vibrations of the road the day before. At first I assumed the details would differ. Surely the Memphis instantiation of The Bistro wouldn’t have the same folksy chalkboard with its handwritten imperative to “Try Our Classic Oatmeal.” But it did indeed have the same folksy chalkboard — just propped up on the opposite shelf.

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I never tried their Classic Oatmeal. I always get excited about complimentary continental breakfasts at hotels (despite seldom eating anything from them but Raisin Bran), and at this point in life have come to expect them as a standard offering of the traditional hotel industry, perhaps the sole remaining reason not to go with an Airbnb 100 percent of the time (though I’ve noticed many Airbnb hosts raising their breakfast game lately).

Bizarrely, Courtyards by Marriott don’t offer a continental breakfast, an unexpected point of tackiness I pondered while drinking my three-dollar coffee from The Bistro. But the lack of free Raisin Bran meant a chance to eat at a downtown institution instead, and so we ended up Sunday-brunching at the Blue Plate Cafe, where we put away a few omelets under the happily vacant gaze of dozens and dozens of dog portraits, their painter one of Memphis’ very own.

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I find few activities as pleasurable as discovering an unknown downtown on foot, and I looked forward to seeing what Memphis’ had to offer with the aid of its historic streetcar lines. Alas, I found whole system shut down for renovation since a fire in 2013, and its rails and stations remain silent today.

So instead of my usual improvised downtown tour, we opted for a tour of the official variety: specifically of Sun Studios, which some might know as the place Elvis got his start, but others, people like me, might know as the place to which Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase make their pilgrimage in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. Only one member of our tour group had managed to put together a credible 1950s rocker look for the occasion — pompadour, sideburns, cuffs, Converse — and he, not that surprisingly, turned out to have come all the way from Switzerland. Lucky nobody Japanese had turned up; they’d surely have eaten his subcultural lunch.

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Tennessee ranks as only the 36th largest state in the Union (and actually, it roughly matches the size of South Korea, though Indiana, number 38, gets closer), but it still takes between three and four hours to drive from its first city to its second. The high-rises and elevated freeways of Nashville (not to mention its scores of construction cranes, hard at the apparent work doubling the size of the city) came into view just as the desperation for some urbanity was about to get the better of me.

We’d also felt a desperation for nachos for some miles, and so made for an oasis in Midtown (not to be confused with Oklahoma City‘s MidTown) called, simply, Tavern, whose staff, seeming to sense our weariness, seated us in a corner circular booth of our own, poured us some restorative cider and sangria, and served us a heap of tortilla chips, cheese, guacamole and something called “angry chicken.” On the table stood a variety of hot sauces, three of which came in brown eye-dropper bottles labeled only “X,” “XX,” and “XXX.”

simpsons sunsphere

After dinner we took a walk through Music Row (small speakers embedded in whose sidewalk utility boxes pipe out the hits 24/7), ending up at the kind of third-wave coffee shop, built in the comparatively cavernous space of a renovated garage, that makes you wonder not whether you could move to its city, but how soon you should. It helped that, from what I could tell through their illuminated floor-to-ceiling windows, all the nearby condos (whether still under construction or very recently finished) looked comfortable indeed.

Part of me wondered if I’d see anything like it in Knoxville, but a bigger part of me — just like any thirty-year-old American male, and thus exegete of The Simpsons‘ 1990s golden era — wondered what I’d find when I made my own pilgrimage to the Sunsphere, at which Bart, Milhouse, Martin and Nelson once arrived fourteen years too late for the 1982 World’s Fair (and ultimately knocked over).

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I enjoy old World’s Fair grounds, and the park Osaka maintains at the site of Expo ’70 remains, for me, the old World’s Fair grounds to beat. Knoxville’s modest but pleasant equivalent doesn’t beat it, but there you can visit the Sunsphere’s observation deck and behold all of Knoxville laid before you for free, each vista’s accompanying display informing you of, say, the city’s title of red panda capital of the western hemisphere. (It reminds me of the non-free towers that overlook some Asian cities, especially Busan’s, though the Sunsphere boasts something called the “Icon Ultra Lounge” — currently closed, like Memphis’ trolleys, for renovation.)

If I lived in Knoxville, I’d live in the condo building with the best Sunsphere view, a converted candy factory from the turn of the 20th century with a chocolate shop on the bottom floor. As I stocked up on Sunsphere bars there, the owner excitedly told us about the coming developments in Knoxville’s own downtown revitalization, working in a sentiment I’ve heard in almost every city on this trip, and indeed almost every city in America from Los Angeles on down: “If you’d told me this place was going to come back to life ten, fifteen years ago, I’d never have believed you.”