Dirt Road Drifting in West Tennessee
I’ve only been a Tennessean for two years. Before that, I was just a Floridian who wanted to be a Tennessean. I sang to Dolly Parton as a kid, learned to ski in Gatlinburg and honeymooned in the Smokies. And with a mom from Georgia, I‘m sort of nostalgic for dirt roads, ramshackle barns and farm food.
As soon as I got to call Tennessee home, I got down – at the music festivals, dives and legendary studios of my new town (Memphis). I checked Nashville off my list shortly – I just couldn’t wait to be inside the Ryman.
But the dirt roads were calling. So was an assignment – to report on west Tennessee’s Walking Tall Trail. We were barely out of Memphis when the scene shifted to green, and I knew we were close: Sure enough, the hands at Jones Orchard invited us to drive right in, all rumbly-tumbly along the gravel road between rows of trees where peaches blazed like fireballs amid slender, curly leaves. Baskets full and before we were even back on the main road, we tore into our first fruit. It begged to be eaten over the grass, or at least, the kitchen sink. But we were going to Jackson, a quiet downtown that’s even quieter on a Saturday morning – that is, until you meet Mr. Henry.
Mr. Henry Harrison still reports to work every Saturday at the institution he created: the International Rockabilly Hall of Fame. It’s small but packed – with a pair of hometown boy Carl Perkins’ blue suede shoes; the letter from Paul McCartney authorizing Mr. Henry to paint his likeness on the museum’s exterior; a drum set played by Elvis’ D.J. Fontana (you can play it too). But it’s Mr. Henry who makes the biggest fan out of me – offering Styrofoam cups of coffee and edging-on-unbelievable stories about befriending Perkins and Sam Phillips; coming up (and coming-of-age) in the same circles as Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. I get the feeling he’d do the same for anyone willing to listen.
Lunch was all sweet tea, front porch swings and baskets of spicy-sweet hush puppies at Jackson’s Catfish Cabin. But the city wasn’t going to hold us long: We hadn’t driven far before kudzu covered everything and for a minute, a cardinal zipping through a cornfield seemed to guide us. Our day ended with the road at Peaceful Oaks Bed and Breakfast. Mrs. Johnnie came out to greet us (with cookies the size of our heads that she had just baked) and stories of her grandchildren, her career and her decision to turn her home into a bed and breakfast. Lucky us.
Sitting outside that firefly-lit night, I realized that my wanderlust isn’t only about following dirt roads. It’s about meeting the people who lead to and live alongside them.
The next best thing to making my own travels is hearing about yours. Have you followed a Tennessee trail? Forged your own? Tell me about it! And if you’ve made any of the same stops I have, let’s compare notes.