Return to Tennessee

I’ve spent most Christmases in my life at home in Oregon. But this past year, we decided it was time for a change: a Southern holiday down south with my brother and his wife, a revisit to Nashville, and a Christmas in the Smokey Mountains.

I’d been to Mississippi and Tennessee, for my brother’s wedding several years ago, but it was a brief visit and I was excited about the opportunity to return for a longer time, with fresh eyes.

Unlike when I’d visited from the Bay Area years ago, LAX offered a direct flight to Memphis, which clocked in at an efficient four hours. My brother and sister-in-law live just over the state line in Mississippi; far enough away from the city to afford a house with a yard (what a novelty!) but close enough easily access the restaurants, shopping and music venues that Memphis has to offer.

Memphis is a complicated city with an equally complicated past. Home to world-class barbecue and the famed Beale Street and a rapidly modernizing city core, it’s at a crossroads between its rich history and a rapidly-modernizing future. Driving though much of the city, I was reminded of places like Detroit, or cities in the Rust Belt, laid bare by the Recession and industries that have fallen out of favor. Abandoned houses and businesses outnumber the people, and crime rates are generally high.

Still, there are a host of businesses breathing new life into the city. FedEx is headquartered there, electric scooter companies like Bird and Lime have been welcomed with open arms, and the city’s food and drink scene is booming. A few favorites of note were City & State Coffee for a maple latte and stroll through the adjoining gift store for souvenirs, and the Flying Saucer taproom for a truly impressive craft beer list (and veggie burger!) that included many local brews. City & State is located on the city’s revitalized Broad Avenue, home to a number of quaint shops with local wares.

Over in Memphis’ downtown you’ll find Beale Street, a sort of miniature version of Bourbon Street, overflowing with bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops. Like many main streets in big cities, it’s a bit of a tourist trap, but there are some studios still offering tours, and it’s worth a stroll to see where so many music legends walked before.

A few blocks away from Beale Street you’ll find what was once the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Today, it’s part of the National Civil Rights Museum. And a few blocks from here, in the city’s transformed South Main Art’s District, sits the Blues Hall of Fame and local gems such as Low Fi Coffee, Bluff City Bakery, several art galleries and a Central BBQ (from which the line wrapped around the block,) and the Memphis Farmer’s Market.

A few days later, with the presents unwrapped and Christmas festivities over for another year, we set out in the rain for the six hour drive east to a rustic cabin in Pigeon Forge, home to the Great Smoky Mountains and the equally-monumental Dolly Parton. Pigeon Forge is a strange place, a sort of family-friendly Las Vegas strip, complete with eye-popping neon lights, kitschy themed restaurants, magic shows, roller coasters and larger-than-life replicas of famous landmarks.

Of course, its own most famous landmark is Dollywood, which exceeded my expectations in whimsy. It’s a small park, but nestled within it is everything from wooden roller coasters and live musical shows to a bald eagle sanctuary and farmyard petting zoo. Dollywood was also particularly charming around the holidays, covered in twinkling lights and towering Christmas trees. It’s a delight for kids and kids at heart.

For the adults, pay a visit to the Island in Pigeon Forge, where we partook in craft beer flights at Yeehaw Brewery and decidedly stronger flights at Ole Smoky Moonshine. I can’t say I remember ever having had moonshine before, and Tennessee is definitely the best place to get a first taste of it. We got to sample Blue Flame, the distillery’s strongest moonshine at 128 proof (that’s 64% alcohol!) Java moonshine, and distillery-only offers including a chocolate peppermint flavor and even pickles soaked in moonshine. It’s certainly not something I’d drink regularly, but hey, when in Rome (or Tennessee!)

The next day, we headed over to the neighboring town of Gatlinburg for a hearty brunch (and the largest cinnamon roll I’ve ever seen in my life) at Crockett’s Breakfast Camp before venturing into the Great Smoky Mountain National Park as my mom shopped up at a storm at the stores in town. Many of the roads and trails were closed for the winter (and the park itself was very nearly closed due to the government shutdown,) so we ended up keeping things simple with a moderate hike through the Laurel Falls Trail, which a little over two miles long and offers a view of the Smoky Mountains and a waterfall that was flowing in full force mid-winter. I do wish time and weather had permitted us to see more of the park (my brother had been particularly keen on the idea of driving over the state line to North Carolina to see Clingmans Dome,) but it was beautiful nonetheless.

Finally, we set out for the three hour drive west to Nashville. I’d been before, but only for a day, and I was easily the most excited about our stop here because there are so many diverse parts of the city to explore. Having previously visited the Grand Ole Opry and Gaylord Opryland Resort (which is sort of the Disney World of resorts and must be seen to be believed,) I was eager to check some other sites off my list.

We ended up parking in a trendy area of downtown Nashville known as the Gulch and setting out to explore on foot (after stopping for a pick-me-up at the highly Instagram-able Milk & Honey – its namesake latte is lightly sweet and a must-try.) Just around the corner you’ll find a line queuing up for photos at one of Nashville’s many popular murals (this one of angel wings composed of guitars, not unlike the angel wing murals we have all over Los Angeles, but I still couldn’t resist!) Follow the stairs up to Broadway, and you’ll get a sweeping view of the Nashville skyline.

Nashville is a pretty walkable city – if you’re willing to fight through the occasional throngs of people – and you can follow Broadway all the way downtown past the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Predators hockey arena to Nashville’s main drag of country music bars, cowboy boot boutiques, the Johnny Cash Museum and other local institutions. If the weather’s good (and there’s no game over at the Nissan Stadium) climb the stairs up to the pedestrian bridge over the Cumberland River for another breathtaking skyline view of downtown Nashville.

Easily my favorite part of Nashville is 12 South, where old meets new. Reese Witherspoon’s store, Draper James, draws crowds, as does the iconic “I Believe In Nashville” mural, but the entire street is chock-full of must-see gems. Stop into Savant for drool-worthy vintage goods and Five Daughters Bakery to drool over some donuts. Refuel with a banana mocha at the Frothy Monkey, get buzzed at the 12 South or Mill Creek taprooms, and chow down on burgers and tacos at Urban Grub and Taqueria del Sol. Imogene + Willie and White’s Mercantile are both shops seemingly tailor-made for Instagram, and even if you don’t end up dropping the cash to take anything home, they’re well worth a visit.

Tennessee is subject to a whole lot of stereotypes and misconceptions, but its natural beauty, buzzing cities, and host of good eats and drinks have earned it a special place in my heart, and I can’t wait to head back for more Southern hospitality soon.