Friday, February 15, 2008

I Remember the Night and the Tennessee Waltz

I wasn't looking forward to the long drive on February 15. We were heading north, out of Georgia, and I expected to drive into the grey winter weather at any time. Usually a travel day is a journey on a non-descript section of interstate with highlights such as commenting on the speed of cars in the passing lane, keeping an eyeout for police in
the median and noting the gas prices as we approach another exit ramp.

"Though Interstate 75 pushes through the length of Georgia," wrote Anrew F. Wood in Road Trip America, "it has little to do with the state. Just about all you can see is the overgrown remnants of trees and hillsides as the kudzu line steadily advances. Even in Atlanta, drivers can zoom through its glistening towers and imposing domes without ever seeing the city."

This day's travels turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises, a journey through the mountains with breathtaking scenery and a few death defying curves. I felt enormously blessed to be witnessing the scenery and I had an overwhelming sense of wanting to stay, to just stop and be at peace in the mountains. I tried to remember the landmarks so I could be sure to come back again.

It has been hard, much later, to figure out exactly where we were and what we saw. As you drive, the scenery does not present itself as a series of place names, but as an onslaught on the senses.

I'm fairly certain that we drove through The Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests. Chattahoochee because I had the song "Way Down Yonder on the Chattahoochee" on a continuous loop in my head, and Oconee because I repeated this name to myself over and over so I wouldn't forget it. Clearly Georigians and Teneseeans have a special fondness for vowels.

According to, Atlantans refer to the Chattahoochee as "the Hooch." President Jimmy Carter, himself a native Georgian, signed the 1978 legislation that preserve a 48-mile stretch of the river as the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.

Our route took wound us out of Georgia, we clipped the Western corner of North Carolina, and into Tennessee, winding across the Chattahoochee and Oconoee Rivers. We passed signs advertising scenic overlooks on big rocks, and came through the town of Cleveland, TN. (Population 37,000)

When you see the clear lakes and the guest cabins of the Oconee, you have a fantasy that just being in this locale would bring an inner life that is as tranquil and unhurried.

If I had been a passenger, I could have made notes of all I saw out the window. First we summited and descended a great mountain and then wound down into the valley of the Ocoee river. We saw nothing for miles but white water rafting launches and small cabins. One little motel on the lake was so removed from civilization that it instantly caught my imagination, and for miles I repeated its name to myself so I could write it down in case we ever returned.

As we moved from Jimmy Carter territory to Al Gore country, "Way Down Yonder on the Chattahoochee" became mixed with "Al Gore Lives on My Street..." by Monkeybowl as I clicked through my Tenessee associations in my head.

For most people "Tennessee Waltz" would probably come to mind first. "Tennessee Waltz" is the "fourth" official state song of the state of Tennessee. Unlike "Take Me Home Country Roads," which is not the West Virginia state song but does sing the praises of its state, "Tennessee Waltz" is a break up song that has nothing much to do with Tennessee.

Two points to anyone outside of Tennessee who can name the number one state song. (Answer at the end)*

At one point en route we passed a sign pointing to Nashville. "Real Nashville?" Valery wondered, he'd grown so accustomed to cities named Moscow and other Clevelands and Bostons.

I said, "That way to country music!"

He had a different association. "Nashville has hockey team with Russian players."

The Russian language, you should know, is logical in that it is spelled the way it looks. If a word is spelled "привет" then it is always pronounced "привет." So Valery looked at me as if I were putting him on when I told him not to pronounce the "k" in Knoxville, our destination city.

"Why? It is spelled with K?"

"Because, that's how we do it," was my unsatisfying answer.

The Knoxville Ballet School is the baby of Deb Young. The school is still fairly new, and most of the regular students are still fairly young as she begins training from the ground up. We offered two classes at the studio, the first a beginning level class made up of the studios regular students and the second a more advanced class to a group of students who had traveled from another part of the state.

One of the students was not only a native Russian speaker, but she also had studied with a friend of Valery's back in Russia. It is always a small world when you travel with Valery.

One of the things I especially enjoy with younger classes is how sincere the students are. They haven't yet learned to hide their excitement or nervousness or joy under a veil of cool detachment. Young classes often begin their master classes with this strange Russian man wide-eyed and occasionally so nervous they shake. By the end of the class they are usually smiling, laughing and relaxed.

If you would like to know more about Knoxville Ballet, Deb Young maintains her own blog. The topics go beyond the happenings at her particular studio and into the wider world of dance and arts.

...So did you get the Tennessee state song?

*It's "My Homeland, Tennessee." Adopted in 1925. Lyrics by Nell Grayson Taylor, music by Roy Lamont Smith. They appear to have an inordinate fondness for state songs in Tennesee. The Tennessee government web page lists seven of them including "The Tennessee Bicentennial Rap."