Man In A Suitcase

Nashville, Tennessee

My first visit to Nashville was to help exhibit at a Usenix conference at the Opryland Hotel. The hotel itself is worthy of note for its size, its giant atriums filled with greenery and the recorded sounds of wildlife and the spectacle of its lighted water shows and a country harpist in an outfit Liberace would have considered gaudy.

Combine the hotel and the Grand Ole Opry with a country-themed amusement park called Opryland U.S.A. (the white water rapids ride enhanced by the frenzied theme from How The West Was Won) and you have an experience even a cynic would appreciate. Now add the crowning touch of two events in the same place at the same time: Unix nerds in all their t-shirted Birkenstock-wearing glory; and the polyester-clad middle Americans in residence for the Country Music Fan Fair, a chance to rub elbows with their singing favorites. Mix well and serve with a raised eyebrow or two.

It would be eight years before I found myself back in Nashville and the Opryland Hotel, this time for a CAD conference. The hotel hadn't changed much; it's still impossibly big and kitschy. The amusement park is no more; a month earlier it had been bulldozed to make way for a twenty-first century shopping mall. And Nashville itself deserves some kind of award as the most tourist oblivious place I've encountered recently.

Case in point: my attempt to drive downtown for a little photographic expedition. Here I am, heading west on US40, when I encounter signs indicating a major highway intersection. Stay left to go to Louisville, the signs say; stay right to get to Memphis. Only one problem: which way do I go if I just want to get to Nashville? Needless to say, I guessed wrong. I guess in Nashville they figure if you don't know how to get there you really ought not to try.

After a false start or two I did find my way to downtown. It helps that like most old cities Nashville is on a river, in this case the Cumberland. The warehouses that once served the river trade are now tourist locations. But they still lend an aura of charm that more modern buildings lack. The Opryland folks try to have it both ways with their Wild Horse Saloon; they destroyed the original warehouse building just so they could put up an authentic replica. Do you think the Disney people are upset with this blatant idea-napping?

Downtown has a few other examples of historic architecture among the skyscrapers. I particularly liked the Union Station Hotel, formerly the city's train station. Why is it that something as practical as a train station so inspired our architects? (The Musée d'Orsay in Paris is my favorite art museum. It too began life as a train station.) Not that I have anything against modern architecture. I enjoyed a stroll down Nashville's Bicentennial Mall, a celebration of two hundred years of history that documents major events. A couple of favorites: a mention of the crash of legendary railroad man Casey Jones; and another concerning the Scopes monkey trial, a momentous event for the religionist, humanist and cynic in all of us.

As I'm sure lobbyists constantly remind Vice President and former Tennessee Senator Al Gore, tobacco is big business around here. There are tobacco processing plants within sight of downtown, with their giant signs for snuff and other uses of the other killer weed. Funny that they chose names like Copenhagen and Skoal for their smokeless tobacco brands; I never thought of that as a particularly Danish habit.

Nashville is of course famous as a center for country music. There's an area southwest of downtown called Music Row where all the publishing firms have offices, along with recording studios and the Country Music Hall of Fame. For a moment I considered wandering into the Hall of Fame. Then sanity returned; what if they were actually playing some of that crap inside? (As you may have guessed, I'm not a fan.)

Lynchburg, Tennessee

With a Sunday free before my conference activities began, I decided to take a run down to Lynchburg, Tennessee and visit the famous Jack Daniel's distillery. Although it looked like a significant distance on the map, Lynchburg is only an hour and a half drive from Nashville. (Tennessee is a long state but a surprisingly narrow one.)

The first part of the drive was over interstate highway; the second more of a country road passing among horse farms and small towns. The road took me into downtown Shelbyville, a name known to every Simpson's fan as the Gomorrah to Springfield's Sodom. This particular Shelbyville didn't seem threatening other than in a deserted Twilight Zone sort of way. Not a lot of activity downtown on a Sunday morning, I guess.

Just past downtown I found myself driving by a little beat-up looking market. Wouldn't have given it a second glance if it weren't for the mural on the side. It's that weird juxtaposition of items. Coldest beer in town!, okay. Fresh deli items!, I can accept. But tanning bed? I guess that explains the palm trees, huh? Am I the only one have trouble with the idea of getting a tan in the same place as you get your beer gut?

A half hour later I had arrived in Lynchburg, population 361. And if I thought downtown Shelbyville was out of another world I wasn't prepared for what I found here. A real courthouse square: court building in the center with rows of storefronts on all four sides. And up on the hill beyond the general store was part of Lynchburg's fame: a warehouse full of barrels of aging whiskey.

The Jack Daniel's distillery is a couple of hundred yards/meters from the square. It's an extensive tour, taking you through all the different stages of whiskey making from the source of their water (a limestone cavern with an underground spring that Mr. Daniel bought when he set up shop back in the 1860s) to their gristmills where they grind their grains to the sawmill where they cut wood to make charcoal for their filters to the distillation and filtration processes and finally to the warehouse. (About the only thing you don't see is the bottling. FDA rules, you know.) And the smells; so many interesting odors from the various operations. There's only one small problem: Lynchburg is a dry town! So after all that time and all those smells there isn't a drop to be tasted or purchased. Almost makes a man want to take to drink. (There's a contradiction here somewhere. Give me a minute and I'll find it...)

St. Louis, Missouri

On the way to my first visit to Stockholm, I made a stop in St. Louis to teach a C++ class at Washington University. I didn't exactly teach at the University. Actually, we just used their facility. Anyway, my friend Beth and her family took me out to the St. Louis Arch. The view of downtown was taken from the Arch, which is a remarkable piece of engineering. It's worth a visit just for the unique elevator that travels up one side of the Arch and down the other.

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