In mid-February, InsideofKnoxville.com published a post I had written about my experience in Knoxville, Tennessee.

To my surprise, the blog was a hit, having been shared on Facebook by more than 250 users and receiving a record number of comments (in comparison to the other blog posts).

Most of the comments in response were pleasant  such as “great story” or “made me more homesick than about anything I’ve read in the last 20 years.”

There was one, though, who was not pleased, but rather offended: 

“So the locals being puzzled by two Californians being in Knoxville, as if they were Lewis and Clark taking a wrong turn and landing in Miami, seems odd.” 

Ha, ha, I suppose.

If you haven’t read the post, here it is in its entirety. Enjoy – AH

***

It was my first trip to Tennessee.

Hell, aside from Austin and Miami, it was my first experience in the South.

Traveling from the bluest of blue states, California, where Obama and Planned Parenthood bumper stickers are proudly displayed, my girlfriend (soon-to-be wife) Jennifer and I were in for a bit of culture shock when we arrived in Knoxville. 

“What brings you here,” was the most frequent question we were asked during our brief stay. Locals were dumbfounded why two West Coasters would make the trek to the Eastern part of the Volunteer State. 

Two words (and it wasn’t the Smoky Mountains). 

Adam Henig at Alex Haley Heritage Square Park.

Adam Henig at Alex Haley Heritage Square Park.

“Alex Haley.”

 Immediately, we were told to go to the Alex Haley Square. I was planning to visit the site, but my purpose was to conduct research in order to write the first biography about the author of Roots. Although his personal papers are under lock and key, Haley’s designated biographer (who died before completing the project), Anne Romaine, made her research open to the public. Her manuscripts and related materials are so vast and vital to anyone wanting to reconstruct Haley’s life, visiting Knoxville is a must.

Since I didn’t have an agent or a publisher, I was covering the entire cost for the two plane tickets, five nights in a downtown hotel, meals, and incidentals.  

 “So, we travelled all the way to Knoxville to go to a library,” Jennifer continued to inquire in the taxi en route to our hotel. “That seems so strange.” 

“Don’t worry, we’ll go out to dinner and there will be time to shop.” 

 A smile emerged, but just a little one. 

The first two days in Knoxville were spent at the university’s library. We arrived when the Special Collections division opened and stayed until we were asked to leave. Our lunch consisted of a bagel, yogurt, a banana and coffee at the library’s in-house Starbucks–of course, we couldn’t take any of the goodies inside. Jennifer helped out with making copies, which numbered in the hundreds, and kept the files and folders organized to the staff’s delight.

On the third and final full day of research, I cut it short so we could explore the city’s downtown. We walked over to Market Square to find it bustling with outdoor dining venues, live music, sidewalk vendors, and couples and families mulling about, enjoying the temperate weather.  Jennifer and I were taken aback. 

Which European city were we in? Was this really Knoxville? 

Gay Street, Downtown Knoxville, TN

With her shopping radar on, Jennifer immediately zeroed in on Bliss, a chic fashion boutique. She was in heaven.

An hour later, we ate delicious pizza at Tomato Head. From there, we walked along Gay Street, admiring the architecture, the Knoxville Theater marquee, and, eventually, the waterfront. 

I admit I had preconceived stereotypes of what life was like in Knoxville. This was not what I had expected. 

The next day, we rented a car, stopped by Alex Haley Square (and, of course, took a picture), and then drove north to visit John Rice Irwin’s Museum of Appalachia. On our way back, we stopped off in the older section of town. Surrounded by railroad tracks and a series of abandoned buildings, we stumbled upon a pub, a tattoo parlor, and a used record store, the capstone to any hip town.

 Now, I was in heaven!

That evening we walked back down Gay Street, toward the waterfront and ate at The Bistro. Our friendly and inquisitive waiter (who not surprisingly asked, “what brings you to Knoxville?”), provided us with two complimentary tickets to a bluegrass show at the Bijou Theater, which was next door. The show was entertaining and on our jaunt back to the hotel, we wandered through World’s Fair Park.

Relaxing along the river that runs through the park, with the golden golf ball staring down upon us, Jen, cradled in my arms, whispered to me.

“I could live here.”

I agreed.

Although reality sunk in once we returned to family and jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area, our fondness for the “Obscure Prismatic City” will always remain.

***

  • To read the comments from the original post, click HERE.
  • For more information about visiting Knoxville, click HERE.
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