My last stop of the roadtrip would take place in Nashville, the capital and largest city in the state of Tennessee. Nashville's particular claim to fame has been its historic role as the center of the country music industry, home to both famous performance halls as well as the recording and production companies that promote country music. Other major economic activity in Nashville includes a concentration of healthcare companies, banking and transportation companies, and unfortunately the private prison industry (yes this is a thing in the United States). Nashville also holds the seat of government for the state of Tenneessee, which meant another state capitol building to visit, along with the usual parks and colleges and street scenes that I'd been seeing on my previous stops across the country. This was the final touring day of the trip and it was a bit sad to see the adventure coming to a close.
When I stopped for the previous night in Little Rock, I realized that I had made a mistake. I could have easily spent the night in Memphis instead, as it was directly on my way to Nashville, and therefore broken up the driving needed to reach my next destination. Unfortunately I didn't spot this opportunity until long after I had made my hotel reservations, and that meant another lengthy drive on this Sunday morning. It was about 350 miles / 550 kilometers to cross from Little Rock to Nashville, and that meant another early wakeup at 5:30 AM if I was going to have enough time to see much of anything in Tennessee. At least the whole drive would be taking place on the interstate highways, as I took I-40 almost directly east for five hours of driving time. The roads were not crowded at this early hour, especially not on a Sunday. I crossed the Mississippi River outside of Memphis and breezed past the skyline of Tenneessee's second largest city. I'd already visited Memphis the previous year on a brief trip with Liz when we went to visit some of her family in nearby Mississippi, and as a result I didn't feel the need to stop.
I actually ended up driving past downtown Nashville for the moment, as my first destination for the day was located in the eastern suburbs. This was the location of the Hermitage, the plantation home of President Andrew Jackson from 1804 to 1845. The Hermitage is one of the most famous and most visited presidential homes, and as a historian this was the place that I was most interested in seeing in the Nashville area. Fortunately the Hermitage was open for the weekend and I was one of the first guests to arrive when I pulled into the parking lot around 11:00 AM. There was a good-sized visitor center at the entrance to the Hermitage, which naturally focused on telling the story of Jackson's life and presidency. The early 19th century is not a period that gets much attention in the popular American imagination, which tends to skip from the heroic revolutionary period up to the Civil War without much examination of the preceding antebellum decades when Jackson was one of the dominant characters. The visitor center's museum walked through Jackson's first emergence onto the national scene as a victorious commander in the War of 1812, then progressed through his three presidential campaigns (the first one failing in 1824) before finally covering his presidency. There were some pretty cool Jacksonian artifacts on display, such as his carriage and his mourning hat that he wore after his wife died, as well as a bunch of the swords that he wore as a military officer. While none of this went into great detail, it was enough to give a non-historian some background context on key issues like the Nullification Crisis and the conflict over renewing the charter for the Bank of the USA.
The Hermitage building itself was located a few minute's walk from the visitor center. It was initially constructed out of brick in a Federal style of architecture, only for Jackson to decide to add a series of Greek pillars at the two entrances after the initial construction was complete to give the whole place more of a classical look. Entry to the Hermitage was allowed only via guided tour, and unfortunately the staff did not allow pictures to be taken of the interior. The Hermitage proved to be an impressive building by 19th century standards but not as big as I'd expected; there were four main rooms on each of the two stories of the house. This reflected the fact that the Jacksons were prosperous and well-off but not excessively wealthy. After Andrew Jackson's death, reckless investments by his son resulted in the family's finances falling into disrepair and parts of the estate needing to be sold off to pay debts. The house itself was in poor shape for decades before the state of Tenneessee was finally able to gain control of the property and oversee its restoration as a national historic site.
One ugly truth that has to be remembered about the Hermitage is that it was a working slave plantation. The Jackson family's wealth ultimately came from owning black slaves and living off of their labor. When construction on the Hermitage began in 1804, the Jacksons owned nine slaves; by the 1830s, there were about 100 slaves living on the grounds and working to grow cotton, the main cash crop of the American South. The pictures above were views of the restored cabins where the slaves on the plantation lived, small and cramped living quarters that had to accomodate far too many people. One of these cabins was located just outside the Hermitage building for house slaves that might be needed at all hours of the day. The other two cabins were about a thousand feet away, off near the fields where cotton would have been grown. One of these cabins was where the Jacksons had lived while the Hermitage was under construction, with the small facility turned into slave quarters afterwards. The Hermitage staff did a good job of highlighting the presence of slavery at the estate, which was the driving force behind its existence at all.
There was a small garden and a cemetery attached to the eastern side of the Hermitage, and this was where Andrew and Rachel Jackson are both buried along with their descendants. Jackson chose another classical theme for his tomb, with a central blue dome surrounded by pillars overlooking the actual grave itself. Interestingly, his tombstone reads "General Andrew Jackson" instead of "President Andrew Jackson", likely indicating a preference for his days as a military commander over his time as a politician. On a somewhat related note, the Hermitage staff also put on a dueling exhibition that I was able to catch while walking around the grounds. These two men explained how and why young Southern gentlemen would choose to fight, as well as the mechanics of how a duel worked in practice. Jackson engaged in two duels during his life, and while he and his opponent both fired harmlessly into the air in his first duel, Jackson shot and killed Charles Dickinson during his second duel in 1806. He did so in the most badass fashion possible: knowing that Dickinson was an expert shot, Jackson made no attempt to shoot first and took his opponent's hasty shot in the chest, then calmly aimed and killed his rival with his own shot. The social customs involving "honor" that caused these duels to take place were incredibly foolish, and high profile deaths like the one suffered by Alexander Hamilton at roughly the same time helped bring them to an eventual stop.
I closed my visit to the Hermitage by checking out their well-furnished gift store and their cafe, which was amusingly named the Kitchen Cabinet. (This is a reference to an unofficial group of advisors to the president that came to be known as Jackson's Kitchen Cabinet.) The treatment of Jackson's historical legacy was largely positive at the Hermitage, although the materials in the mansion and the visitor center did take note of the controversies associated with the man. Jackson was considered to be one of the best American presidents for a long time, with high marks awarded by historians for his successful presevation of the union in the Nullification Crisis and his role in making American governance more democratic and more reflective of the common man. However, Jackson's reputation has plummeted in more recent decades due to the growing recognition of how poorly Jackson treated non-white Americans, who were often largely ignored in earlier histories. Jackson was a forceful advocate for slavery and the expansion of the plantation system (he called on Congress at one point to supress the publication of anti-slavery pamphlets), and his Indian removal policy, in violation of the Supreme Court, that led to the horrors of the Trail of Tears is a black mark on his legacy. There's also been a growing recognition that Jackson's economic policies, which opposed the development of modern banking and credit systems, were short-sighted and foolish; he had the good luck to leave office in 1837, just before an economic depression caused at least in part by Jackson's policies hit the nation. As a result, Jackson no longer enjoys the same widespread praise that existed in earlier eras, and he has much more of a mixed reputation from modern historians. The Hermitage touched on some of these issues without really exploring them in any detail.
After leaving the Hermitage, I made the short drive into downtown Nashville, where I parked my car and began exploring the area. The first destination of note that I came across was this building, the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum. This appears to be an attempt to combine together Nashville's famous country music scene together with a wider pool of artists from other genres; there was an advertisement for an upcoming show performed by Lauryn Hill when I walked past. I considered stopping to see the museum right up until I saw the entrance price: $30 for single ticket entry? No thanks, I didn't want to see the Musicians Hall of Fame that badly. I kept going.
I had been walking towards the Tennessee State Capitol, which was located up on top of a hill on the western edge of downtown Nashville. The Tennessee State Capitol had the standard Neoclassical look that by now had become very familiar to me from visiting all of these state capitols, with the usual Greek pillars flanking the entrances, two main wings to house the two legislative chambers, and a central dome in the middle of the structure. This local Tenneessee version had a shorter and more narrow version of that central dome, making it look a bit more like a watchtower or a lighthouse. The most prominent statue on the capitol grounds was given over to Andrew Jackson, no surprise there, depicted in military uniform on a rearing horse. He wasn't the only former American president on the grounds, however:
This was the final resting place of James Knox Polk, whose tomb was located only a stone's throw away from the Tennessee State Capitol. Although Polk is an obscure figure today he was one of the most consequential presidents in American history, presiding over the annexation of Texas, the settlement of the Oregon boundary dispute with Britain, and the Mexican-American War during which the USA gained vast stretches of new territory. Polk was another plantation owner who advocated for the expansion of slavery, and the war that he launched with Mexico was based on highly dubious pretexts. In other words, Polk's actions look highly immoral in retrospect even if they were responsible for enormously expanding the country's territory. Andrew Johnson apparently also has a statue here, although I didn't see it while I was poking around. Johnson is on the short list of the worst presidents in American history and not particularly worth celebrating.
Leaving aside dead presidents for the moment, the other nice thing about visiting the Tenneessee State Capitol was the opportunity to look out over the rest of Nashville. This elevated location provided some great views in every direction. I could see to the northwest where the land sloped down into the green space of Victory Park, or I could look in the opposite direction towards the southeast, where the central business district could be found. That was where the major attractions in Nashville were located, and where I was heading next.
My first stop was at the Ryman Auditorium, better known as the "Mother Church of Country Music". The Ryman is a perfomance venue located in downtown Nashville where the Grand Ole Opery country music concerts were based from 1943 to 1974. Built initially in the 1890s to host religious revivalist gathering, the Ryman instead became famous for the musical acts that performed on the main stage, and in particular came to national attention when first radio and then television broadcasts began to take place on a weekly basis, showcasing country music for people around the United States. Visitors to the Ryman start by watching a brief movie that explains some of this backstory, a multimedia show incorporating dramatic lighting that was quite impressive and looked like it had been updated recently. Afterwards, visitors walk through a series of exhibits about the different musical acts that have performed at the Ryman, which heavily leans towards country music but over the years has included pretty much any big name artist imaginable regardless of genre. There's memorabilia of all sorts on display here, from guitars to old advertising posters to the utterly ridiculous costumes that country music performers used to wear back in the 1970s.
The highlight of the visit was getting to see the Ryman Auditorium itself. It felt like being in a cathedral dedicated to music due to the wooden benches and the stained glass windows on the wall; of course, the real reason the Ryman feels like a house of worship is due to the fact that it was built for exactly that reason originally. The sight lines from the top floor in particular were fantastic, and the acoustics that I could hear from the tech guys setting up for the next show that evening were equally impressive. This place can seat about 2300 people at a time and the Ryman makes for a venue that's simultaneously historic, unique, and intimate. I can see why so many different artists were happy to perform in this place, and it would be amazing to see a live show here. I don't care much for country music but the Ryman has hosted everyone from Bob Dylan to Tom Jones to the Foo Fighters so there are plenty of shows for anyone to enjoy. This place is a must-see in Nashville even when there's no live music act taking place, and I encourage anyone reading to check it out.
The Ryman Auditorium is situated in the middle of bustling downtown Nashville. From the steps of the Ryman I could look across the street at Bridgestone Arena, home of the NHL's Nashville Predators. There was major construction taking place on what looked to be a new apartment complex going up near the arena, and some kind of event must have been taking place because there were huge crowds gathered around outside when I visited. The sign outside said "Isagenix Global Celebration" which was apparently a business training event of some kind. Nearby the hockey area was the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the larger and more famous counterpart to the Musicians Hall of Fame that I had seen earlier. This museum has been around since 1964 and serves as both a research center and the world's largest repository of country music artifacts. In a neat design note, the building forms the shape of a huge bass clef when viewed from above and the windows on the exterior are designed to resemble piano keys. I probably should have stopped to visit the museum for an hour, but I was getting tired from the long day of driving (and this being the 17th day of nonstop travel) and so opted to continue onwards instead.
These are some more pictures of the downtown area in Nashville. The street scenes were taken on Broadway, which appeared to be the place to go for celebrating in Nashville. There were dozens of bars and restaurants flanking the sides of Broadway for long blocks on end, with large crowds of people out enjoying this summer afternoon. It's not a coincidence that these watering holes can be found right next to the hockey arena, and just across the river from the football stadium. On a big game day these places must be packed. The other pictures include a more general view of the downtown business district, with the mammoth AT&T Building towering above its surroundings. This building was completed in 1994 and houses some 2000 employees, with its 600 foot height making it the tallest building in the state of Tenneessee. The downtown area also contains the small Johnny Cash Museum, which I would not recommend visiting unless you're a huge fan of Cash. The Country Music Hall of Fame is only two blocks away and has much more on display. There was a visual analogy in the presence of these buildings, with the new and economically vibrant Nashville represented by the AT&T Building as opposed to the older and more traditional structures crowding around it. This is a city no longer defined solely by its heritage of country music.
I continued down Broadway until I reached the waterfront a few blocks later. Nashville sits along the banks of the Cumberland River, and it was the riverfront traffic that caused a city to grow on this location in the first place. The waterfront area doesn't see much in the way of freight traffic these days, but many of the historic brick buildings have been preserved and repurposed into storefronts and apartments to serve new generations of city residents. Off to my right was the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge, a repurposed railroad bridge similar to the ones that I had seen the previous day in Little Rock. I didn't realize at the time that this was a walking bridge, or else I would have gone up there to get some bird's eye views of the downtown. Directly across the river was Nissan Stadium, the current name given to the home of the Tennessee Titans of the NFL. I remember this place better when it was known as Adelphi Colosseum after the Titans first moved to Nashville, and specifically when the Baltimore Ravens came into this stadium and beat a very good Titans team en route to winning their first Super Bowl in January 2001. That was one of the most absurd games I've ever seen, one in which the Titans outgained the Ravens 317-134 in total yards, had 23 first downs to 6 for the Ravens, and controlled the time of possession by a staggering 40:29 to 19:31 advantage. And yet the Ravens emerged victorious because the Titans kicker Al Del Greco missed three out of four field goals, including having one of them blocked and run back for a touchdown, along with the Ravens defense intercepting a pass and running that back for a touchdown as well. Just one of those utterly preposterous results that sports will sometimes throw out, and one which led to my home team winning a championship. I'll always associated this stadium with that game in my mind - apologies Titans fans.
To reach the last area that I wanted to explore on the day, I walked back to my car and drove a short distance out of the downtown area. My destination was known as Centennial Park, where this huge attraction was on display. Surprise! Did you know that there's a full-scale model of the Parthenon located in suburban Nashville? I was curious as to how this thing ended up getting built and had to find out the story for myself. The answer is that this replica Parthenon was constructed in 1897 as part of the Tenneessee Centennial Exhibition. Nashville was trying to curate a reputation as the "Athens of the South" at the time, and there was a general fascination with classically-themed architecture in the Belle Epoche era of the 1890s and 1900s. This is the same period when so many of the state capitol buildings were constructed, most of which used a Neoclassical design of some kind (as I kept seeing on this trip). So this replica version of the Parthenon was constructed for the Tenneesse Centennial Exhibition, and even though the initial plan was to be a temporary attraction, it was popular enough that it was kept on a permanent basis afterwards. The Parthenon is used as an art museum today, and more recently in 1990 a sculptor added a recreation of the Athena Parthenos statue to sit inside the temple. The actual Athena Parthenos statue no longer exists and was destroyed at some point in ancient times, with the version here based on descriptions from ancient visitors to the Parthenon. Unfortunately the Nashville Parthenon was already closed for the evening when I arrived, and I had to be content with seeing the exterior of the building. There were still lots of people enjoying the late afternoon sun in Centennial Park, sitting on the steps of the Parthenon or playing games out in the grass.
The other reason why I had stopped to visit this part of Nashville was to stroll through the campus of Vanderbilt University, located a short distance away from Centennial Park. Vanderbilt is a highly prestigious private university and arguably the most prominent institute of higher learning in the American South. It was founded by business tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1873 as an attempt to help heal the wounds left over from the Civil War, and expanded over time until reaching its current enrollment of approximately 13,000 students. Almost half of those students are pursuing postgraduate degrees, however, and the undergraduate student population of only 6800 students indicates the comparatively small size of Vandy in relation to its rivals. Vanderbilt is a founding member of the Southeastern Conference (SEC), where its small size and rigorous academic standards for admission have generally led to its sports teams getting pummeled by the larger, more academically-lenient state schools that make up the rest of the SEC. Vandy has therefore never won a national championship in football or men's basketball, and in fact has never even won a football conference championship despite having been in the SEC since 1933. This is definitely not a sports powerhouse school. On the other hand, for anyone interested in attending university to gain an actual education, Vandy is a very good choice indeed.
I entered the Vanderbilt campus from the western side of the grounds, then walked in a horseshoe pattern past the huge medical center up to the main classroom buildings and residence halls. It was quiet and mostly empty as I passed along the tree-lined walkways, with the students still away on their summer break and most of the buildings locked up tight. I tried to get into the student union in particular and found that the doors were already shuttered for the night. While it was a pretty enough campus, I was a bit less impressed than I had expected to be from a university as prestigious as Vanderbilt. The buildings mostly seemed to be made out of red brick, and while they certainly didn't look bad or anything, I felt as if I could have been on a random college campus practically anywhere. There wasn't anything distinctive that stood out and separated this university from the others that I had seen; from a purely architectural standpoint, it felt a little bit bland. Maybe I should have expected that from the alma mater of former Vice President Al Gore.
Vanderbilt was the last place that I visited on this day of sightseeing, and therefore on the trip in total. My hotel for the night was located near the new Grand Ole Opry recording studio and convention center, but ultimately I was simply too tired to invest another hour or two checking out the place. Perhaps if I actually liked country music I would have stopped at more of these attractions in Nashville - this might not have been the best city for my own personal interests. It was time to get some rest because I had a lengthy drive back home the next day:
I had a drive of roughly 675 miles / 1100 kilometers from Nashville back to the northern suburbs of Washington DC. That drive would take roughly 11 hours to complete, and it was a bit worse than that by the hours on the clock since I'd also be losing an hour by passing back into the Eastern time zone again. This was a long, draining trip that was particularly rough coming on the heels of seventeen days of nonstop travel. When I was putting together the writeup for this trip months later, I realized that I should have taken a different path home. I could have added one more day to my trip and headed northeast to Lexington and Frankfort in Kentucky, another region that I'd never visited previously. That would have allowed me to see the Kentucky State Capitol as well (gotta catch 'em all!) and it would have shaved several hours off of the long return trip. Then I could have even stopped for a few hours in Charleston to visit the West Virginia State Capitol building too, since it would have been directly on the return path. I had enough vacation time saved up at work that I definitely could have spared one additional day, and this represented a missed opportunity on my part. Kentucky and West Virginia, your time will come eventually.
When I finally made it back home, I snapped another picture of the mileage on my car. Here's the comparison photos:
The grand total came out to 6066 miles (9762 kilometers) in 18 total days of driving, with an excellent fuel economy rate of 42 miles to the gallon. My car had performed magnificently in that regard, helped along by spending so much time driving on long interstate routes. I averaged 337 miles per day of driving on my vacation, all of that solo driving, while also cramming in all of the sightseeing and various activities details on these pages along the way. It was about the same pace as my trip through Eastern Canada five years earlier, where I traveled 5074 miles (8166 kilometers) in 15 days of solo driving. This trip had been much less taxing in comparison, however, largely due to the improvements in technology that allowed me to stream music and podcasts throughout the long hours of driving, as opposed to playing my personal CD collection and hoping to catch something interesting on local radio. Even though the prior trip had only taken place in 2013, I simply didn't have access to the in-car Bluetooth and wireless systems back then. Sometimes the changes in technology happen so seamlessly that it's hard to notice them until you stop and think back to how things used to be.
This was a truly fun trip to take, a chance to hit the open highways of American and visit place after place that I had only heard about from television and books. I found that there were fun and exciting attractions to visit everywhere that I went, whether it was an auto production factory in Detroit or the World Food Bank headquarters in Iowa, the oldest church in American in Santa Fe or the original Walmart store in Arkansas. I had the chance to go hiking in the Rocky Mountains, ride a hot air balloon in Albuquerque, visit Abraham Lincoln's private house in Springfield, and ride around the Indianapolis 500 Speedway. Before the trip ran its course, I stopped to see 11 different state capitols in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Even if most of the buildings looked pretty similar in their designs, there were always unique features to provide a local variation on the general pattern (not to mention Nebraska and New Mexico had their own unique and creative architecture). At a time when many people have a bleak outlook about the future of the United States I saw exactly the opposite, vibrant cities full of exciting attractions and vast open spaces of unsurpassed natural beauty. This is a wonderful country despite all of its many faults, and I wish that more people would take the opportunity to go out and visit some of these places off the beaten tourist path. There's a whole world out there waiting to be seen, and even on this trip I had only touched on the smallest part of the USA.
These reports are a massive undertaking, with the European Grand Tour clocking in at around 100,000 words and this Great American Roadtrip topping a little over 80,000 words. I don't know if anyone out there has made it to the end of these long accounts, but for anyone who has, thank you so much for taking the time to read this. Best of luck to you on your own travel adventures!
- Michael Soracoe, January 2019