Thursday, August 6, 2009

Road Trip: Country Roads, Mountain Mama

It was hot and sticky in Nashville as the power of Big Mo's sloppy burger and fries crept from my belly, into my blood and then spiked joyfully in my brain. High on a flood of sweet, sweet dopamine it was time again to hit the road. So I gassed up the hog, handed the map to Blake, donned my road fadora and put the rubber to the road pointed East on I-40.

With 800 some miles to go until Philadelphia, the route of the day was a northeasterly winding cruise along the spine of the Appalachians. There is some beautiful country between eastern Tennessee and western Virginia, with rolling hills, lush forests and the bucolicly hazy vistas of the Smoky Mountains which that certain, fuzzy gold light in the late afternoons that you don't get elsewhere. Throw in picturesque red-barn farms and the murky presense of colonial and Civil War vibes and it begins to feel like the mythical America of history books that you suspected never really existed. I put it up there with the Rockies, rugged spots of the Pacific Coast, and Northern New England in the fall, in my list of favorite American landscapes.

One thing you'll learn is that, like Colorado, there's a lot of Tennessee east of it's major city. So the journey to Bristol at the Virginia border is more of a slog than the map foretells. To break things up, we stopped in Knoxville to visit Neyland Stadium at the University of Tennessee. (Blake and I both being rabid college football fans, we made every effort to visit the the football shrines we passed on our journey and worshipped in person at the stadiums of the Boise State Broncos, Wyoming Cowboys, Tennessee Volunteers and Virigina Tech Hokies.)

Of all of these, Neyland was probably the biggest in our minds before the visit, but failed most spectacularly in living up to the hype. Admittedly, we didn't get inside, so I can't say what it's really like on game day, but the impression from outside is underwhelming as the stadium is buried within a fortress-like complex of other campus buildings as well as being hidden under a rector-set of scaffolding doing some kind of external repair work. Rather than imposing sports edifice, Neyland from the outside looks more like the Coney Island Cyclone. Which, like, is about as intimidating as a corndog.

So disappointed with that side show, I was a little skeptical when, hours later, we made an extensive (10 mile one way) sojourn off I-81 into Blacksburg, Virginia. The sports complex at VA Tech was more of a pro-style affair, but isolated by several miles from the campus. So they lose points there.

Fortunately, we had a secondary motivation for visiting Blacksburg. It was dinner time and in the pursuit of eating, Blacksburg exceeded expectations - namely in the barbecue department. You must forgive the Log Cabin BBQ for its completely contradictory tenancy in a strip mall because the dry-rub barbecue is simply that good.

I quizzed the girl at the counter on the state of the economy, and she insisted that, surprising to her, the barbecue segment was still holding strong. Then she loaded up the half-rack plate I ordered with a full-rack of ribs and I became a believer. This was literally the most meat I've ever seen on a rack of ribs, and it was moist and fall-off-the-bone tender. There were 8 choices of delicious home made barbecue sauces that made each bite an agonizingly difficult but rewarding choice. Sides of cole slaw, baked beans and Blake's mac 'n cheese also satisfied in the extreme.

Between Virginia and Pennsylvania, the eastern flange of West Virginia delicately spoons the western flange of Maryland in a symbiotic ying yang of mid-Atlantic statehood. This strange area comprises all of twenty-five miles of freeway and brings the outsized roadtrip joy of three-border crossings in little more than half an hour. It may seem a small achievement, but after enduring the West, where state crossings down give themselves up easily, this felt awesome.

We were racing to join an ongoing party in Lancaster, Pa. where the Special Lady was holding court. Being that we had heroic visions of reinvigorating the party, and because I remembered Pennsylvania's got the bluest liquor laws, we commenced the festivities in Winchester, Virginia with a couple of Dunkin' Donuts coffees for immediate consumption and our first sixpack of Back East's Best Beer - Yuengling - because you don't show up to a party empty-handed under any circumstance.

The only hiccup was a second encounter with the fuzz in West Virginia. I should have expected one of the two flanges to be a speed trap, but dammit, the barbecue made me careless and the next thing I knew there were the flashers in my rearview again. This time, and not to betray my preconceptions about West Virgina cops, he was cool and understanding. Agreeing that it looked like we were moving across country and late to the party, he let us go with a warning. Thanks dude!

We entered Pennsylvania near Gettsyburg in the deep darkness, and jammed on east on the Turnpike into Lancaster, arriving a little after 1am. Though we held out hope for the hero's welcome at the party, we arrived to a quiet house where the Special Lady was keeping watch and welcomed us with a fresh-baked cherry pie.

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