Highway 64: Tennessee

The Pink Palace, Memphis' catch-all museum, showcases an eccentric but rewarding collection.

Highlight: Pink Palace Museum

Hidden treasure: Falls Mill

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Smoky Mountains

64 sneaks into Tennessee in what used to be copper-mining country. Signs at convenience stores on either side of the border reveal the vices that are easier to come by in each state: lottery tickets and fireworks on the Tennessee side, beer and cigarettes in North Carolina. But there’s more to the story of the local economy. Longtime clerks explain why their stores sell copper trinkets. In the early 1980s, they say, the area was scarred and barren from years of strip mining. The forests have grown back now.

From a distance, Chattanooga looks like a little bit of the Rust Belt stuck in Appalachia. Downtown Chattanooga, though, has jumped on the redevelopment bandwagon – possibly the redevelopment train, as one of its major tourist nodes is the Chattanooga Choo Choo. You can actually spend the night in the Choo Choo, whose sleeper cars are lined up trailer-park style behind a train-station-turned-Holiday-Inn. For the outrageous price of 50 cents, you can take a trolley to a parking lot behind the inn and back. For the much more reasonable price of nothing, you can take a trolley-style bus all the way to the Tennessee Aquarium downtown.

Like many new megamuseums, the aquarium charges a lot for admission. I haven’t been inside. But I’ve seen many aquariums, and I enjoyed just looking at the quirky public-art touches of its exterior architecture. There are three-dimensional representations of Tennessee history. Look closely, and you’ll see Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan duking it out in the courtroom of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Keep looking, and you’ll see big government, in the form of the TVA, rescuing the state from erosion and primitive farming techniques.

I am ashamed to admit that schedule conflicts have so far prevented me from actually seeing Rock City, which is just outside Chattanooga on 64. It’s probably the biggest 64 attraction I haven’t seen yet.

Water Wheel64 climbs back into the charming mountains west of Chattanooga. See the authentic, water-powered Falls Mill, whose cornmeal makes guest appearances on many cooking shows. While there, you can also check on my geocache. These are the charming hills that surround The University of the South. Farther west, encounter the unsavory South of Sheriff Buford Pusser, currently being re-immortalized by The Rock in the remake of “Walking Tall.”

Farther west, baby boomers and others familiar with the Annette Funicello-era "Mickey Mouse Club" will want to stop in Lawrenceburg, home of a state park honoring frontiersman Davy Crockett. (They call him David here.)

Unfortunately, the road flattens and becomes boring on its approach to Memphis. But Memphis itself is worth the drive, if only because it’s the home of Elvis Presley’s Graceland. Take the super-sanitized tour at least once in your life, again if you return with new friends.

The Pink Palace is a catch-all museum, both old-fashioned and modern. Originally the dream Xanadu of the boom-and-bust businessman who invented supermarkets, it wound up in the city’s hands after his biggest bust. Collection-wise, it’s a repository for anything Memphis finds curious and important. Thus it is that an IMAX theater and a carefully curated exhibit on women in the South find a home just down the hall from freakish objects of uncertain provenance, such as the shrunken head that’s “terrified generations of Memphis schoolchildren.” Time your visit to include a performance by the mechanical circus, a handcrafted wonder.