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East Side Story

by Paul Gerald

Please allow a simple piece of advice regarding your next vacation: Don't plan anything more than time and direction, and do it all by car in your home state.

If you want wild and scenic mountains, a taste of different cultures, or just some relaxation in the splendor of fall foliage, you can get it in less than a day's drive from wherever you're reading this. And, if you'll allow a second piece of advice, get on U.S. Highway 64 going east and just let it ride.

U.S. 64 enters Memphis via the old bridge and Crump Boulevard, and it leaves by way of Summer Avenue and Stage Road on its way to the North Carolina coast. If you get on Stage and keep going east, then by the time WEVL is fading out on your radio, Bartlett and that absurd mall they're building out there are in the rear-view mirror, and the beautiful, rural heart of Tennessee is stretched out in front of you.

The highway goes two-lane not long after that, and soon the view opens as wide as the ocean — a rolling sea of trees, crops, kudzu, and cows. And before you know it, you're humming along with nothing to think about except how pleasant the air is, what tape to listen to next, and how fast your car can handle that next turn.

You notice things like tractors in yards, signs saying "Sod for sale," and lakes visible through the trees. You see a dog chasing three kids on a go-kart. You get stuck behind a Caprice Classic going 10 mph under the speed limit, but the slowdown lets you hear the late-afternoon cricket songs.

The first rule in a driving tour should be to leave the expressways behind immediately. Driving an interstate is as exciting as canoeing a drainage ditch. The second rule is to avoid bypasses, or else you'll miss things like the amazing apple cider at a roadside stand in Whiteville. The third is to eat all of your meals in local, non-chain restaurants, and the fourth is to go slow with the windows open so you can smell the evening breezes — and hear the crickets.

Following 64 east, you'll go through Fayette County, where Somerville and La Grange are full of houses and churches dating to the 1830s. Out here even the Wolf River — more or less a drainage ditch itself when it goes through Memphis — runs wild and free and is full of trees and stumps. Grand Junction is the hub of the bird dog cosmos; they've had the Grand National at the Ames Plantation every year since the turn of the century. And if you're looking for the perfect (and real large) Halloween pumpkin, it lies in one of several stands along 64 within an hour of Memphis.

Compared to Memphis, U.S. 64 through south-central Tennessee still looks like it did when it was Davy Crockett's "wild frontier." Rivers meander through swamps, tree limbs reach out over the road, mountains fade to blue on the horizon, and hawks and buzzards soar overhead.

But in the middle of all this comforting countryside you see indications of city life encroaching: A sign advertises beepers in Bolivar, and another offers Internet access in tiny Selmer. A customer having a fried catfish dinner in Waynesboro has a laptop computer on his table. And wherever there's a Wal-Mart outside town, there are boarded-up windows on the historic town square.

Just east of Savannah ("Catfish Capital of the World") there's a fire tower a couple of miles up a signed road. There's no sign saying you can't climb up it, and the view from the top is spectacular. It's worth the trip up the narrow, rickety steps just to see a 360-degree panorama of nothing but trees, hills, and a couple of water towers.

That is exactly the sort of thing that's waiting for you out on roads like U.S. 64. The rest you'll have to go find for yourself.


Saucy Sidetrip

After a recent tour of the Jack Daniel's Distillery in Lynch-burg, a pair of German tourists and a saleswoman from Philadelphia were heard to wonder, "Is this place real? Do these people actually talk like that?"

Yes and yes. The distillery is on a hill above town, right where it's been since 1866. In fact, it's the only Jack Daniel's distillery that has ever existed. (The "No. 1" on the bottle is there because when the U.S. government started giving out registration numbers to distillers, Jack Daniel got the first one.)

As for the accents, well, Lynchburg's population is only 361, and while some might suggest these gentlemen exaggerate their hillbilly-ness for our entertainment, who cares if they do? The tour's free, after all, and who would want to be shown around a whiskey distillery by a recorded host or some style-less drone like the ones who used to inhabit Graceland?

The first stop on the tour is one of several warehouses, each of which hold 20,000 barrels, totaling one million gallons of whiskey. Breathing the air in these buildings is like swimming in whiskey. Our tour guide, Sammy, informed us here, "Every drop of Jack Dannul's whiskey in the world is made here, aged here, bottled here. And quite a bit is drank here, too."

While Sammy was fanning the top of a mellowing barrel so we could all get a whiff of pre-mellowed 140-proof whiskey, he said with a wink, "Makes ya feel good, don't it? Sometimes ah brang m'girlfriend up h'yar — let her fan the bahrl fer me. M'wahf won't never come up h'yar a'tall."

To answer the most popular question, there are no samples afterwards, just free lemonade and coffee. And although Jack Daniel's is made in a dry county, they do now sell the stuff by the bottle after the tour — fancy, state bicentennial $34 bottles, that is. They even come with a certificate saying that you actually bought it at the distillery.

That's in case anyone wonders if it's real.

The Jack Daniel's Distillery, located 13 miles off U.S. Highway 64 about 230 miles east of Memphis, is open for tours 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day.

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