Our eclipse trip to Tennessee
As described in my blog post of last Wednesday, exactly one week ago Jacqueline and I began a trip to see the total eclipse of the sun in Tennessee. (As explained then, our precise destination was literally "up in the air," depending on where the skies were forecast to be clearest.) We drove southwest along I-81, encountering heavy traffic outside the population centers along the way (Staunton, Roanoke, and Christiansburg), but it wasn't as bad as I had feared. We stopped at the Tennessee welcome center on the outskirts of Bristol as soon as we crossed the state line, and I soon noticed an odd building shaped like a guitar across the highway. So, I used Google and learned all about the "Grand Guitar" from roadsideamerica.com. It was built in 1983 and for a while housed a music emporium of sorts, but later fell into disuse. According to one of the brochures I picked up at the welcome center, Bristol, Tennessee considers itself the "Birthplace of Country Music."
From there we took a detour to the west in order to visit old friends of ours in the town of Rogersville. Then we resumed our journey toward the southwest, and arrived in Knoxville just as the sun was about to set. We dined at a decent barbecue restaurant (Buddy's BBQ) and after a few false starts, found a motel for the night. With hundreds of thousands of "eclipse tourists" swarming into the region, [the choices were limited and] we couldn't afford to be too picky.
The skies were bright blue at daybreak, just as had been forecast, a big reassurance. Since the eclipse would not start until about 1:00 in the afternoon, and we were within a stone's throw of the zone of totality, there was no big rush. I had only been in Knoxville once before, and didn't even stop, so I wanted to do a bit of exploration while we were there. So the first thing to do was take advantage of the morning sun and get a nice backlit photo of the city center. The photo below shows the "Sunsphere" from the 1982 Worlds Fair, as well as two churches which I later photographed from a closer vantage point:
After crossing the river into downtown, I drove to see the Tennessee, which I had discovered on a city map during the night. Why would a state's Supreme Court be seated in a city other than the capital? I wondered, Is Tennessee like Bolivia, where the Supreme Court is located in Sucre rather than La Paz? Not quite. It turns out that their Supreme Court has a distinctly regional composition (at least one of the five members must be from each of the state's three regions), and the court periodically rotates between Nashville (center), Knoxville (east), and Jackson (west). Apparently Memphis wasn't very big in the early days. I discovered that the Supreme Court shares a building with the Post Office, which seems unusual.
One thing we noticed driving through Tennessee was the predominance of Baptist churches across the countryside. We even saw two Baptist churches right across the road from each other! They were probably of different sectarian origins. So it was no surprise that the First Baptist Church occupies a prominent position across the street from the Supreme Court. A couple blocks to the south is the Church Street United Methodist Church (also visible in the photo above), and a couple blocks to the west are St. John's Cathedral (Episcopalian) and a Catholic church.
Then we headed to the World's Fair Park, which occupies a filled-in ravine along the south edge of downtown. I remember the 1982 World's Fair (in part thanks to postage stamps, which I collect), but according the Wikipedia, it was only a "specialized" exposition. The "genuine" World's Fairs of the modern era have been:
- 1962 - Seattle
- 1967 - Montreal, Canada
- 1970 - Osaka, Japan
- 1992 - Seville, Spain
- 2000 - Hanover, Germany
- 2010 - Shanghai, China
- 2015 - Milan, Italy
Next, we headed south on Cumberland Avenue past the sprawling University of Tennessee campus, looking in vain for a Starbucks to have breakfast. It was while we were at McDonald's that I got a text message from fellow birder Peter Van Acker, who was already in the town of Sweetwater, so that became our destination. I had one more sight to see in Knoxville, and that was Neyland Stadium, home of the Tennessee Volunteers. Why??? Because with a capacity of 102,455 (according to Wikipedia), it happens to be the fifth-biggest football stadium in the country, that's why! For a brief period after the upper deck was totally enclosed in 1996, it was the biggest stadium in the country. I also visited the (now) #1-ranked Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor (capacity 107,601 according to Wikipedia) in 2015 (delayed blog post). But to get in a good position for a photograph, we had to backtrack and re-cross the Tennessee River. That took an extra 20 minutes or so, but also gave me a good look at the UT Law School building.
Finally, we got onto I-40 southbound, and immediately encountered extremely heavy traffic. It was so slow that we took over an hour just to get out of the Knoxville metropolitan area. For a while, I wasn't sure if we would make it to Sweetwater, which is ideally positioned along the center of the zone of totality, thus giving viewers more time to see the total eclipse. I was amused by the "No parking during eclipse" signs displayed above the interstate highways. Once we arrived in Sweetwater, it was clear that parking was scarce. The going rate was $20, with some places charging $30 or even $40, but a nice guy at the entrance to one of the temporary "campgrounds" ($40!) told us that the nearby Flea Market charged only $5, so that's where we went.
The total eclipse was over at about 2:35, and not long afterwards we departed Sweetwater amidst a swarm of traffic the likes of which I'm sure that town had never seen. I tried to outsmart the masses who were congregating along I-40 by heading east, intending to take the back roads and bypass Knoxville. It was a good plan, but the local law enforcement people didn't seem to know what they were doing, as we encountered lengthy, needless delays in each town along the way: Madisonville, Vonore, Maryville, and Newell Station. (At one point we were only about ten miles from Smoky Mountain National Park and the town of Gatlinburg, which suffered catastrophic forest fires a few months ago.) We got back onto I-40 as the sun was getting low in the sky (about 7:00), and even after I-81 split off from I-40, we were just creeping along at about 10-20 MPH for most of the way through northeast Tennessee. Even after we made it into Virginia the pace remained miserably slow, aside from a few occasional stretches. Not until 3:30 AM did we make it home -- over 12 1/2 hours driving time covering 380 miles. That's an average of only about 30 MPH! Nevertheless, it was undoubtedly still worth the effort, and we made the most of our travel time by visiting interesting places in Knoxville.
Many more photos, including ones of the solar eclipse, can be seen on the Chronological (2017) Photo Gallery page. The exclamation marks next to the camera icons on that page show double-sized versions of those photos (1200 x 800 pixels rather than 600 x 400), which you can also see by clicking on the latter three photos above. In addition I added one more total eclipse photo since my Wednesday blog post, a freeze frame image from a video clip that I took. It is more natural looking that the other total eclipse photos, even though I used the same camera for still photos and videos. I hope you enjoy those photos and this travelog!