Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The most beautiful part of East Tennessee ...

      We are back home in Fort Worth after a week's visit to East Tennessee, an area we consider one of the most beautiful in the country.
      On those one or two days when the leaves turn their fall colors, it is a spectacular, breathtaking sight. It is one of our favorite memories of our time there, and one we try to recapture.
      We lived in Knoxville for almost six years when I worked in the sports department of the News Sentinel, and Beatrice also worked in the paper's editorial/news department.
      When we left in December 2001, we left part of our hearts. Because we enjoyed living there as much as any place we've been, but also because we left behind our Rachel, then a junior at the University of Tennessee.
      So we've returned to the Smoky Mountains region at least once almost every year, sometimes twice, and it's become an annual October trip to coincide -- hopefully -- with the leaf-turning time, but moreso for another reason.
      The young girl we left behind is now Mrs. Smith and -- oh, she'll love this -- she is not as young as she once was. But she's grown up a lot. She is a wife and a daughter-in-law and a dedicated middle-school librarian and ... the most conscientious mother I know, other than her own.
      Our first grandchild, Josephine Nicole Smith ("Josie"), was born Oct. 23, coinciding wonderfully with those leaves. She turned 6 today.
      So we go to see what we think are the two most beautiful faces who live in that beautiful confluence of trees, rolling hills, lakes, streams and those surrounding mountains in a smoky setting.
      Rachel would tell us that Russell's face is beautiful, too. I leave that for his mother-in-law to say and I'll say -- jokingly, please -- that he has a face for radio.
      Actually, he has a voice for radio. He is the host of "The Drive" -- a sports-talk show in Knoxville and East Tennessee weekday afternoons from 3 to 5. And in between talk of Vols football and other matters a week ago, we tuned into the show as we were heading into town and heard him mention the re-opening of the national park and, within the first five minutes, the fact that "the in-laws are coming in."
      Nice to hear at the end of the long drive we've become accustomed to making. It is, depending on the length of the stops, some 15 to 16 hours, with an overnight stay, either in Memphis but mostly in Meridian, Miss.
      We have gone the "northern" route -- I-30 and then I-40 through Little Rock and Memphis and Nashville -- but we only do that occasionally, primarily to see our friends, the Pruetts, in Germantown (a Memphis suburb).
      We prefer to take the "southern" route -- I-20 through East Texas, North Louisiana, central Mississippi and across Alabama through Tuscaloosa (don't stop there for too long, if we can help it) and Birmingham, and then north on I-59 into Chattanooga and on to Knoxville.
The neighborhood tree in Knoxville: Usually bright
 orange when we arrive, but not this year.
      That way, leaving Fort Worth by about 8 a.m., we drive some 8 1/2 hours to Meridian, then six hours the next day -- all the driving in the daytime (it's getting tougher to drive at night). On the way home on recent trips, we've gone from Knoxville to an overnight in Ruston, La., which affords me a chance sometimes to see some old friends from our long ties in North Louisiana.
      Taxing as the travel is -- we get stiffer and tire more easily each time, it seems -- we have this down to a routine.
      Worn as we are the second day going toward Knoxville, when we get about 50 miles south of Chattanooga, the terrain begins to change -- the mountains, seemingly, begin to rise, the trees begin to change colors to the wonderful reds, browns, yellows and purples mixed in with with the greens.
      When we see that, we know it is autumn.
      We can usually judge the full impact of the leaf-turning when we reach Russell and Rachel and Josie's neighborhood. There is a tree at the corner of their street -- our last left turn before their driveway -- that is usually a bright orange by the time we get there.
      But not this year. It was orange mixed with green, still trying on its fall coat.
Josie, birthday cake for breakfast as she turns 6.
      And here's why: We were early this year. The trip -- which we've taken for all of Josie's birthdays except for when she turned 1 (Bea was on a cruise and I was working) -- was a week before her birthday.
      That's because Josie is now in kindergarten, and so her fall break from school, and her mother's, was last week. Rachel suggested we time our trip to allow us to spend four full days with them.
      We made the most of it -- the birthday party and a wonderful dinner at Russell's parents' home -- shopping trips for the women, a couple of restaurant meals, visits with friends -- and a day of football for Russell and me.
      We discussed his show and SEC football and -- for a change -- we got to see his Tennessee Vols beat a ranked opponent (for the first time in four years) and see my LSU Tigers lose to Ole Miss (for the first time in four years). Not a good finish to that Saturday.
      But, of course, it's the visit that counts, and spending time with Josie is always precious. We see her maybe three times a year -- sometimes we also make a spring trip, and they come to Texas in the summer -- and we are always awed at her growth.
        I could write a full blog on this, but I'll limit it to a couple of examples. She can draw beautifully, such as a life-like bunny sitting in grass; she writes her own "books," cutting up sheets of paper into pages and stapling them together, then penciling an 8- to 10-page "story"; and, as she pointed out several times, "I can read." Indeed, she can.
        She sounded out the words on my sweatshirt -- "Louisiana Tesh" she said (her mother told her the "ch" is a "k" sound -- and the next day I saw her sound out the "Woodlawn" on the royal-blue light jacket I was wearing.
        She can take the many children's books in her room and her home -- remember, our daughter is an extensive reader -- and actually read them to you.
        OK, I'm her Opa, and I'm a little partial, and a little amazed.
        But this is a major reason we go to East Tennessee -- the little girl who looks like and reminds us so much of our little girl.
        (Of course, an hour away from where we live, there are two little boys -- Josie's cousins -- who remind us of the little boy who was such a joy in the early years of our marriage.)
        Yes, it's a long trip to Knoxville and back, and it's so much a part of our lives.


  1. From Elsa Van Thyn: Happy Birthday to Josie. She is an extraordinary child. The colors of fall makes living in the northern part of the country worth it. I think the colors are delayed this year because it was so hot for longer than usual. Just this week it began to feel like fall.

  2. From Jack Thigpen: No trip is too long to visit grandchildren. We used to drive to Indianapolis to see ours, but are thankful they are closer now in Trophy Club (Texas). By the way, my wife Ann’s birthday is also Oct. 23.

  3. From Tommy Youngblood: The University of Tennessee is impressive. That is the one stadium i remember as much as LSU. We played in the fall and the colors were memorable. Good story.