After the poor weather of the first few days on the road, I was glateful to be greeted by clear skies and warm sun on the third episode of my cross-country adventure. Just an hour after leaving Margaret and Blake behind in Asheville, I was climbing into the Great Smoky Mountains, towards the peaks, towards Tennessee, towards the sun. The Smokies were delightful, and the narrow curving road that brought me over the foothills and through their towering passes equally so. More diverse than the Shenandoah, this range included heavily wooded valleys of emerald forest, small meadows teeming with aviary wildlife, and a grey haze, a smoke from where the Great Smokies get their name, that gives the appearance of a forest ablaze.
Midway through the mountains, I crossed from North Carolina to Tennessee and stopped at an overlook for a quick stretch and a glance at the breathtaking view thousands of feet below. Behind me, a troupe of bikers, straddling Harleys and choppers of varying size and grandeur, pulled into the pass. Engines roaring, they parked in quick, seemingly choreographed succession, until a biker about halfway in to the pack of thirty hit a curb and flipped up onto it, landing amongst a pile of dust and fiberglass and alloy with a metallic crash. Riders at his rear skirted around him, brakes screeching, to avoid a catastrophic pileup and, when all came to a halt, friends and strangers rushed to his side with worry.
He lay on the ground, barely moving, for an eternity, then stirred slowly, propping himself on his elbows, gripping and massaging his left leg, which he'd come down on in the spill. He was okay, fortunately, although in this case okay was a relative term. His shin was injured, maybe broken, and less importantly, his bike was a wreck, but in navigating such a winding set of mountains, his small error in judgment could have resulted in far more fatal consequences. Confident he was in good hands amongst his several dozen fellow riders and the throng of onlookers, I retreated from the circle of concern, carefully boarded my own bike, and cautiously, very cautiously, descended the Tennessee side of the range with a renewed sense of just how fragile the human body is while on a two-wheeled vehicle capable of such great speed and power.
The Tennessee side of the Great Smokies is even more majestic than the North Carolina parts. Really, all of Tennessee is a pleasure to drive through, the next hour or two to Knoxville passing by in a breeze. I arrived to Knoxville in the early afternoon, and found myself impressed by just how lovely, green, and cultured of a town it was. Union Square, its main plaza, was alive with activity, on a Monday no less, with street performers singing, art galleries bustling, and locals catching up over beer and coffee at the half-dozen patio pubs lining the square.
Having located a well-reviewed eatery offering what turned out to be a superb tofu sandwich, I sat by the front window and watched the people go by as I ate. From my left came a band of protesters, dreadlocks billowing in the wind, with signs favoring "TRANSPORTATION" but without enough context clues, for an outsider like me, to understand what that meant. From my right came a pair of dogs, each collared and leashed but leashes dragging on the ground as the dogs' guardian stood nearby, with the smaller of the two biting the leash of the larger one, actually trying to pull its heavier companion along in the most comical of ways. And so this continued throughout my lunch, entertaining little spectacles of originality and humor that one would not, if one had been influenced by the pervasive stereotype, expect to find in a state like Tennessee.
Before leaving town, I asked a passing police officer what the one thing was, if a traveler were only passing through town, that they should absolutely see before leaving Knoxville, a prompt I've repeated in nearly every town I've been to since. The officer, in almost an instant, responded confidently with a recommendation to the East Tennessee Historical Society & Museum, which isn't something I'd have stopped in on my own, but who was I, I thought, to question the judgment of this Knoxville native, and so I went, $5 admission ticket and all, into the museum, and truthfully, I was duly impressed by the quality and value of this small treasure.
In my short time there, I learned of the bitter struggle between East Tennesseans and their westernmore statesmen, the former opposing secession and the latter supporting it, and the resulting bloodshed and distrust bred by a civil war within a Civil War. I learned of Tennesseans' acute awareness of the Appalachian stereotype, of their portrayal as uneducated mountainfolk for the better part of a century, of their comfort with turning that undeserved stereotype into a tourism industry and souvenir powerhouse. I learned of a state in which, I realized, I knew nearly nothing about, and I left Knoxville feeling better for it.
My next stop was Nashville, an uneventful three-hour ride west, which brought me to the home of Ben, a friend and colleague, and his wonderful wife Kate. Over dinner, after catching up on life, I barraged Ben, a public policy nerd like myself, and Kate, a teacher with great insights into Tennessee's education challenges, with questions about Nashville's culture and history and politics, questions which the two of them so generously and thoughtfully answered. Afterwards, feeling as though had a good idea of what Nashville was all about, we drove about the city for a tour of some of Nashville's more famous sites, then headed to a filling station, a unique establishment in which one brings a jug into what is essentially a to-go bar with dozens of local brews on tap, and we brought ample quantities of microbrew back to Ben and Kate's for some more friendly conversation before drifting off to sleep.
The next morning, I ran a few errands about town and before departing the city, I visited Nashville's Parthenon, a full-size replica of the Athenian monument with a towering statue of Athena inside, which, as it turns out, is the largest indoor statue anywhere in the world. Then, having sufficiently quenched my thirst for a novel tourist destination, I steered south, ambling onto the Natchez Trace Parkway somewhere outside of town.
The Natchez Trace Parkway is something of an environmental wonder. Stretching for nearly five hundred miles from Nashville to the small town of Natchez in southwest Mississippi, the Parkway follows an old Native American hunting route, and has been preserved by the National Park Service as one of the country's most pristine and uninterrupted stretches of asphalt. Were one to pack enough gas and food for the full length of the Trace, one could drive an entire day without ever seeing a gas station, a fast food stop, a billboard, or really, any other sign of development beyond a few scattered rest stops, picnic areas, and campgrounds alongside the road. The Trace, to be fair, falls short of the exhilarating splendor of better known scenic drives, for it lacks the imposing mountains or ever-expansive overlooks of more adrenaline-inducing terrain. If anything, one could say the Trace is boring, for its five hundred miles, spare a few punctuating meadows, all look the same: gentle rolling hills, pine forests, black meandering road.
But if the Trace is boring, it is the very best kind of boring. Its scenery is meditative, subtle enough that it allows the driver to engage in autopilot, to let the land's natural curves lead the way, without the screaming distractions, or the high speeds, of the interstate. For the speed limit of the Trace is also fifty miles per hour, certainly not the most expeditious way to jump state lines, but undoubtedly one of the most relaxing.
By dusk, I'd made it three hundred miles south of Nashville, and satisfied with my progress for the day, I stopped at the next campsite along the Trace. Here, I mingled with a few fellow travelers, set up camp and started a small fire of dampened, smoky wood, and slept early and soundly. By 6AM, I was back on the road, in Jackson by late morning. I then switched to Highway 61, a historic route along the Mississippi River memorialized in song by the likes of Bob Dylan. The hype, though, proved greater than the reality, and I found myself quickly yearning for the Natchez Trace over the droll, straight roads of 61. And so the next time the paths intersected, I jumped courses once again, finishing the Trace in the town of Natchez, getting my first true glimpse of the Mississippi River, and then, after a short break, setting a southeast route toward New Orleans.
I arrived outside of New Orleans at the height of rush hour, an unpleasant place to be on a scooter amongst a stampede of two-ton cars. Slowly, I worked my way into the city, quickly finding a stylish hostel, colored with the decor of all of India, a few miles outside the French Quarter. I took a moment here to relax, drop my pack, and make a few phone calls, then I hopped a streetcar into the Quarter to see what all the fuss was about.
Note: Things get a little weird here (this is, after all, New Orleans). I gave thought to keeping this a journal-only entry, but in the interest of making this blog the most honest account of a journey of this sort, the good and the bad, transparency won out, even if the below section is very poorly articulated. So, of course, feel free to skip the remainder of this entry if you're uncomfortable with this sort of thing, which upon first glance is about strip clubs but is, really, perhaps controversially, about the counterintuitive gender relations that occur inside such establishments.
The fuss was, indeed, about something. The French Quarter, early on a Wednesday night, was a sea of bodies, some drunken and clothed, others naked and painted in metallic silver and moving in robotic rhythms in exchange for monetary donations. Live music beckoned from every open door, and aggressive men stood outside each demanding that you enter now because his venue charges no cover and is clearly the most happening place on the strip. All around, liquor flowed, open containers making their way from venue to venue with hosts in tow. Laughter, screams, catcalls. Scantily clad women, of which there were many, standing provocatively outside of strip clubs, of which there were many.
Overwhelmed by the sheer sensory input of it all, I ducked into a corner bar with a full crowd and a decent band and ordered a beer. Moments later, I was approached by a trolling brunette bartender in a black tanktop with a large glow-in-the-dark sticker reading "$3" stamped atop it. She asked if I wanted a shot, from a test tube, from a rack of test tubes she was carrying, to which I politely smiled and declined. Grimacing with a look of hurt of questionable sincerity, she upped her offer, proposing that maybe instead, I buy us both a shot. This proposal was no more enticing, but recognizing that it would be the speediest of ways to conclude this transaction, I obliged, shelling over a fistful of dollars. She squealed with delight, placed the bottom end of the test tube in her mouth, and then signaled that the way I was supposed to consume this small gulp of alcohol was through some Lady and the Tramp-style maneuver that it's better I don't fully explain. Afterwards, she signaled she was ready for her shot, which I was to administer through this same process.
To clarify, it's not that this traveling bartender wasn't a lovely, attractive young woman. She was. Friendly too. My cynicism throughout this transaction, rather, was that it was just that: transactional. It lacked the originality and sincerity of any real engagement; her lines felt too practiced, too rehearsed, as though they had been used on scores of this Wednesday night crowd for all the Wednesday nights of history. The follow-up conversation, which consisted of where I was from, what I was doing in New Orleans, and whether I thought I maybe wanted another shot in a few minutes was no less contrived, and fearing that I'd shown weakness by giving in so easily and that my hopes of a quiet night of watching not-so-quiet music were now dashed, I excused myself, pushing through the crowd back into the damp air of Bourbon Street.
The night, as I'm sure is true of many men's nights on Bourbon Street, got no gentler from here. Roaming the blocks looking for something of a more innocent nature, which I learned only after leaving New Orleans was to be found on the nearby Frenchmen Street, I felt overwhelmed by the clamor and self-indulgence around me. Resigning myself to the realization that Bourbon Street by night, perhaps, was not my scene, I opted instead to turn this expedition into an anthropological study, an immersion, however uncomfortable, into American culture, which was, I remembered, one of the key aims of this whole silly journey. And that it was brought me to the strip club.
Incidentally, I'd never been to a strip club before. I never found them to be particularly appealing places, nor did I expect any establishment on Bourbon Street would be an exception, but, I told myself, strip clubs are undeniably a piece of the American fabric, and if I were to truly experience America, if I were to really make an effort to embed myself in the lives of those whom I do not know or understand, then somewhere along the way, a visit to such a club was in order.
My task, then, was to determine precisely where to go, at which of the many gentlemen's venues along this strip to enter. Immediately, I was repelled by the larger establishments, the Hustler Clubs and the neon megaplazas that promised "World Famous Girls," whatever that might mean. No, if I was to do this, I would do it local, and so I wandered into a more mellow mom-and-pop venue with handprinted signs and a friendly bespectacled girl out front who smiled gingerly, sincerely, as I made my way in, and asked where I'd like to sit, and I said toward the back was fine, and that was that.
Or so I thought. Within moments, I was greeted by a young woman of limited clothedness who sat next to me and asked where I was from and what I was up to and if I knew that there was an upstairs where things get even more fun, and in case I didn't know what that meant, she confirmed her euphemism with a wandering, uninvited hand. I shifted, thanked her for the offer and told her I'd think about it, but not right now, and after a few minutes, she wandered over to a poor old chap at a nearby table for a similar routine.
Having labeled myself as whatever one gets labeled when they don't want to go upstairs, I was left alone for the next fifteen minutes, during which I studied, with genuine intellectual curiosity, the interactions between those beautiful, confident women and those awkward, self-conscious, timid men, and found myself growing increasingly troubled. It's difficult to say what I found so troubling, even now, but I'll do my best to explain.
Upon entering the club, I'd expected to feel sorry for the women who worked there, to feel sorry for their need to disrobe for cash, to be mistreated and objectified by disrespectful, misogynistic men. And though I seek to make no generalizations about strip clubs in general, as I'm sure the Hustler Club across the street catered much more to that clientele, that was not what I saw where I was. What I saw, instead, was the opposite. I didn't feel sorry for the women; they looked comfortable, happy, in their element. They didn't appear to be stripping out of dire necessity, but rather because it was good, easy money. They seemed to enjoy the attention, enjoy the flattery enjoy, dare I say, the thrill of the hunt. They were, in other words, the predator.
What I saw in those men, on the other hand, was prey. Objectification. I saw the sadness of a hundred men in each one of them, the despair of a thousand rejections, the scars of a humiliating breakup or a difficult adolescence. Men don't come to strip clubs to see naked women, I realized, they come to these places because they are the only places where they can be respected, admired, complimented. They're not paying for flesh. They're paying for companionship.
And whether its a gentlemen's club where all is bared or a live music bar where a woman trades conversation for weak shots from a test tube, the question I found following me out of New Orleans is whether it's acceptable, responsible, appropriate for women to sell feigned attraction. I wondered if these men were in denial about this deception, whether they viewed the kind words and provocative hints as honest she-must-really-like-me truisms, or if they're also in on the act, game for the charade, an actor in the performance. And if the former be the case, which, if men are really looking for companionship, would be my hypothesis, then I struggled, deeply, with the morality of such grave deception. Is it okay, I wondered, if the customer is duped but leaves satisfied, never any the wiser? To give a more concrete parallel, is it justifiable for a shady jeweler to sell a fake diamond if the buyer never finds out it isn't real? And why, then, do we view the men who visit strip clubs as oppressors, when they may very well be the victims?
I left the club with these thoughts swirling in my head, and left New Orleans the next morning feeling lonely and despondent for the first time on my journey. Though I had originally intended to stay another day in the Big Easy, being among so many people, but not really being among them at all, seeing a side of humanity I simply didn't like or couldn't understand, feeling smothered by self-indulgence, it left me feeling homesick, confused, desperate for some familiar, wholesome interaction, desperate for a reprieve from the drunkenness and debauchery around me. The notions of being alone and being lonely began to diverge in my head; though I was perfectly comfortable being alone, climbing a remote mountain or rolling down an empty road with only my thoughts for company, to be in a city such as this, in which I was surrounded by thousands but lacked the courage to attempt to connect with any of them, or more likely the confidence that any such connection could be forged, was pushing me into a very negative, lonely place.
What I needed, I knew, was an absence of bodies, a lowered ratio of people to people I couldn't relate to. I needed to go, to be alone, to drive myself into the distance, into the wild, away from the city, away from it all. And so I went, the next morning, to the west, to something different. To the bayou.
Update: I realize in my haste that this post reads as though the strip club was my primary impetus for leaving New Orleans so quickly. It wasn't. I should also note that despite my seemingly prudish existential meltdown on Bourbon Street, I really did enjoy many aspects of the city: its architecture, its slow pace, its friendly people. The above incident, in retrospect, had more to do with being alone in a city for the first time on this trip and should not be a reflection of the particular city, but rather my internal state of mind. Also, this rut, remember, was many days ago, and I'm feeling much better about this whole humanity thing now.