Heading out on your own requires an extraordinary amount of help.
Zach Bowman has sold everything he owns, slapped a camper to his high-mileage 2003 Dodge Ram and has taken his family on the road. His clan numbers three, counting wife, Beth, and their infant daughter. They are touring America, working and discovering, and are sending The Drive periodic dispatches from the road.
In a matter of days we’ll load up the truck and head somewhere. Anywhere, or everywhere we can get to inside a year. It’s exhilarating, that intoxicating rush of possibility spiked clear through with worry. The past two weeks have been a certain flavor of hell as we try to pack up what’s left, button down the truck and the camper, and check off an ever-expanding list of must-dos. These past weeks have also been a perfect reminder of why we love this town.
It doesn’t look like much from the interstate: a cluster of low brick buildings, one weird glass-and-steel relic from a bygone World’s Fair, a few reaching office towers amid a nauseating ring of sprawl. To the jaded it’s the biggest little town in Tennessee, the nicest truck stop on I-75. Or maybe it’s the home of the Vols and nothing else. The jaded can chew glass and keep rolling.
It was Tennessee’s first capitol back when the state was the edge of the wild frontier and the hills were as liable to spill your blood as take your breath. And while the crown eventually moved to Nashville, Knoxville never lost the fierceness of heart that made it a bright spot on the banks of the Tennessee River.
It was the cradle of country music and the birthplace of bluegrass. Home to Acuff and Atkins, Tarantino and McCarthy. The threads of this town run out wide over the Earth.
Raising a place up out of the wilderness requires optimism, and the soil here is thick with it. You can see it in the small, excellent businesses that bloom in town. The local haunts are glad the University of Tennessee is here but none are tied to the yearly swell of the student body. I’ve lived here eight years, actively hunting new places to grab a bite or swill a coffee, and even I can’t keep track of them all. The Curious Dog and Old City Java. Flats and Taps and Dead End BBQ and Sweet P’s and The Casual Pint. The Lunch House. It’s a town that loves to eat.
It’s a town that loves work, too. As someone who spins a wrench on occasion I’ve been spoiled by the wealth of light industry. Supply warehouses for three major parts chains and places whose sole purpose is to manufacture and distribute hoses. Or the same for bearings, or seals, or springs, or bolts. If you can’t find it sitting on a shelf in Knoxville there’s probably a local tradesman who can fabricate it out of nothing but some material and the wealth of his years.
All that could be said of other middleweight cities. But I’ve never met a body of people so willing to help, so eager to put their own plans and desires on hold for another in need; it’s in their bones. Blood or stranger, it doesn’t matter. Grow up here and you’ll learn about Davey Crocket, the genesis of the Volunteer legend, shucking west when no one else would all because some poor bastards in Texas found themselves surrounded by someone else’s army. He died out there in the desert, alongside everyone else at the Alamo. The lesson’s clear: help when you can, at any cost.
I’ve needed help these past two weeks. All I could take, really. And it came from all corners of our life here. Friends I haven’t seen or spoken to in months turned over resources and time to get us on the road. So it’s with infinite pride that I say, thank you.
To Kevan Ray and the Bold Overland group, including Steve Springs at Southeast Overland, for wrenching in the cold and the rain. For finding parts and making sure they show up on time. For answering my idiot questions. For standing at my side and making sure I don’t lose my mind. For not saying too much about it when I do.
To Court Harvey and Justin Ellis at Blaziers Trucks for handling freight deliveries and giving me a dry place to work on the truck when rain and snow threatened to make this nightmare a little more hellish. For giving me something to laugh at beyond my own stupidity.
To Jason Cooper at Rock Your 4x4 for being willing to drop everything and take an order. To pull off an impossible delivery of a set of control arms and a winch, all at a last-second notice.
To Christian Moe and the team at Discount Tire in Alcoa, for help with my foolish tire choice. And for the beer. All the beer.
Knoxville opened its heart to us over the past eight years and we’ve been fortunate to love the life we made here. We leave not because of bitterness, or in search of some brighter spot on the horizon, but because we know we’ll always have somewhere to call home, here, in the hills of Tennessee.