There are a lot of things I like about Tennessee, but I’ll start at the top: in Tennessee, they have MoonPies.
You can find them everywhere. Not just at gas stations and Walmarts. I found a MoonPie on my motel pillow.
I can remember eating a MoonPie with my father when we briefly lived in Tennessee as a boy. He was an ironworker, building the GM plant in Spring Hill. I was a redhead, missing teeth.
It was morning. He handed me a MoonPie and a Royal Crown Cola in a glass bottle. We sat on the curb outside the Shell station and ate in silence. Daddy read a newspaper. I chewed with my mouth open.
For the unbaptized, MoonPies are chocolate marshmallowy graham cracker snacks that Tennesseeans take seriously. Tennesseeans eat MoonPies at a variety of special occasions, such as birthdays, graduations, real estate closings, holy communion, etc.
The pies come in different flavors. They have chocolate, vanilla, banana, strawberry and salted caramel. And once per year, just before the Tennessee-Florida game, they sell MoonPies made out of real University of Florida graduates.
Yesterday I was in Chattanooga, the spiritual birthplace of MoonPies. I had time to kill, so I stopped at a gas station to purchase a MoonPie and an RC Cola.
I sat on the curb to eat my vittles because I am haunted by an ironworker.
Outside, I met an man who moved to Tennessee from New York, back in the 1970s. He was wearing dirty construction clothes, spitting into a Mountain Dew bottle. Which, by the way, is also a Tennessee-invented product.
The Mountain Dew, not the spit.
“I moved here because Tennessee just FEELS good,” the man said. “Came here as a sheet-metal worker. I’ve lived all over the U.S. But nobody is as nice as they are in Tennessee.”
“It’s the people that make Tennessee special. Nicest people in the nation, and you can quote me.”
He’s right. I’ve only been in Tennessee for 24 hours. But so far, two waitress have called me “sugar,” three people have held the door for me, and one guy on the street was thoughtful enough to sincerely try to save my soul from everlasting damnation.
After finishing my MoonPie, I drove across the Big Bend State following U.S. Route 11. I got stuck behind a church van traveling 32 mph in a 55-mph zone. Mount Zion Baptist, I’m looking at you.
But I was content to drive slow through the violently green Appalachians.
I passed Cleveland, Charleston, and bounded over the Hiwassee River. Pretty towns passed by my windows like faded memories. Calhoun. Riceville. Athens. Sweetwater.
In a way, Tennessee contains all the best parts of the America, crammed together into one giant, geometrical rhomboid. You have the Smoky Mountains Majesty, mirrored rivers, barbecue, Jack Daniels, and of course, Elvis.
There’s also a lot of good beer in Tennessee. As a journalist, it is my continuing mission to make sure the beer in each state is up to standard. So I pulled over for the night in Knoxville and ate supper at one of the craft breweries.
I sat at the bar beside a guy from Collierville. He was an eighth generation Tennesseean.
“Our state gets a bad rap on TV,” he said. “Whenever you see us on the news, or in movies, they make us look like shirtless hicks with three teeth. That’s not fair. I got all five of my teeth.”
Another man chimed in.
“If you’re talking Tennessee,” he said, “I got three words for you. Peyton Manning. ”
The man was not only wearing a Tennessee jersey, he had a portrait of Peyton Manning tattooed on his left shoulder blade. Although truthfully, the tat looked a lot more like Don Knotts after a very long night. But I didn’t say anything.
Namely, because Tennesseeans are crazy when it comes to football. This is a state where people skip their own mothers’ funerals to attend games.
A state where the university president once said, “We want a university our football team can be proud of.”
But the best part about Tennessee, hands down, is the morning time.
It happens every day at daybreak. When the sun raises itself above the Great Appalachian Valley, the world breaks out into a poem. The brightness peeks through the feathered quilts of heavy mountain mist. Spears of yellow light shoot across the forests. You smell foliage. Wet earth. Pinery. Grass.
I woke up early with the scent of dawn. I hit Route 11, bound for North Carolina. But before leaving Tennessee’s borders, I stopped at a Sunoco gas station. I pushed open the door. The bell dinged.
I found a MoonPie display. I bought one MoonPie, one RC Cola, and one copy of the Knoxville News, still warm. Then, I sat on the curb to consume all three in the Tennessee morning light.
Because, as I say, I am haunted.