Friday, 28 September 2012

... been to Lynchburg, Tennessee

NB: If anyone's confused by the apparent sudden return to the States, a couple of weeks after I got home, don't be: over the next few days/weeks I will be posting the blogs I wrote but didn't upload on the trip, when Hurricane Isaac got rather t(r)opical and I posted about that instead.

23 August, 2012

So I'm typing this in the back of a hire car driven by a woman I met a couple of hours ago called Cecily, who is on an impromptu holiday around the south. The reason Bex isn't driving the car is that the car hire company at the airport refused to accept her debit card as security for our (prepaid) car. So we got a ride …

Cecily is a feisty fortysomething redhead with something of the younger Susan Sarandon about her – she's down from Rhode Island on an Elvis-themed fly-drive, and works as a speech pathologist. I had visions of  a CSI-style job, analysing the speech patterns of killers' telephone threats – but it turns out she's what we'd call a speech therapist. Still, she and Bex bond over their respective vocations, helping the young with their stutters (Cecily) and their ASBOs (Bex).

Our chauffeur for the day

Note to self (and others): it's very hard to do many things in the US without having a credit card. I distrust the very notion of credit cards, and have never had one on principle, but in the US, debit cards seem to be for poor people – those who can't get credit. It's madness (to me) that theoretical money loaned to you by a card company should be seen as more trustworthy, valuable or real than actual money that actually exists in your account – but there it is. So be warned, if you want to hire a car in the US – or book into certain hotels – a credit card is your friend.

Attempting to sort out the credit clusterfuck via phone (the car had been booked online) we both discovered that our phones had no reception in the airport (where we had to take a cab to hire the car … it's all a bit complicated). Bex's Blackberry hasn't worked since she's been out there – my Nokia (on 02) has, but costs 90p/minute to use, and the data charges would make your eyes fall out. So we tiptoed tentatively up to Cecily, with whom we had shared the cab to the airport – she too was trying to hire a car – and asked if maybe perhaps we could borrow her phone to call the hire company?

She considered it. “Do you want to do something really wild?”
Wild in Nashville can mean a lot of things. You can listen to BrazilBilly and the cocktails come in soup bowl-sized margarita-glasses. Sure, what?
“Why don't I drive you to Lynchburg? I was only going to drive around today anyway (she's on her way to Memphis tomorrow) and it seems like the Jack Daniel distillery would be a good place to go.”
JD's distillery: a good place to go
Our jaws dropped: in England this might be the cue to back away smiling, call the police and let them know that we had found the M11 Killer, but in the US people are just much more open and likely to do that sort of thing. People start talking to you in the street, in bus queues, in shops, anywhere: it's a bit overwhelming at first for a tight-lipped Brit, but eventually you unclench and accept that strangers who come up to you are almost certainly not begging, mugging, or crazy – they're just friendly.

So, given that getting another car (and a refund on the first one) was likely to be a bureaucratic nightmare, we said yes. Extreme gratitude was the order of the day: I'd had visions of spending our one full day in Nashville in the airport, on the (90p a minute) phone, and could have wept with relief. We followed Cecily to the underground car-park, where she pulled a gun out of her purse and – I jest, of course. We were shown to an airconditioned silver-white Dodge with super comfortable seats, and off we set to Moore County.

Our "ride"
Everyone had told us the drive was easy – and if you've done it before it probably is – but we had to stop at a couple of places (including one liquor store packed to the gunnels with Jack Daniel varieties) to ask directions before we got to Lynchburg.

Lynchburg (pop. 961) is a town entirely fed, watered, clothed and paid by Jack Daniel's distillery (a two-minute walk from the town centre – or rather, the town square). I'm sure you've seen those folksy JD ads on the tube; sepia-toned barrelmen sitting on a porch, sporting dungarees, baseball caps and tobacco-chaw grins – you may even have wondered whether that represents the remotest reality in terms of an enormous, world-famous brand's real factory and staff. 

Lynchburg, pop. 961
Well, it does and it doesn't: the distillery where the whisky is actually made seems much as it was, and the barrelhouse where they keep the stuff (all three stories of it) looks pretty original too. The tour of the distillery is free, and conducted by a potbellied, weathered guide whose Tennessee accent was thicker'n molasses, so Bex and I (and Cecily) only caught about one word in four. Luckily, he gestured a lot. 

Outside, the landscape is rather idyllic: a teeny stream meanders through lush grassland (Tennessee is extremely fertile and green – great farming land) crossed by little wooden bridges. The only weird thing about the flora & fauna of the area is the trees, the barks of which are black with a particular (harmless) mould that occurs wherever there's loads of C02 in the air due to yeast fermentation. They look weird but seem very healthy.

Part of the tour takes in a bottling and labelling production-line, but it's tiny: this is because it's for a specialist offshoot of JD called Single Barrel, which is much more expensive and exclusive. The JD black is bottled a couple of miles down the road (probably by robots, but I didn't ask). There's another variety called Gentleman Jack which is twice-filtered, has an awesome bottle and seemed a bargain at $40, but Bex refused to buy any because it would be heavy and hard to carry, and I don't really like bourbon. (We eventually bought some in Boston's Duty Free with my spare dollars). By the way, though Moore County, where Lynchburg is located, is a dry county, the distillery has special dispensation to sell the “souvenir bottles”, which just happen to have whisky inside them.

Having a look around the consciously picturesque, rinky-dink town square, with a disproportionately massive courthouse, a shedload of JD souvenir, antique and ice-cream shops, takes about three minutes, as long as you don't go into the shops. Lynchburg is TINY, and every single person there either works at the distillery or at some sort of related tourist venture. Without Jack Daniel, this would just be a wide place in the road. But it's very pretty – it looks, essentially, like an Old West stage set, and there's nothing wrong with that. And the Blackberry Cobbler ice cream I had was delicious.

Showdown at the souvenir shop ...
Driving back, past endless blocky chain restaurants, discount stores, gas stations and discount warehouses, all from the “decorated shed” school of architecture, Bex spotted a roadside barbecue stand. The menu offered nothing for vegetarians (which was fine, as I had pre-emptively squirrelled some airplane peanuts and a cinnamon doughnut into my bag) so I stayed in the car and read my Kindle. 

Roadside picnic!
After some time, Bex and Cecily returned, food in hand, looking slightly exhausted. Apparently the delay had been caused by the sous-chef who was a little slow, and kept trying to grill the meat with the cellophane still on. Nonetheless, the ribs, coleslaw and BBQ beans were all pronounced “better than Wendy's” (or any other highway chain) by the other two, who ate them parked opposite a field looking at cows. Having no meat to wrestle with, I wandered up and down the fence photographing the cows. You know you're a tourist when you take pictures of cows.


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