10 Days, 10 States: On The Road In Southern USA (I)

The roads from Texas to the East Coast and back guided us through ten states. Each one unique in its own way, but with one common denominator: tons of Southern charm. Turn up the country music and tag along for the ride. On this outward journey, we explore the inland Southern states.

Five highlights of Southern USA – Inland states

  • Pay a tribute to the King of rock ‘n roll in Graceland {Memphis, TN}
  • Listen to live music in the country capital of the world {Nashville, TN]
  • Go underground in the world’s longest cave system {Mammoth Cave, KY}
  • Sip on Tennessee whiskey at Jack Daniel’s distillery {Lynchburg, TN}
  • Hike to the top of Mount LeConte for stunning views of the Smokies {Great Smoky Mountains, TN}

Motive for this trip was my parents’ visit to Dallas, which I can call home for a year now. It was also the starting point of our eastbound adventure. After crossing into Arkansas, we came up with a game for the road: capture the welcome sign for each state we’d pass through. This turned out to be much more challenging than it sounds. Hours of studying the map, stress when the border was near, disappointment with only half a sign… A car game for ages 16 and up.

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Day 1 – Memphis, Tennessee

The first state we set foot in was Tennessee, home of Jack Daniel’s whiskey, country music and of course, the King.

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Elvis Presley was both discovered and buried in Memphis, Tennessee. In between these two events, he lived a gracious live in his famous mansion Graceland.

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Stepping through the front door is like stepping back into the sixties. Elvis’ passion for decorating turned each room into a work of art.

In the backyard await Elvis’ two custom-designed private planes. He was especially proud of the Lisa Marie, named after his only daughter. Most likely the most luxurious plane you’ll ever set foot on, complete with a library, bed and golden-plated seat belts.

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The final stop on the Graceland tour is also the King’s last stop. Elvis was buried alongside his parents and grandmother in the Meditation garden.

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Although Memphis has much more in store, we headed to Nashville next. Music City welcomed us with live music in the Listening Room Cafe. It’s a great place to get an unpretentious intro to Nashville’s country music scene. We enjoyed David Altman and his friends with a side of American appetizer staples: buffalo wings and fried pickles.

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Day 2: Mammoth Cave, Kentucky

In light of my national park quest, we ventured out to Kentucky for an underground adventure. Mammoth Cave National Park harbors the world’s longest underground cave system.

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In order to explore the caves, you can book one of the many ranger-led tours. My mom was ready to opt out after the dramatic intro by our ranger. To the tall, overweight and old: you may never see the light again. Turned out that the most exciting part of the Historic Tour was the natural entrance into the cave.

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If stalactites and stalagmites are what you’re after, make sure to book the Domes and Dripstones tour. Upon entering the cave, we descended hundreds of steep stairs into a sinkhole. The grand finale is the Frozen Niagara room, filled with impressive stalactite and stalagmite formations.

At night, we explored the rowdy streets of Nashville. More than just a breeding ground for country music, Nashville is the bachelorette party-capital of the USA. Broadway is the epicenter of it all: a haze of neon, cowboy boots and traffic.

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It took some serious convincing to have my parents step foot in Robert’s Western World, a typical honky tonk on Broadway. In honky tonk-world, typical means loud and lively – or turbulent and trashy, depending on your expectations. Our prime balcony seats allowed us to observe from a safe distance. To my surprise, we even ended up staying for another beer.

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A food staple in Nashville is hot chicken, and more specifically Hattie B’s hot chicken. You’ll have to brave long lines at any time of day to try a piece of their juicy hot chicken. Given the weather and our exhaustion levels, we played it safe and went for triple mild.

Day 3 – Nashville & Lynchburg, Tennessee

We started the day with another Southern staple. Biscuits and gravy are indispensable on every Southern breakfast menu. That being said, my travel companions were not impressed. After this culinary adventure, we were royally late for our guided tour of Nashville. Luckily for us, the streets of Music City are deserted on a Sunday morning. We spotted the group from a far and joined for a laid-back tour of Nashville.

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The eye-catcher on Nashville’s skyline is the AT&T tower, better known as the Batman building.

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Free Tours Nashville follows the popular Free Tours by Foot concept, where you pay what you like. The tour is as much about food and music as it is about history. It’s a great intro to everything that Nashville has to offer.

Don’t leave Nashville without stopping for brunch at The Southern. Southerners’ love for brunch is reflected in a long list of brunch classics that can only be found south of Kentucky. The Southern serves them in style and with a twist; think crab cake hash and steak and biscuit benedict.

For a whiskey-virgin like me, it was Chris Stapleton who put Tennessee whiskey on the map. That’s why it came as a surprise that the world’s most famous whiskey is being distilled in Tennessee. Jack Daniel was a little man with a large legacy.

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The Jack Daniel’s distillery is located in Lynchburg, an hour south of Nashville. Up to date, Jack Daniel’s whiskey is solely produced here. In a small tour bus, we went on a journey through the whiskey-distilling process.

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Ironically enough, the distillery is part of a dry county. This American concept is what’s nowadays left of the prohibition. Dry counties prohibit the sale of any type of alcohol. They are much more prevalent than one would think, especially in Southern states. Luckily the law comes with loopholes, and so the distillery tour ends with five samples.

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Day 4 – Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee

When we arrived late at night, our curtainless cabin in the woods wasn’t as charming as Airbnb promised. But that charm was revealed in the morning, when the bugs made room for chirping birds.

The best way to fuel up for a day of hiking? A true American breakfast. Three eggs with bacon and a side of pancakes, and of course unlimited coffee refills. We got ours served in Hillbilly’s Restaurant.

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The Great Smoky Mountains’ beauty does not go unnoticed: it is the most visited national park in the USA. In late spring, the park turns into a fairytale-land. The Alum Cave trail guides you alongside a river, past wildflowers and stunning views of the famous smoky mountain tops, to Alum Cave.

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The trail continues past Alum Cave for another 2 miles to the top of Mount LeConte, making it a 10-mile round trip. The last stretch of the trail is scattered with impressive views of the Smokies. Make sure to continue for about a mile past the lodge, onto the Boulevard Trail.

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Reaching the top at LeConte Lodge is rather underwhelming, as the overpriced cabins are blocking the view. Bypass LeConte Lodge and hike the short Sunrise Hike to Myrtle Point instead. You’ll be rewarded with a 360º view of America’s number one national park.

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Upon exiting the park, we came across this group of bikers. If it was ever appealing to me to ride a Harley Davidson, this was definitely the time.

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