My great-grandfather died a few years ago. He lived to 99 years and 11 months, which is just rude, really. He drank buttermilk every day, and he was one of the best storytellers I have been around (and when you live to 99.9, you have plenty of stories). He wasn't exactly mobile in his later years, but we just had to get him going down some verbal road, and he'd entertain us for an hour, perhaps stopping to replenish his lip of snuff. In high school, I made it to National History Day with a video about World War II, which basically consisted of him telling stories with Life Magazine photos on the screen. He carried that thing.
Occasionally, when Grandpa got going, he would drop a "nig-ruh" into the middle of a story. I could never tell whether he was saying the bad word or the really bad word, but it was just part of the package. He was born in 1908, and he spoke like someone born in 1908 and based in Oklahoma for all of his life. You don't nitpick (at least, you don't out loud), you just take the good with the bad, hug him when you leave, and look forward to your next visit, assuming there will be a next visit.
One experiences the same thing visiting the South, really. There is an elephant for every room, no matter your politics, but you can enjoy yourself considerably if you can simply enjoy the reality that is being presented to you and acknowledge that for every person with a makeup of which you don't approve, there are plenty just like you; they partake in the happy parts of this region, acknowledge the bad (every person defines "the bad" differently, but no matter your definition of it, there is plenty here), live their lives, and look forward to the next football game. The hospitality is second to none, the food is tremendous, and the obsession with football warms this heart. But to enjoy yourself, at least if you are a bleeding heart like I am, you have to have tunnel vision. Ignore the billboards. The Dixie flags. The bumper stickers. Focus on the food and football, ignore the elephants, and you can't go wrong.
In parts of five days this past week, my buddy Walsh and I rolled through Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky (along with southern Indiana and southern Illinois, for good measure). The concept of an SEC Crash Course, of a four-day South immersion, was incredibly successful -- we ate ribs in Memphis, did a lap around the Grove, bought cowbells in Starkville, toured the Bryant Museum, ate at Dreamland and the Waysider, got initiated by dreadful Highway 280 in Birmingham, perused the tailgating setups in Athens, weathered the "Sandstorm" in Columbia (SC), sneaked into Neyland Stadium, got sneaked onto Dudley Field in Nashville, and had beer and pork chops in the Belcourt area between Vanderbilt and Belmont University. Because of traffic, time, etc., we didn't make it everywhere, but you have to save something for the sequel, right?
By any indication, this was a lovely trip, to the extent that we were already planning next year's trip on the way home. But we also learned that the South is no less complicated than you would imagine. The smiles are genuine, and the eyes are unsure. The intentions are true, and the reality is off-center.
"I hope you whip LSU's ass in everything." The lovely desk man at the Hotel Chester in Starkville appears to love everything about life in the SEC, except for the two to three days, every other year, that LSU comes to town. He doesn't go into much detail, but we can probably figure it out.
Day 1 went about as smoothly as possibly imaginable. Walsh and I hadn't hung out in quite a while, so there was plenty to talk about as we attempted to ignore as much of southeast Missouri as possible. We talked football, music, politics, music, and old road trips, and what is typically a miserable, longer-than-you-think jaunt from Columbia to Memphis, the northwestern outskirt of old, old SEC country, absolutely flew by. Actually, the entire day did. The drive time was a solid 10 hours, second-most of any day of the trip, but it was easy. Trips always start out that way, don't they?
Memphis was the site of Bear Bryant's last bowl game. It is close to Knoxville and Nashville and closer to Oxford, and for much of the SEC's history, it was the northwestern outpost of conference country. Fayetteville stole that title for a couple of decades before Missouri came along, but despite the fact that it doesn't exactly host many SEC events at this point, Memphis is SEC country through and through.
But whatever your definition of "SEC country" is, it starts much further north than Memphis. On the drive from Columbia to St. Louis, you see a blend. You find billboards quoting Revelation near billboards promoting a Welsh and Scottish souvenir shop. Turn south, and ... well, you're in the South. Harlan County has nothing on the Bootheel of Missouri.
The Liberty Bowl gates were open when we pulled up; we got there a little later than we intended after the Garmin decided to take us to an office parking lot and called it the Liberty Bowl. Event staff were milling about, but they had no interest in preventing us from walking up to take a picture of the field. I have been to two games here -- a 1999 game between Missouri and Memphis and the 2004 Liberty Bowl, one of my most enjoyable college football experiences. Little Richard performed at halftime, Louisville beat Boise State, 143-138 (I could be wrong about the score, but I'm not looking it up because the memory is so fantastic), and we got to witness, up close and personal, just how much Louisville fans already hated Bobby Petrino. He led them to a 12-1 record that year and would take them to within one game of a BCS title game appearance two years later, but Cardinals fans were already incredibly tired of his flirtations with other schools.
I think of the Liberty Bowl and the actual city of Memphis in similar ways: they both make me very happy and very sad. I had a lovely time once in that stadium, and I have had many lovely times on Beale Street, but everywhere you go, you catch run-down sadness in your peripheral vision. The current state of the economy, and Memphis football, don't help matters. But hey, the barbecue is still good. We didn't make the most stellar choice of barbecue places, but that's okay. After seeing a piece on TV about it, I chose the Memphis Barbecue Co. just across the Mississippi border, passing over a friend's recommendation to go to the Commissary in Germantown. It boasts of two world-champion pit masters and the best baby backs in the world, so that was enough for me.
We knew immediately that we may have made the wrong choice when we were welcomed by a giant, smirking Guy Fieri poster in the entry way. That did not quite set the tone that we look for in a barbecue place, not after years of getting harangued by angry Arthur Bryant's cashiers or b.s.'ing with Ken in Amber, OK, after he hands us a free tray of ribs. The food was certainly strong. The ribs and brisket were perfectly solid, but it probably says something that the first two items we talked about after we left were the grits and the local southern pecan beer. Walsh: "It's not Bryant's."
One benefit to going to Memphis Barbecue Co.: After seeing us in our Mizzou shirts (I brought one for every day of the trip -- I like it when my clothing starts conversations so I don't have to), one of the busboys followed us to our table to tell us how, if he could go to any school in the country, it would be Mizzou. He has family in Springfield, visited Columbia once, etc. We will take as many advocates as we can get, even from someone who will probably regale his future grandchildren with stories of that one time that Guy Fieri visited his place of work and signed an 8x10 glossy for him.
The next time we make a trip South -- and despite the stupidity of it, there is always another trip to be made -- we're spending more time in Oxford. Among other things, it seems like a really nice place for getting drunk. You've got the Grove, of course. In the air, you catch wafts of historical gridiron triumph, academia, a not-always-proud past, and lots and lots of grass. Lots of grass. And it was strangely green despite what I have to assume was an absolutely suffocating summer.
In Oxford, you've basically got Stillwater, Oklahoma, with a more eventful history. (I mean that as a compliment; I love Stillwater.) You get off of the interstate that splits the state into east and west portions, and you drive through 20 miles of nothingness to get to a quaint college town, smaller than many others in its conference. And when you pull up, you don't necessarily want to leave, but we had to do so rather quickly. We tossed around the idea of stopping by the highly-recommended City Grocery, but we realized we still had to drive two hours to Starkville afterward. We don't often make smart decisions, but leaving when we did was probably one of them.
Oxford's reputation, of course, is that it knows how special it is and doesn't have a problem telling you so. But in what was basically an hourlong stay, we saw nothing to prove the (alleged) arrogant perception wrong.
(That said, we could have done without the "Speed Limit: 18" signs on Manning Way.)
I probably have not dealt with enough of a sample size to announce this with full confidence, but I will go ahead and say it: Starkville girls have the best accents in the South. They were the best on the trip.
Really, it doesn't take long for you to get to know the fun aspects of Starkville. It doesn't introduce itself in fine fashion -- the drive in from the highway to the city is less than spectacular. But the downtown is quaint, if not particularly impressive, and the campus is relatively spread out and, again, green. We stayed at the Historic Hotel Chester downtown, and upon the recommendation of our favorite old hotel manager, we went around the corner from the hotel to a place called Old Venice Pizza, where, as he put it, "the young people tend to go." It was closed at 10:05 p.m. on a Thursday, but it was connected to a bar next door, where we had a couple of local beers (the theme of the trip; now if only we remembered what any of them were called) and watched the fourth quarter of the positively hideous Boise State-BYU game. Last call was at 11:00, which was honestly a little jarring, but that's fine. We had plenty of reasons to get to bed.
When we walked into the Hotel Chester, our favorite old hotel manager's first question concerned where we were from and why we were in Starkville. (He absolutely loved the answer we gave him.) His second question: you don't really want this king-sized bed you reserved, do you? It was all I found online, and we were more than happy to take the two full-sized beds he found us instead, but a) it was pretty funny that this was one of the first issues he needed to address, and b) it wasn't the only time this would happen on this trip. Again, there is plenty to enjoy here as long as you partake in the reality that is presented to you and do not try to stray from the script.
The next morning, we took a little longer getting out of town, partially because were enjoying ourselves at the MSU bookstore (all of the cowbells), partially because we had to fulfill a recommendation of going by Strange Brew Coffee House, and partially because we did about two unintentional laps around campus attempting to get back to the highway. (We were probably paying penance for the "What, no 'Speed Limit: 13' signs in honor of Wesley Carroll?" jokes.) As in Memphis, however, Davis-Wade Stadium was open because of event staff work, so we walked right in there, too.
I now know hell. It is U.S. Highway 280 in Birmingham. In a day that technically featured about half as much actual driving as the day before, Friday felt so, so much longer. So much longer.
Really, it's our fault for going to Birmingham in the first place. Technically, it allowed us us to say we visited one more SEC city (because the headquarters and Legion Field are there), but it ended up costing us an opportunity to visit another actual SEC city.
The day was not all bad, of course. After cruising around Starkville for a little while, we headed out for Alabama, probably the most intimidating of the spots on the itinerary. As a Missouri fan, you are conditioned to bond with others through pain. Ole Miss has endured a series of almosts and disappointments over the last few decades? Yeah, been there. Mississippi State fans grew up treated like little brothers and stomping boys by more successful, arrogant nearby rivals? We can relate. Alabama, on the other hand? Let's just say that while I'm sure those four losing seasons in 55 years were painful, there is really no way for a Mizzou fan to bond with a Bama fan through story-telling. The Crimson Tide claim approximately 46 national titles, 46 more than Missouri. They have had more national title winning coaches than Missouri has had top-five finishes. They built a museum for a former coach; Missouri … has some pretty cool, old pictures of old football games in the student union.
Our friend Kleph from Roll Bama Roll gave us a guided tour of T-Town. It began at the Waysider, for which we received more recommendations via e-mail, Twitter, etc., than any other place on the trip. It takes about three seconds to realize that this place is Alabama. There are photos and paintings everywhere, and if you get lucky, you can sit a table that features both a bust of Bear Bryant and a cutout of Nick Saban holding a Coca-Cola and judging you while you eat your ham and biscuits. It was lovely, but anybody who has ever been to Tuscaloosa has probably already told you that.
From there, we went to campus. Or at least, the football portion of campus. Bryant-Denny Stadium is just a monstrosity, isn't it? From the north, it looks more like the Smithsonian Museum of Football than a college football stadium; but for all intents and purposes, it is, right down to the statues out front. Win a national title? Get a statue, even if you are still coaching. Win a national or conference title? Get a plaque. And while Davis-Wade and the Liberty Bowl may have been (unofficially) open for visitors, Bryant-Denny was guarded with a police dog. We went around to the east side of the stadium and saw the plaque commemorating the original stadium dedication, then high-tailed it for the Bryant Museum. And hey, there is some Mizzou in there!
There is a lot to see in Tuscaloosa, of course, from the hand- and footprints of former captains near the quad, to Foster Auditorium, which is known for something other than football. Our tour wrapped up at Egan's, an old bar on University Boulevard that has resisted the expansion and modernization that has afflicted other places near campus. It is old-school, smokey (even at noon), filled with memorabilia from long-lost Tuscaloosa businesses and, as a nice bonus, SB Nation-friendly. It is the one place I am guaranteed to revisit the next time I am in town, at least as long as I can take a two-hour shower afterwards.
Alabama does history right. Of that, there is no doubt. It celebrates gridiron success and appears to openly acknowledge its racial history in a way that other places might not. Alabama fans still scare the hell out of me, but not as much as the team does, I guess.
These are not pictures of where Bo Jackson played his high school ball. We were very excited to take these pictures and post tweets about it directly thereafter (while expressing outrage that we weren't seeing Bo's name anywhere around the high school), not realizing until afterward that Bessemer has two high schools, and Bo went to McAdory. This is about where just about everything starts to take a turn for the worse.
But hey … McAdory probably played at Bessemer High at some point, right? Right?
So then it was Birmingham. Our tour of T-town lasted long enough that we hit Dreamland at 2 p.m. instead of 1 p.m., meeting up with Kleph, my intern Chris and his good friend from school. The original plan was to be out of Birmingham by probably 2:30 or so. We wouldn't make that deadline, and that is very relevant to what follows.
The original plan for the day: tour Tuscaloosa, eat at Dreamland in B'ham (no, that is not the original Dreamland, but we weren't going to be in Tuscaloosa long enough eat at both Waysider and Dreamland), take a picture of Legion Field, find some WiFi to post a piece at Rock M Nation (because the work never stops) and get to Auburn by probably 4 p.m. or so. Instead, we chatted for quite a while at Dreamland (Walsh: "It's not Bryant's"), got to Legion Field about 3:45 or so (and left at about 3:46)*, and made a bad, bad mistake in search of WiFi. Google Maps said there was a Starbucks nearby, and it sent us back downtown. About 26 long stoplights later, we finally got to the address and realized it's inside a hospital. So screw it, we said, let's just head toward Auburn. It was 4:15. After a couple of false starts, we got onto the highway around 4:25 and reach south U.S. 280 around 4:30. Rush hour.
* God, is Legion Feld depressing. I hear it has very good sight lines and isn't a completely miserable place to watch a game. But from the outside, it looks like Tiger Stadium looked a year after it had closed. And the neighborhood surrounding it isn't, um, appealing. Let's put it this way: like the Liberty Bowl and Davis-Wade, there were gates open, and we could have sneaked in to take pictures. We did not.
I got an e-mail from a friend later in the weekend that said "280 at 4:30 is proof that Birmingham is a real city." I mean … I thought of Birmingham as a real city (Des Moines is also a real city, after all), but I didn't know it was capable of this. One half of the city's denizens work on the other side of a mountain from where they probably live, and 280 is basically the one way to get home. It is a three- to five-lane highway that has stop lights every half-mile or so. And red lights in the South really do last about eight minutes. It was a miserable traffic experience, made more miserable by the simple fact that we had no idea what was coming.
More than anything else, this is our SEC initiation. I tweet that I had no idea Birmingham traffic was this bad, and I immediately get 10 responses, all saying "You're on 280 South, aren't you?" or, "Yeah, I probably should have warned you about that." Thanks, guys!
We pulled over at a Mellow Mushroom Pizza for the WiFi around 5:15 p.m. (We weren't able to change lanes enough to get over either of the Starbucks we had passed, and hell no, we were not backtracking.) I posted my Rock M piece, and we ordered hummus and two Mello Yellos (we had finished our respective half-slabs of ribs barely two hours before), which means I paid about $17 for WiFi. After taking stock, doing some math, realizing that we were still at least two hours from Auburn, and realizing that we were probably going to end up in Atlanta around midnight, we ditched the Auburn idea. Sorry, Auburn.
Walsh took a picture of Talladega from the highway (which we got to pass after reversing course and hopping up to I-20 toward Atlanta) and posted it as "Jordan-Hare Stadium." That was our official Auburn experience. The next time we make one of these dumbass trips, we're spending more time in Oxford and Auburn. Maybe.
That night, we reached an oasis of sorts. Other than the hotel itself, our lone ATL stop was at our friend Spencer's house for an unofficial SB Nation powwow. No history lessons or getting to know new places -- just some dudes watching Baylor-ULM in a living room and attempting not to yelp so loud at crazy plays and formations that it would wake up a baby in the next room. Good times.
One thing I can say about Atlanta after my first driving experience there: don't bother with a Garmin. I used to be good at maps. Great, actually. It satisfied my generally linear curiosity, and I loved getting to know new terrain. But since forfeiting this piece of my brain over to the Garmin a while back, my intuition is shot. So when the GPS realized it had no idea which of the 118 highways of downtown Atlanta we were on, and decided the only way it could take us anywhere was to slingshot us out of downtown before sending us right back in, I had no way of fighting it. We had to go west of downtown before we could get to our midtown hotel (where we checked in and checked out within about a seven-hour period). In the morning, when we set off for Athens, it sent us south of downtown before slinging us off to the north and east.
"Hey, whip Steve Spurrier's ass, will ya?" -- Lovely old Georgia fan to me outside of Sanford Stadium, where he was hanging up old programs and getting ready to settle in for about eight hours of tailgating.
Our intention was to get out of Athens, and toward Columbia (where the football game -- the original impetus for making this trip -- was to kick off at 3:30 p.m. local time), by about 9:00. Thanks to Garmin-related silliness, we got to Athens at 9:20. That meant for an abbreviated trip. The Garmin attempted to tell us that Sanford Stadium was actually somebody's driveway about half a mile from campus, but we figured it out on our own. Take that, Machines. The unintentionally odd route did, however, give us an opportunity to pass a gas station selling "Grown Man Football" T-shirts. Georgia, you are going to be fun to hate in the coming years. Kudos.
Of course, while we pulled up to all of these other cities in this piece on an off-day, we hit Athens on game day. After about 15 minutes of fruitless searching for parking (which, on Georgia's hilly, windy campus, meant that we circled down the same three streets about six times, mostly unintentionally), Walsh just dropped me off outside the stadium and began to circle the area while I took pictures.
Enormous structures convey order. So do perfectly-trimmed hedges. Sanford Stadium is a lovely structure and provides what I assume is a loud, semi-orderly game experience. But what has fascinated me the most about UGA has been the stories of the Track People, the folks who would hang out on the train tracks east of the stadium, watch the game for free, and act as nasty as any fans of any sport, anywhere in the country. As is customary, both in the South and in well-off neighborhoods, Georgia just built a big wall (in this case, an enormous set of stands in the east end zone) so it could ignore what it didn't want to deal with, and it worked out pretty well. Sanford is lovely.
On the way back out toward Lumpkin Street to watch for Walsh, I was stopped by a pair of older gentlemen who noticed my Mizzou shirt (automatic conversation starter!) and struck up a conversation. They heard from friends that Columbia (MO) was outstanding, and everybody had a great time! They hope we beat the hell out of Steve Spurrier (not South Carolina -- Spurrier), though they must warn us: they play Grown Man Football down there, too. (Love it.) They wish we could stay longer. While on campus, we should definitely check out [five awesomely historical things about UGA's campus]. Et cetera. Good people. I, too, wished we could stay longer, but it was time to power through some two-lane roads in Eastern Georgia and find our way to Columbia.
After spending about seven hours in Columbia, SC, I can tell you two things with certainty:
1. This Columbia really doesn't feel much like a college town. You've got the state capital downtown, and you walk across the state fairgrounds to get to the football stadium. Honestly, the trip into Columbia felt exactly like what I imagine a trip to a Jacksonville Jaguars game would feel like, even though a) I've never been to Jacksonville, b) Jacksonville isn't the Florida state capitol, and c) Jacksonville's EverBank Stadium is actually downtown. So Columbia is more Jacksonville than Jacksonville, in other words.
2. South Carolina fans love -- love -- being in the SEC. For 20 years, they have been the newcomer, and for most of the time between 1992 and about 2009, they took a few more licks than they handed out. The opportunity to both not be the newcomer anymore and play the "WELCOME TO THE SEC" role was one Gamecock fans relished on Saturday afternoon.
We spent a good portion of our time in Columbia sitting in traffic, but unlike the Birmingham disaster, we saw this one coming. Once we had paid our $10 to park in a church parking lot, we made our way into the incredibly fairgroundsy experience known as a South Carolina home game.
One thing the sea of concrete surrounding Williams-Brice Stadium does for sure: It makes Williams-Brice look positively enormous. The stadium bursts out of the ground and goes and goes. It seats over 80,000, so it is probably going to look big no matter what, but … it is actually not incredibly easy to find the Big House in Ann Arbor because it is dug into the ground. Williams-Brice? Not so much. It is there, you know it is there, and you have to walk across a mile of concrete to enter.
We were warned in advance that this is one of the loudest home environments in the country, if not the loudest. In previous trips to Norman and Lincoln, I experienced volume that made me lose my equilibrium; that did not happen here, but clearly the crowd is loud enough.
One way Carolina fans can absolutely compete with Nebraska fans: the outrage factor. Every call or no-call prompted not boos, but howls of despair and cries of "F*** you, SEC refs!" (For Mizzou fans thinking they truly escaped bad officiating when they left the Big 12: SEC fans do not concur.) South Carolina commits a false start? Mizzou induced them! Backup quarterback has a pass broken up at the end of the game (only the Gamecocks' second INC of the game)? Clear pass interference! Backup South Carolina running back fumbles? He was obviously down. F*** you, SEC refs! Every home crowd expresses displeasure with calls; Carolina fans make it an art form.
(This post was never intended to be about the game itself, but a quick synopsis: Missouri has its worst special teams unit in years, the starting quarterback has an injured shoulder, and the offensive line is still trying to work through losing four 2011 starters, then losing three projected starters to injury; this is pretty much the precise recipe for getting your doors blown off by a South Carolina team with an incredible return game and a lovely defensive line.)
The capitol/college town thing can work. My parents lived in Madison for a number of years, and it felt like a college town even when you were on the steps of the capitol itself. Columbia, SC, is different in that it never feels like a college town. But the 80,000 people waving towels during "Sandstorm" don't seem to mind too much.
After the game, we dropped our friends off at their hotel, then plodded toward Greenville for the night. To this point, we had been stressing about Sunday -- Knoxville, Lexington and Nashville were all tentatively on the docket -- but upon advice from many, we decided to sub out Lexington in favor of lunch in Asheville the next day. Good call. Really, really good call.
There might be no more Southern an experience than driving from Greenville, SC, to Asheville, NC. Calling this official SEC country is a bit of a stretch, but everything good about the South is here: food, greenery greener than Oxford's, Appalachia, general friendliness. And then you've also got Bob Jones University (which you may not see any problem with), a 50/50 split of Dixie and American flags, and the general sense that you will get along just fine here as long as you are One Of Us. Regardless, Sunday was an awesome, awesome day, and this drive was one of the many reasons why.
Greenville & Asheville
1. A few years ago, my wife and I drove up to the Twin Cities for a good friend's wedding. With a few hours to kill one day, we decided to drive up the side of the Mississippi River to see what we found. We came across a place called Stillwater, Minnesota, and were blown away. The scenery, the shops … it was a lovely, and completely unexpected, way to spend time. One of my favorite pictures of my wife is from the top of a hill overlooking Stillwater and the river. Sometimes you visit places with the assumption that you are going to love them; other times you have no idea.
2. A few months ago, SB Nation sent me to New York. I had a few hours to kill on my final day there, and as a burgeoning foodie (and work-from-home dad) who watches food-related television all day, I made it a purpose to trek down to Mario Batali's Babbo in Greenwich Village. It was as good as I could have hoped. The grilled quail, which I have turned into a dry heap of ashy flesh on multiple occasions on my own grill, was moist, blanketed with lardon, and ridiculously good. And the beef cheek ravioli almost brought tears to my eyes. Like baseball players, the food at expensive restaurants is almost certainly not actually worth what you pay for it, but the ravioli came incredibly close.
Merge these two experiences together, and you have the two hours Walsh and I spent in Asheville late-morning on Sunday. No, this is technically not SEC country, and no, this technically has nothing to do with football. I don't care. Go to Asheville. Tomorrow. Go to Tupelo Honey. Get the breakfast bowl with black-eyed peas and goat cheese grits. Buy the cookbook. Walk the downtown streets. Let your hipster flag fly. You will not want to leave. My goodness. I had heard of Asheville, but I did not know Asheville.
Meanwhile ... your son or daughter wants to attend a small private school in the South? Try Furman. It's gorgeous (and, oddly, gated), and Greenville has about 117 restaurants we wanted to try before remembering that many, many people had told us that Asheville food was worth the wait. It was.
I'll just go ahead and say it: Neyland Stadium looks really old. Like, really, really old. I don't necessarily mean that as a bad thing -- Wrigley Field is old, and I have enjoyed myself there tremendously -- it's just that … other old college football stadiums don't look that old. I was taken aback a bit, is all.
In Knoxville, Chamique Holdsclaw Drive turns into Phillip Fulmer Way. That is pretty much all you need to know. The athletics complexes were planted to prevent the campus from rolling downhill into the river, and you can hear "Rocky Top" just walking down an empty street. (A fun extra touch: parking garages built into hills. I approve.) A lot of Missouri fans have been planning on hitting this November's Mizzou-Tennessee game, because of the relative proximity, the enormous crowd, etc. One can see this becoming a fun game experience, even if the stadium's facade could use a little (a lot of) work.
One extra point in Knoxville's favor: it has its own popsicle store. So there's that.
When prowling the streets of the University of Memphis, you never forget that you are in a big city. And aside from the unique atmosphere created by the mountain in the middle of town, the University of Alabama-Birmingham never lets you forget you are in Birmingham. But you can get lost in the college town that is Nashville. Call it one of the most pleasant surprises of the trip. It is no Asheville, but the hipster has plenty of places to enjoy himself.
In the area between Vanderbilt University and Belmont, you've got an inescapable college vibe: sports bars, trendy breweries and, in a unique piece of city coding, restaurants built out of houses. After getting an unplanned tour of the Vanderbilt football stadium from a groundskeeper and attempting to hit up the 12 South Taproom (closed on Sunday), we decided to head toward the Belcourt Ave. area of town. Good choice. Still less than hungry thanks to the Breakfast Bowl, we passed on places like The Dog of Nashville (in a house) and McDougal's Chicken Fingers & Wings (ditto) and settled in on Boscos Nashville Brewing Co. The verdict: the Flaming Stone Beer was outstanding, and the food was good enough. We chose our last southern meal mostly for the beer (only two of them, yes), but it was a nice capstone regardless. We stopped at Bongo Java (of course there's a place called Bongo Java) on the way out of town.
Walsh and I were meant for this. During my sophomore year in college, a friend asked me the "If you had to be stuck in Antarctica for one year with just one person" question, and instead of answering with the predictable "girl I'm wanting to date at the moment" answer, I chose Walsh. Give us either a car or a PlayStation, are we're set. This was our first road trip since going to Lollapalooza in, I think, 2007, and on our final stretch of the drive, we were already debating where to go for the sequel next year. Another trip to the South? Maybe Big Ten country? Pac-12? We'll see*. In simply hanging out for a few days, eating really good food, mainlining coffee and looking at football stadiums, we were guaranteed to enjoy ourselves on this trip. And we did.
* A sequel will be determined by whether I am ever allowed to leave the house again. In the time I was gone, my wife endured a sinus infection (she got it before I left, then demanded that I leave town anyway after I whined about not knowing what to do for two full days), our daughter got a minor cold, the washer broke, the sewer got backed up a bit, and my father-in-law broke his ankle.
The purpose of this trip, though, was not simply about making it and writing about it. After hearing for months about the mythical quality of Football In The South™, we wanted to experience it and figure out why it exists. I wish I had reached some brilliant existential epiphany, but the conclusion I reached was that same many others already had: There are few professional teams in the area -- the Saints and the Braves are the two with whom there seem to be any serious bonds -- so college football replaces the NFL at the top of the pecking order. Everywhere in the country, somebody is obsessing over a sport. In Lincoln, it is Husker football. In St. Louis, Cardinal baseball. In Dallas, Cowboy football. In Lawrence, Kansas basketball. In the South, it is nearly unanimous: College football gets the lion's share of the obsession capital. Couple that with the fact that the region's best athletes tend to be football-first as well (and the region produces a wealth of young athletes), and there you go: massive portions of population obsessing over a sport that the region's young people tend to play quite well. I wish I could come up with something more original than that, but I can't.
Perhaps the South does add something to the recipe because of its obsession with vices, however. You don't just eat, you eat. You don't just obsess over your football team, you plan five or six winnebago trips each fall and derive a good portion of your well-being to what the scoreboard tells you.
Perhaps living in the version of the South that we always read about in articles and socioeconomic reports -- one that you can pretty much avoid from the highway -- takes enough of a toll that escaping it is an obsession in its own right. Regardless, you can enjoy yourself tremendously down there, elephants or no, and we plan to do so again.
Check the national college football scoreboard right here, and look through SB Nation's many excellent college football blogs to find your team's community.