And for the next 24 hours she held us there. Mean-knuckled professionals set to work ironing knots out of our backs; doe-eyed college kids brought us Old-Fashioneds; and that night we dined under wrought-iron chandeliers in the rustic splendor of the Barn, the hotel’s fine- dining restaurant. Federico, who had come to us via Italy and Buenos Aires, brought us simple foods to which exquisite things had happened: a hearth-fried farm egg, say, sitting plumply on a bed of watercress, garlic confit, chili oil, and chicken cracklings. Afterward, a uniformed driver conveyed us back to our cabin in pitch darkness. On the deck, the celestial lights peeped through a black fretwork of foliage as an orchestra of cicadas performed their atonal symphony.
In the morning, a long, slim island of cloud lay over the valley. There was blue sky overhead. We left Blackberry Farm after a vast barbecue lunch of beef brisket and lemonade. Less than an hour away, up Route 321, a bosom even more ample than that of Blackberry Farm awaited: we were going to Dollywood!
Ryan had always been clear: “Elvis is our king, Dolly Parton our queen.” We had once even dreamed that she might officiate our wedding. As we entered her capital at Pigeon Forge — a motel town that seemed to exist largely at her pleasure — we were assailed from all sides by stories of her munificence. She grew up in the Smokies, and she is everything to everyone there: a pious, childless Madonna to the faithful, a heroine of gay rights, a protectress of the bald eagle, paramount chief of Appalachia, singer, actor, visionary…and now, hotelier.
(L) Chattanooga’s Walnut Street Bridge. (R) John Hawkinson, who runs the equestrian program at Blackberry Farm.Squire Fox
I adored the Dollywood theme park, but when it came to DreamMore, Parton’s new resort, I wished our Dreamer-in-Chief had been — how does one say it? — a little bit more herself, a little less discreet. Where was the madness, the famous kitsch? DreamMore was a Holiday Inn with Dolly accents. It was only in the Dolly Parton Suite that one got a sense of what the place might have been: there at last were the bright pink carpets, the white leather sofas, the butterfly light fixtures. “Could there not have been more of this in the hotel?” I asked the staffer who showed us around. No, he explained: Dolly is very self-effacing, and did not wish to leave her stamp all over the place.
For the rest of our stay, I had visions of Dolly. I saw and heard her everywhere. That evening, after Ryan and I proved too cowardly for even the mildest of thrill rides at Dollywood, and feasted instead on cinnamon bread and funnel cake, I thought I heard a siren singing to me: “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” Was it Dolly, serenading us over the sound of children splashing in a swimming pool? No. Wrong again. It was Norah Jones.
We were very near the end. As we drove off along I-40 east, I could feel something vital fading away. Don’t get me wrong: Asheville, less than two hours from Dollywood, is wonderful. It was just that a strange, unnameable element was being replaced by something more familiar. There were Tibetan prayer flags in the streets, and book exchanges; Luke, the assistant manager at Hill House Bed & Breakfast, where we stayed, spoke of craft this and craft that.
Sure, vestiges of the Old South remained: the crape myrtle was in bloom; in a wine bar, a man in a straw hat sang “Louisiana Fairy Tale.” From the rooftop of a snazzy bar called the Social Lounge, clouds appeared sooty against a pale orange sky. I was full of an odd sense of loss.
What makes the south the South is not easy to say, but an image comes to mind. It is of Ryan’s 87-year-old grandma, Lira, working in her garden. She was pushing a wheelbarrow as we drove past; under her floppy hat, her face was flushed. There was something so solid about her, so unbreakable, and yet feminine somehow. I wanted to say hello, but Ryan said she would be mortified to meet me in such a state. That is the South, I thought: hard as nails, yet dipped in honey.
I drained a basil-infused cocktail, and it returned me to the rooftop where I was sitting. I felt as if I had glimpsed the essence of the South, and then lost sight of it. An old song went through my head: something about a chap named Virgil Caine. “Just take what you need and leave the rest, but they should never have taken the very best.”
Road-Trip Cheat Sheet
Day 1 Nashville
Edley’s Bar-B-Que Deservedly famous barbecue joint — not
to be missed. edleysbbq.com; entrées $6–$23.
Greenhouse Bar An utterly distinctive bar in the Green Hills area. thefoodcompanynashville.com.
Rumours East Order craft cocktails at this stylish bar in gentrifying East Nashville. rumourseast.com.
The 404 A chic boutique downtown hotel. the404nashville.com; doubles from $305.
3 Crow Bar Classic East Nashville dive bar. 3crowbar.com.
Day 2 Chattanooga
Clumpies Ice Cream Co. Seek out a branch of Chattanooga’s memorably good artisanal ice cream chain. clumpies.com.
Clyde’s on Main Hard-core Southern cooking, including artery-clogging specialties like candied bacon. clydesonmain.com; entrées $9–$24.
Read House A historic, characterful hotel in a town slightly short on options. thereadhousehotel.com; doubles from $129.
Tupelo Honey Café A soulful Southern restaurant serving regional delights such as fried okra and grits. tupelohoneycafe.com; entrées $8–$26.
Day 3 Smoky Mountains
Blackberry Farm This luxurious resort near the Smoky Mountains is known for its excellent homegrown food. blackberryfarm.com; doubles from $845, including some meals.
Day 4 Pigeon Forge
Dollywood Dolly Parton’s deliciously kitschy amusement park in Pigeon Forge has terrifying thrill rides and a surprising emphasis on history and culture. dollywood.com.
Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort Contemporary, Dolly Parton–owned hotel purpose-built for visitors to Dollywood. dollywood.com/resort; doubles from $159.
Day 5 Asheville
Hill House Bed & Breakfast You’ll find idiosyncratic décor and a first-rate breakfast on offer at this quaint B&B. hillhousebb.com; doubles from $175.
Social Lounge Superb cocktails, local beers, and small plates
on a great rooftop. socialloungeasheville.com.
12 Bones Smokehouse A peerless barbecue spot in the River Arts District of Asheville. 12bones.com; entrées $5–$22.