Our first time trip into Louisville and surrounds in November last year proved to be one dented by good old Mother Nature – rain squelched a lot of our planned outdoor activities, but we still made a pretty good weekend of it.
This year, we picked out North Carolina as the destination, but Ma Nature must’ve figured out again we were headed south, as a tropical system named Nicole was awaiting our potential arrival.
Well, we figured we could keep part of our Carolina excursion alive (more on that later), but we figured out a destination slightly west of Nicole’s cone would be much better for us. But where to? Nashville seemed a tiny bit too far and a place we wanted to stop for more than a couple days.
“Hey, whaddya’ think about Chattanooga?” I asked my wife. We both looked, and the more we “choo-chooed” on it, the more we liked – there were plenty of activities indoors to handle a rainy weekend, and likewise outdoor activities should the weather cooperate. In fact, activities combined proved more than enough to warrant a second visit, if we found we liked what we encountered. And finally, this city of just over 180,000 people is not a horribly long haul for us, working out to more or less a 7-hour straight shot south-southwest for us.
Chattanooga may best be known by the casual person musically – Glenn Miller and His Orchestra put the city into the public conscience with their 1941 swinging rendition of the “Chattanooga Choo Choo” (the town was at the time the northern terminus on a line operated by the Southern Railway.) Other references have not been so kind – the last 50 years or so has seen the city face socio-economic and environmental (the EPA declared the city had the country’s dirtiest air in 1969) challenges. Unlike many others, this city has made a fairly substantial turnaround, being the only city in the U.S. that has regained formerly lost population from the 1980s, according to a Chattanooga Times-Free Press article, and has reversed the pollution problem, implementing such programs as a bike-share and a free electric emission-free shuttles downtown.
A sorrowful path has also long been intertwined into this city’s history, and it infused two of our main outdoor activities (thankfully, TS Nicole had little impact except making the drive down slower than expected) with visits to The Passage and Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. The former, located along the city’s beautiful Riverwalk and just north of the Tennessee Aquarium (a venue that was on top of the “in case of rain” list) is the city’s recognition of a dubious part of this country’s history in the “The Trail of Tears.” As a portion of the city historical marker at the site states matter-of-factly:
In late June of 1838 a party of 1,070 poorly equipped Indians was marched overland from Ross' Landing at Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Waterloo, Alabama, because of low water in the upper Tennessee River. Following the general route of present day U.S. Highway 72, they camped at Bellefonte, where about 300 escaped between Bellefonte and Woodville. On June 26, the remainder refused to proceed. Consequently, the militia, under the command of Army Captain G.S. Drane was tasked to mobilize the group and escort them to Waterloo. Arriving in miserable condition on July 10, 1838, the Cherokee were placed on a boat to continue their journey West. The "Trail of Tears" which resulted from the Indian Removal Act passed by U.S. Congress in 1830 is one of the darkest chapters in American History.
The memorial itself is modern yet respectful – while the weeping wall symbolizing the tears shed by the Cherokee people forced off their ancestral lands was not operating on this cold late autumn day, we couldn’t help but feel a bit somber amidst the otherwise beautiful sculptures depicting their former way of living. The Passage also reminded us of how truly shallow the claims of victimhood by many in modern day society truly are – almost 4,000 Cherokees died on the march to Oklahoma itself, with many others dying after arrival. They, along with the other so-named “Five Civilized Tribes” (Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole) contributed their share of tears to this forced passage to the west.
Meanwhile, the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, a short drive across the Tennessee-Georgia Border in Fort Oglethorpe, proved similarly sobering. My regular employment has me looking at both the big picture and the finer details, and our first visit provided both. the first national military park in the nation, Chickamauga/Chattanooga is well setup for as detailed an excursion as the visitor wants, and for many, the auto tour stops plus the recorded commentary (provided via a special app) will probably suit most visitors.
What struck me amidst the stately memorials, scattered across acres of meadows and forests was how peaceful it all really was, save for those days in September. The commentary we played on our mobile phones as we traipsed through muddy pathways detailed the numerous twists and turns of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Various misunderstandings, delays, and brave stands led to the preservation or the decimation of various military units and, in the end, roughly 50,000 casualties on both sides were recorded in the two battles combined. As humans are complex beings, stories like President Abraham Lincoln mourning the death of Southern General Benjamin Helm (his spouse Mary was half-sister of Helm’s wife Emelie) and a slave who showed compassion to his master after the latter was mortally wounded and carried him to safety, stuck out.
In the short term, the Confederacy ended up winning Chickamauga, but the Union’s ability to hold nearby Chattanooga shortly afterward helped lead to the eventual result of the Civil War. Long term, time and popular culture has dulled the collective mindset as to how horrific this all was. With the battle now almost 160 years in the rear view mirror, this generations-ago conflict doesn’t sit at the forefront of people’s minds these days. Also, Hollywood has had a long-time role in sanitizing the experience of war in general, with very rare exception. Whether it is a John Wayne-styled affair, or the popular Marvel and DC comic books come to the big screen, the typical wages of war such as gore, despair and brutality are doled out in digestible bits. Countering that is the focus on a hero character or team, whose actions add a shiny exterior gleam of glory to the package and make it all go down smoothly for the popcorn-munching public.
As we headed back to the Tennessee, the bigger picture came to mind for me. In the end, this country lost roughly 2% (620,000 people) of its population over a singular question: whether a state had the right to keep their policy of enslavement of another race of people intact. In a just world, the arguments for keeping that system would never have been considered in the first place, much less led to bloodshed on this otherwise bucolic countryside.
Obviously, we did not travel down to Chattanooga just to get somber lessons about the past, and the Chattanooga Zoo and their holiday-oriented Asian Lantern Festival proved to be not necessarily an antidote but rather the balance you need in that yin/yang that is life.
Opened in 1937, the zoo here isn’t the biggest in the world, but it seems the perfect size for those with younger types in terms of getting through the place in one visit. Similar to other lights displays we’ve seen at the Columbus and Cincinnati Zoos, the animals here seem for the most part during the night are of the illuminated and bright neon glow variety, but there were a few chances to see some live species, such as the reptiles, a congregation of alpacas, and a very talkative Great Horned Owl.
As Midwesterners, the night-time cold wasn’t too bad (can’t speak for the locals), and thankfully the wind had pretty much died out. For the multitudes of younger visitors, only the most dire of weather conditions would have dulled the fun they were having this night. If they weren’t amazed standing wide-eyed at the fabulous animal-themed light displays, they happily scrambled from bubble machines to animatronic lizards and peacocks to glow-in-the-dark swing sets. If nothing else, the experience whetted our appetites for a daytime visit in the future, when the majority of live animals at the zoo (500 animals representing 200 species) would be around and about.
The Passage/Trail of Tears Memorial | Address: Ross’s Landing, 100 Riverfront Pkwy, Chattanooga, TN 37402 (next to the Tennessee Aquarium) | Website: https://www.visitchattanooga.com/listing/the-passage/2484