The Road Home

The Road Home

By Diane Ballard

Our “maps of Tennessee” features in this (winter 2010) issue put me in mind of my entire life spent as a Tennessean, more specifically as a Nashvillian by birth and a Knoxville resident for the duration of my adult life. How many times have I traversed those miles between the two cities and under how many different circumstances?

In 1965, when I came to Knoxville as a proud new freshman, I-40 wasn’t completed. You could blaze along at interstate speeds for much of the way, but forward progress slowed considerably when you found yourself behind a tractor-trailer on mountainous highway 70. For years, that off-interstate stretch bedeviled motorists more intent on getting from point A to point B than in enjoying the scenic journey.

The trip from Nashville to Knoxville for the first time as a student was not only a physical journey, but a cultural one. My mother, a lifelong Middle Tennessee resident, believed that by moving to Knoxville, I was leaving civilization for a mountainous and primitive region lacking the grace and charm of Nashville. Had I been a debutante from one of Nashville’s more affluent areas, perhaps her attitude might have had some legs. But I was nothing if not middle class, and I didn’t notice an appreciable falloff in culture east of the Cumberland Plateau.

Since this was in that period of the Pleistocene when few students brought their own cars to campus, it was necessary to find transportation back home to Nashville either by commercial conveyance or by whining and wheedling friends and family. My husband-to-be transported me home at the end of one spring semester, complaining loudly all the way about my 32 pairs of shoes and my 3½-foot-tall bedside lamp.
All the journeys home during my student days weren’t by road. I often flew on the old Southern Airways for—are you ready for this?—the whopping sum of $14 one way. The aircraft were old prop planes, and it took a full hour to make the trip, but it sure beat the Trailways bus, which, if memory serves me, cost $6.

When the last stretch of I-40 was completed to connect Knoxville and Nashville, many rejoiced, and it took no time at all to forget what the main street of Rockwood looked like. (Wasn’t there a shortcut that allowed you to dodge one traffic light?)

I married immediately after graduating from UT, and my husband and I settled in Knoxville, so there were many trips back and forth for family visits to the Capitol City, and a few stick in my memory: a snowy and perilous Christmas day drive, the somber journey home when my father died, and decades later the fun trip when we surprised Mother with a visit by her tiny first great-granddaughter.

I don’t go to Nashville much anymore. Mother’s gone, and that familiar stretch of I-40 is becoming less so. But it will forever be the road home, no matter which way I travel.