Sunday, November 22, 2009

Foundations (Chattanooga & Nashville)

After six days of rest in Chattanooga, I am gradually getting back into the rhythms of my walk. My week in Chattanooga came at a perfect time, right at the cusp of 1,000 miles walked, and provided me a chance to be with my grandmother's family. My grandmother isn't around anymore, but she lives on through her six brothers and sisters who have so much of her spirit and likeness that being with them makes me feel as if she is still here.

Even though I am already in Atlanta, I offer this recap of my week in Chattanooga. It was a week unlike any other I have had on this trip because I finally got to put my feet up and stop walking.

The Evatts and me, joined by Chic & Theda (in chairs)

Evatt-dently home

My home base while in Chattanooga was with my grandmother's youngest sister Jeanette Evatt and her husband Bill. They have been such an integral part of this trip, both as hosts and as supporters, that there are not sufficient words for me to thank them. After 79 days of unrelenting travel, with only a single rest day per week, it felt restorative to unpack my bags in their extra room and stay in one place for six complete days.

Bill & Jeanette have four children, all with families of their own, and on the Sunday I arrived 16 of the Evatt family came for a joint celebration. My arrival in Chattanooga coincided with my great aunt Theda's 86th birthday. Theda was the fifth child of Mama and Papa Freeland and the next born after my grandmother. I dare say it is much easier to walk 1,000 miles than it is to live 86 years with the kind of selfless compassion that Theda has always shown her friends and family, myself definitely included. Her milestone was thus more noteworthy than mine, but I was glad we could celebrate together, not only on Sunday night, but on Monday as well when I joined her and her husband Chic for a birthday lunch across town.

As with all the gatherings and celebrations on this walk, I insisted that we all gather for a group picture on Sunday night. With a total of 19 of us herded into the frame it temporarily set a record for largest group picture of my walk. It was a mark that would only last four days before being matched by the Nashville side of the family.

A cleaner, less hippie-ish look so as not to scare strangers.

For You, It's Free

On Monday I decided I needed a haircut. The sides and back of my hair had long since mutinied and overturned the dictatorial order my Russian barber last instituted three and a half months ago. I figured that if I didn't get at least a trim before arriving in New Orleans someone might be tempted to give me an unflattering nickname along the way - possibly Grizzly Poorman or Garth Crusoe. I wanted to avoid that possibility.

Bill took me to his barber. Had I been walking past it I'm not sure I would have recognized it as a barber shop. It looked more like a small home with a window in front, a mostly gravel yard and an attitude about landscaping strongly leaning to the "hands off" approach. In fact, I'm pretty sure this barber uses it as both a home and a shop. Once inside there are a couple of barber chairs, a few seats to wait your turn and laissez-faire attitude about interior decorating, as evidenced by a variety of leafs strewn around the floor.

This barber was not in a hurry. But his deliberate pace allowed him to talk and connect with his patrons. The customer in the chair before me was a man in his 90s. I didn't see him pay and I suspect that the barber had done it for free. When I took the chair and he began his slow revolution around my head with the clippers we starting talking about my walk. By the time he was done, I was that much closer to getting my AARP card, but I was also sporting a much cleaner haircut. When I asked him how much he replied, "For you, it's free."

I guess when you are that nice and giving, there isn't a lot extra in the company budget for indoor leaf removal. As it should be.

One of Chattanooga's beautiful sculptures, framed by an autumn tree.

Bill & I walking the wooden planks of the Walnut Street Bridge

Chattanooga is for walkers

On Wednesday Bill and I decided to make the most of a sunny afternoon and have him show me a bit of Chattanooga. I've walked through many towns on this trip and sadly many are a mere shell of what I assume was their former glory. Chattanooga will not be added to that list. It is a beautiful city which seems to be thriving in a very touch economy.

Bill and I parked near the downtown section of the Riverwalk, a seven mile green way that traces alongside the Tennessee river from the Chickamauga Dam to downtown Chattanooga. We got out and walked a spell, around a beautiful sculpture garden, up along a bluff with shops and restaurants, alongside the gorgeous Hunter Museum of art and then across the Walnut Street Bridge. The Walnut Street bridge is the longest pedestrian only bridge in the world and since I am one of the nation's foremost pedestrians at this time, I thought it would be terrible shame if I didn't add my footprints on its wooden cross planks.

The Walnut Street Bridge connects downtown Chattanooga with trendy North Shore. I can't tell you much about North Shore other than it provided me with a huge White Chocolate Raspberry shake to add to my caloric intake for the day. I asked nothing more of it. Bill and I took the leisurely stroll back into Chattanooga, retraced our steps back along the Riverwalk and to the car.

This might seem like a bit of a back-handed compliment, but if I was forced to choose a place to live and the nation's major cities weren't an option, I'd settle in good ole Chattanooga. The weather never gets too cold. It has a fledgling arts scene, beautiful paths devoted to pedestrians and it is geographically located in striking distance to Atlanta, Knoxville and Nashville. It might be a mid-major among American cities, but if so, at least it is a mid-major competing with the big boys for a BCS birth. It is the Boise State football team of the American urban landscape.

The Nashville Crew at Lorene's house

Me and Annie V

Theresa, me, Tanya and Lorene

Ain't No Party Like a Lorene Party

I couldn't stay in Chattanooga for a week without driving up to Nashville. Wait, let me specific. I couldn't stay in Chattanooga for a week without being sprawled comfortably along the backseat while Bill and Jeanette drove me to Nashville. That's closer to the mark.

Of my grandmother's brothers and sisters, three live in the Nashville area, one in Crossville and two in Chattanooga. Lorene Douglas is one of the Nashville group and she invited us up for a lunch gathering. Lorene has a special place in my heart and in the heart of my family. She has been widowed for a number of years and is an absolute saint when it comes to keeping in touch and letting everyone know she is thinking of them. When my grandmother was ill with Parkinsons and dementia, Lorene called her every night without exception at 8pm. I would be taking care of Nonnie sometimes and I could set my watch on that ring. I'd pick up, Lorene and I would talk for a while and then I would hand the phone to Nonnie. In the later years Nonnie couldn't really say anything. But I or my dad would hold the phone to her ear and Lorene would talk to her about her brothers and sisters and tell her that she loved her. Even though at the end Nonnie couldn't express herself, I knew that those calls made her feel loved and included.

Lorene had prepared quite a southern feast for everyone on this Thursday. Bill, Jeanette and I arrived first, but others arrived quickly on our heels. Dewitt, Sarah, Sheila and little Asher. Then Theresa and Tonya. Then Annie V, Anita, Scott and TJ. Then Sherry, Richard, Ward and Dot. Lastly we were joined by Donald and Sue, bringing the total to 20. When I started gathering the troops for our picture, that would have broken the record set just four days back. But young TJ decided to opt out of the group photo. So Nashville & Chattanooga had to settle for a tie.

With Lorene, Annie V, Dewitt and Donald all there, I was really glad to have been able to see all my grandmother's brothers and sisters on my trip through Tennessee. She would have been so happy. Sometimes people talk about seeing family as if it is a burden. For me, it is never so. I always look forward to my stops in Nashville and Chattanooga. I've included them on numerous trips I have taken over the years. The Freeland family tree always provides a wonderful pleasant shade for me to rest under. That shade comes with good stories, great food and those winning Freeland smiles.

Bill, Jeanette and I had to leave early in the afternoon to get back to Chattanooga before it was too late. I fell asleep in the backseat for a while before awaking right around sunset. It is a reminder that beauty is not sole property of the new and the youthful. All my grandmother's brothers and sisters are 75 or older, and I can't think of a more beautiful group of people. I hope my sunset years are lived with as much grace.

Here birdie birdie, here birdie ....

Fore! Bill pulls out his driver

Speak softly, but carry a big five wood

To say I am a infrequent golfer would be putting it mildly. In the past five years I could count my golf outings on one hand. There would be a few beat downs I put on my dad on the par 3 course outside of Norristown, PA and a corresponding clinic put on me by my friend Endel in Phoenixville. Truth is I am not that competitive when it comes to golf. My dad and I battle it out in a sometimes annual par 3 contest, but other than that I just like to get out there and knock it around.

As with all other casual golfers, inconsistency is the adjective that describes my game. There is no rhyme or reason to what part of my game might be firing on all cylinders on any given day and what part might be absolutely abysmal. It is a total crap shoot.

One of the nice things about coming to Chattanooga is that Bill and I find a way to work in a golf game. Given that I am a left hander, Bill had to sniff out a set of clubs for me to use. He was able to find a partial set at Brainerd golf course which the attendant allowed me to use for free. There was a dented driver, a five wood, four different irons and a putter. Bill's son John joined us to make a fearsome threesome, with Bill driving the lead cart and John and I careening around behind him.

We took our place at the first tee and I commenced to weed out which clubs would be my Kryptonite. I swung my driver on that initial par four and sliced a little gift right into the neighbors yard. No charge for that express mail gift. John jokingly noted that mulligans are always free on the first hole so I teed up another ball, banished the dented driver to my bag and took out the five wood.

Thus started a long and fruitful relationship between me and my five wood. I bogeyed the first hole before falling apart on 2, 3 and 4. Gathering some shreds of pride on the fifth hole I hit two monster five woods back to back on the 364-yard par 4, leaving my ball about five feet from the hole. I drained my birdie put and realized that I might never play another hole so well for the rest of my life.

That reminds me of a little story. I used to play church softball with a guy named Den Fenstermacher. He was the team captain, our left fielder and an all around quirky type of guy. We played on a field with a fence and it was his much discussed dream to hit a home run in one of our games. Years passed, we won championships, dominated our league and yet Den never hit one out. He did strength training in the off-season, started swinging up on the ball more and yet it didn't happen. Then the last game of year, some 10 seasons or so into playing with our church, Den lit into one and it sailed over the left field fence. As he strided the bases the team exploded with cheers. He was restrained in his celebration but there was a look of complete satisfaction on his face. Part of me thought he might tap home and keep running straight to his car like a character out of an Amelia Bedelia book. He didn't. The game ended and he packed up his car and we all said our "see you next season" to one another. But we didn't see Den next season. He packed it up and never played another game.

If I would have walked off after my birdie on the fifth hole this might be a better story. Yet I kept hacking away. I managed to par the following par-3 and then the par-4 ninth. I would add two more pars on the back nine, but no more birdies. My five wood continued to talk a big game, but my short game did just as good a job of shooting me in the foot. I finished the day with a respectable 95. I kept it in double digits and for me that's a victory.

It was dark when we finished our round. The golf shop had closed up and one guy was just waiting for our carts. For a second I thought about returning my clubs minus one five wood. They would never know. But lest I use it as a walking stick, I had no where to put it. So I bid it a tearful goodbye. May its drives always be long and straight.

Me, Elianha & Alan as I set off for Dalton

The Power is in the Bracelet

On Sunday morning I ended my time in Chattanooga the same place I started it - Silverdale Baptist Church. Bill had met me here last Sunday afternoon at the end of my long walk from Cleveland. Now Bill, Jeanette, their son Alan, his wife Kelly, their daughter Elianha and I were there for early morning services.

Pastor Tony preached on the final passage from the Sermon on the Mount. In it Jesus employs the metaphor of building your house on a rock versus building it on the sand. The intro to the sermon was a cute YouTube video of a little girl singing the well known kids song about the same story. I remember singing it as a kid, but I don't remember every giving the metaphor itself much thought.

Pastor Tony talked about how the inevitable storms of life will always test our foundations, whether we like it or not. That got me thinking about what I would answer if someone asked me point blank, "what is your foundation in life?" I'm not going to answer that question here, because I think that explanation belongs in a different place and I will address it head on in what I write after this trip. But having spent the past six days surrounded by the love and concern of my extended Tennessee family I do know that families provide a kind of foundation that can be so important when life deals us some challenges.

My immediate challenge as we left the service was that it was raining again. We drove to Cracker Barrel restaurant across the Georgia state line and Alan treated us to brunch. I got one more chance to play with Elianha, Alan and Kelly's six year old daughter. She is such a ray of sunshine, in both her inexhaustible energy and her ability to light up any room with a smile. Earlier in the week she and I had taken our turns with a bracelet making kit she was loaned by one of her friends. She made me a gold and purple one which signify the Mardi Gras colors of New Olreans, my destination. I put that on my left wrist. At her urging I made another one for myself that is on my right. I won't take them off until I get there.

After lunch I got out in the center of Ringgold, GA and said my goodbyes to all of them. There was a slight rain. Not much of a storm. Especially given a foundation like those who waved goodbye to me there and all the others I had seen and talked to in Chattanooga and Nashville. Before I know it, these bracelets will be strolling down Bourbon Street.


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