Rediscovering Knoxville, Tennessee…
In 1984, as a 20-year-old Yankee from New Hampshire, I was traveling to the Ocoee River in eastern Tennessee for the “Ocoee Double Header” kayak races in March. This was my first year of training full time to make the USA Kayak Team, and of my annual pilgrimage to the South.
I discovered the warm, welcoming city of Knoxville on the route to the Ocoee. It was industrial like I was used to around Boston, with old buildings, but warmer people. We stopped for gas, a quick bite, and drove through town to get to the river.
In 1988, we discovered Calhoun’s on the River. I was recently married, and we didn’t have much money, but we would schedule our 600-mile drive from Washington, D.C., our new home, to the Ocoee, around hitting Calhoun’s during lunch or dinner time. It was an event that gave us driving energy and was our first real Tennessee love. Yes, I loved the river, but WE loved to eat at Calhoun’s.
As the years went by, our annual trip to the Ocoee and Calhoun’s grew to include my daughter, Emily, in 1990, and son, Dane, in 1993. Dane was premature and released out of the Maryland hospital we were in after 7 weeks at only 4 pounds. Our first trip with him only days later was to the Ocoee, where I would win my first World Championships, but not before our stopping at Calhoun’s for the ribs, feeding the carp our leftover bread from the balcony and getting some of their famous BBQ sauce. Emily earned a free jar of sauce by making up her own Calhoun’s song and singing it for the manager.
In 2002, after living in an RV and traveling full-time with my wife, Kristine, and two kids, Emily, and Dane, we decided that Tennessee was our calling and bought land near Rock Island State Park. It was our favorite place for many reasons. The whitewater kayaking, weather, people, cost of living, and more all added up to being the right place for the Jackson’s.
We are dead-center in the middle of the state and equidistance between Knoxville, Chattanooga and Nashville. We discovered Lupis pizza in Chattanooga and music in Nashville, and we spent most of our “city time” between these two cities. Knoxville was our third choice among the three towns at this stage. It was too industrial, not growing or welcoming like Nashville and Chattanooga were back then. We still stopped at Calhoun’s, but didn’t venture downtown for any other reason, other than to see the kayaks at River Sports Outfitters.
We have our regular beats in Chattanooga and Nashville, and they each are amazing in their own ways, so Knoxville fell off of our radar from 2002 to 2019. That changed this weekend. My older kids, Emily and Dane, are grown, and are professional kayakers like their dad — both are world champions and traveling in their own RVs now. Kristine and I have a third child, KC, who is keeping us on our feet and young now. Kristine, KC, and I were prompted to check out Knoxville again, and we decided to spend a long weekend here.
WOW!!! I am not sure if I wish I had been paying more attention to the transformation of this city or am glad I let it happen and got to experience it all at once .. Like seeing a childhood friend all grown up 20 years later.
We got some lunch at Sokno (South Knoxville) Taco Cantina — the popular restaurant got us warmed up to what we might find over the weekend.
We stayed at the Hyatt Place on Gay street near market square and brought the Nissan Titan loaded with our Jackson Kayaks. KC has his Side Kick, Kristine has a Nirvana, and I brought my Rock Star. We brought one fishing pole, a couple of outfits and the desire to get out and see the town.
Our first stop was the Ijams Nature Center, but it was a short stop, as I discovered Mead’s Quarry there and it was calling my name. Kristine and KC checked into the hotel while I did some freestyle kayaking in the crystal clear waters against the “cliffs of insanity” (they reminded me of the cliffs in “Princess Bride”).
River Sports Outfitters of Knoxville, a Jackson Kayak dealer, runs a rental program on the water for kayaks and SUPs. I had no idea!
I brought my spinning rod with a “Ned Rig” on it. Tennessee lakes ALWAYS have Bass in them (the main the Bassmaster Classic was held there this year). In less than an hour, I landed more than 12 bass. Nothing big, but all of them were fun to catch. There must have been 50 people floating around on tubes, paddling kayaks and SUPs and swimming. It was a good mix of young people, couples and older folks, as well. I got my kayaking fix, fishing fix and was ready for some downtown activities with my family.
This weekend would be about getting to know Knoxville for the first time, again. Discovering new restaurants, beer, wine, and more are some of our favorite things to do as a couple. Kristine and I were lucky to have a new friend, Zach, who leads Knoxville Brew Tours, showing us around.
Our first dinner was at the Last Days of Autumn brewery. Named for the period in life that the owners started the business, it was a very casual meeting place. Shrimp boil night on Friday night is the thing to do here. Epic cajun or hot shrimp combined with their own beer options in a family-style eating set up puts you right at home. Board games line the walls and hanging out is what this place is all about. If I lived in Knoxville, I would be a regular, and I would be having chess games with my friends and family while trying the beer of the day and munching on small plates.
We were lucky to come to town during their Rhythm N’ Blooms Festival, which included non-stop live music, vendors, artists, lots of beer, and it was held on outdoor stages in the Old City, walking distance from our hotel. This certainly put a spin on the town in a positive way for us as we walked right into a massive party with everything you could want to do at our fingertips. We bought a cool leather-covered flask on the way to seeing Katie Pruitt. Tyler Childers headlined the night, and he didn’t disappoint. It was exactly how you imagine a Tennessee festival should be — a great combo of cowboy hats, camo, and more urban styles all mixed together while singing and dancing to country music.
I don’t remember just what time we got back to the hotel, but our first day in Knoxville was an eye opener. Stay tuned for days two and three.