Extreme Driving in Tennessee

I drove on Tennessee highways for several hundred miles in June and July, and experienced the entire range of the motoring experience, from I-40 to the Natchez Trace Parkway.

The worst interstate highway driving experience in the state has to be I-40 in East Tennessee east and west of Knoxville. I-81 terminates into I-40 east of town in Jefferson County, and I-75 joins I-40 in Knoxville and runs with it for several miles before peeling off and heading southwest to Chattanooga. Throw in the most popular exit (I-40′s 407) for the most visited national park in the country and thousands of semis roaring alongside cautious flatlanders pulling travel trailers, and you have a hellish mix even when traffic is running. God help you if there is a wreck.

Even if drivers could ignore the traffic, the trees that have grown up along the interstate highways all over Tennessee have resulted what can only be called tunnel vision. Here’s a look at I-40 west of Knoxville:

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A verdant picture, to be sure, but you can’t see any barns or animals, any people or houses, or anything interesting. I’m not advocating cutting down all those trees–Lord knows, we need them to help clear our polluted air–but visitors to Tennessee who confine themselves to interstate highways might as well be in North Carolina or Arkansas.

I’ve always advocated driving, if possible, on the older highways. In Tennessee, these include 70, 64, 411, and 127. The Tennessee Department of Transporation is relentlessly four-laning some of these roads and wiping out many of the historic structures along the way, but for now–if you have the time–they remain the best way to see the state.

Then there’s the Natchez Trace Parkway, which marks the other extreme of driving in Tennessee. This 444-mile road, which follows the routes that pre-steamboat Tennesseans would use to walk or ride home on horses from New Orleans, runs from just outside of Nashville down toward Alabama and Mississippi. Commercial traffic is banned from this two-lane road, which has no driveway connections and, whenever possible, uses bridges to avoid intersections with lesser roads. Below is a photo of the $12 million bridge that carries the Parkway over Highway 96 just below Nashville.

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While the Natchez Trace Parkway is ideal for bicyclists and is a welcome relief for everyone from the interstate madness, it is one of the more boring roads you will ever drive. Again, you can’t see the forests–or anything else–for the trees. Motorists roll along as if hermetically sealed off from any aspect of Tennessee culture and people. The experience reminds me of a long ago ride at Six Flags and other amusement parks in which kids “drove” antique looking cars along “roads” that had a raised metal plate along the middle so that the vehicle cannot be driven off the road. That’s the only thing missing from the Natchez Trace Parkway.

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The above photo came from this site.

This blog is part of a much larger website, also entitled Tennessee Guy, that contains travel and cultural information about Tennessee. Visit it here.

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