May 30


Waffle House and The American Sublime

Start driving east out of Knoxville, Tennessee, heading for Virginia, as we have done today.

Whether or not you try to pay attention to the view, the stunning vistas soon pile up. Looming mountain ridges, vastly high; steep abrupt oak-topped hills, bright with the morning air. Even the abandoned quarries, sheer iron-sided ruins, possess their own wounded beauty.

I’m English, a Londoner, so mountains of any kind feel precious. I suspect that each one of these Appalachian foothills, were it to exist in England, would be cordoned off, given protected status and a small role in a Jane Austen novel. Perhaps the single turret of a stately home would offer a little distinction to the hillside’s silhouette.

Yet here, in Tennessee, the mountains get no special treatment. The never-ending roadside commerce–the Bass Pro fishing shops, a faux old winery, car dealerships–just sprawls up and over. In the far distance, a range of mountains hums a deep blue, the ancient wave part obscured by the sky-scraping sign of a Waffle House.

There is no mise en scene in this corner of the South. Beauty is just too commonplace. You can stand in the car park of a highway Pizza Hut, belly still queasy from the stuffed crust, and regard dark thick woods upon a grand peak that would have made any English landscape painter weep.


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  • Thank you for sharing your Englishman’s perspective. I’m a Southerner, and I look at those mountains every day. Sometimes, when they begin to fade behind a sheet of rain, I think of Austen and Bronte and Romantic poets, and wonder what their mountains looked like to them.

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