Chattanooga, 5/13-5/16

Once upon a time, Walter Cronkite got on the evening news and declared Chattanooga the dirtiest city in America. And lo, the city was sad, and it did cause parks to be made. And then all was green and good and the readers of Outside voted it “Best Town Ever.”

Left: Vacant lot turned pocket park, a-dorable. Right: Built in the 1890s, the Walnut Street Bridge was repaired for cyclist/pedestrian-only use instead of being demolished when the newer bridge opened. Unrealistic antasies of a similar fate for my beloved Bay Bridge tortured me every time I crossed this thing.
Left: Vacant lot turned pocket park. Right: When a newer bridge opened, the century-old Walnut Street Bridge was repaired for cyclist/pedestrian use instead of being demolished. Unrealistic fantasies of a similar fate for my beloved Bay Bridge tortured me every time I crossed.

That’s the basic narrative I spit for my employer, and it was fun to find the truth in it. In my unscientific sample, everyone from the bike shop boys to the drunk dude behind me in line for food-truck chicken and waffles effused variants (“Heinous!” “Hell-hole!”) on Chattanooga’s grimy past and current status as the poster-child for Southern revival.

And it really does seem straight-up livable these days: but for the dearth of “big-girl jobs” (in the words of a yoga instructor/receptionist/dirtbag/waitress) I’d happily relocate. If anything, Chattanooga reminded me of Some Parts of Oakland—the same gap-toothed smiles of abandoned buildings, the same mason jars of drip coffee and baristas with mermaid tattoos. Just warmer, softer, more sidewalk chessboards and flowering vines. People do walk slower. People do say, “Evening, ma.”

Left and right are about a block apart. If located in my zip code, Mean Mug Coffeehouse would require daily intervention by a fire marshall; as it is, there's always a couch open and coffee+lunch+dessert runs under $10. Glorious.
Left and right are about a block apart. If located in my zip code, Mean Mug Coffeehouse would require daily intervention by the fire marshal; as it is, I always found open couch spots and coffee+lunch+”WHATEVER I’M ON VACATION” dessert for under ten bucks. Glorious.

It rained too much to climb, which was disappointing, but I did ride. In fact, because no one with a better/ motorized idea ever pedals the ten miles from town to trailhead, I even briefly held the charming Strava honorific, “Queen of Raccoon Mountain.” Yeah, Tennessee, what’s up?

Anyway: I was told this 20-mile network is the region’s best, and I’d believe it. By California standards, the trails were in excellent condition, required almost no sustained climbing, and stayed technical enough to be interesting without ever making me want to cry or quit mountain biking forever. And that’s saying something these days, honestly.

The Raccoon Mountain network skirts a Tennessee Valley Authority hydroelectric facility. The reservoir is only occasionally in view, but you can often hear the hum and buzz of the transformers: there’s a white-noise effect that makes the already quiet woods seem an otherworldly sort of silent … a sensation probably enhanced by riding unfamiliar trails alone?

I also:

  • Rode at Stringer’s Ridge, a much smaller trail system, but also a Trust for Public Land project and in (legitimate) riding distance of downtown. It’s fast, flowy, lunch-break gold, a pump track’s in progress, and it could have been condos. Pretty rad.
  • Tried SUPing. I … do not need to try it again.
  • Ruinously skewed my standards for hostels at the Crash Pad: all the coffee and community, none of the crawling sensation that you’re acquiring lice.
  • Accidentally attended a motorcycle rally?
  • Toured Union and Confederate cemeteries, of course.
  • Canoed Chickamuaga Creek with some local staff, who knew all the planning-commission gossip and nuts-and-bolts of how greenway designers protect joggers from flying railroad spikes. Alas, I had nothing so interesting to report from paper-pushing at headquarters.