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Nashville, Y'all!

Last month, our daughter Leah turned 21. Hard for me to wrap my head around it. Seems like just yesterday she was makin’ mudpies, chasin' butterflies, playin’ with dolls, and performing dance recitals. Now she’s a junior in college majoring in Special Education, working with the Illinois Foster Care program, and holding down a day job. To say Denise and I are proud parents is an understatement.

To mark the milestone, we took her, her boyfriend Kody, her childhood bestie Abigail, and her roommate Chaeli to Nashville for four days. A whirlwind of tourist attractions, restaurants, bar-hopping, and music ensued, and a great time was had by all.

The crew went out partying one of the nights and left me sleeping. I got up early and visited the famous Fork’s Drum Closet before they woke. I bought some drumsticks, the obligatory baseball cap, and chatted with the kind staff. When drummers get together, there’s plenty to talk about! In the store was a small Boykin Spaniel pup named Mel. I knelt and petted him and asked questions to the employee that held him. A beautiful dog, indeed, and I registered the breed in the back of my mind, as I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a huntin’ dog companion. We’ll see. I’m still dealing with the heartbreak of losing our beloved cat Buttercup a few months ago and am not sure I’m ready. (But man, I could really see me workin’ the fields and walkin’ the trails with a sprite little pup. We’ll see.)

Luckily, we drove down to Tennessee. It’s my travel preference. I used to enjoy everything about flying, now I loathe the whole experience. The TSA hassles and overcrowded planes have soured any desire to fly for me. I used to enjoy the hustle-and-bustle of the airport, the pleasant small-talk with fellow passengers, and the convenience of quick travel. Now, I drive to my destination whenever possible.

I enjoy seeing small towns and cities from the ground. As we drove through the southern parts of Illinois and the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee, I took in every field, pond, forest, river, and bog. I noticed the pristine country estates with their private ponds and wondered how big the bass and bluegill are that inhabit them. I envisioned grandchildren laughing on tire swings and the generations of farmers that rode the tractors parked in the fields. I always feel the essence of America in downtown areas with Ma & Pa stores and town squares untouched by time.

As Denise and I drove past woods, I looked for natural funnels whitetail use for travel between mast crops, cornfields, and bedding areas. We crossed little bridges over swamps and creeks in nondescript towns and I wondered if the area children find as much magical adventure along them as I did when wandering the woodlots, flooded plains, and forest preserves near my home as a child.

Of course, Nashville is a madhouse. The only thing rural about the city is the music and the attitude. There’s music emanating from every door, crowds of colorful cowboy hat and boot wearing folks, and plenty of fun to be found. The first night, Denise and I drove to pick up pizzas for dinner. I noticed country music star Bucky Covington walking down the street holding hands with a pretty woman. I love spotting celebs.

We took in the Grand Ole Opry and learned about the rich history of the theater and its commitment to country music. The last time I visited was fifty years ago with my family. Back then, Opryland Theme Park was adjacent to it and we spent the day there with my mother’s family from Tennessee. One thing I remember was asking my parents to buy me an "official" Davy Crockett coonskin cap. My father told the story many times over the decades of me wearing a faux-fur hat in ninety-degree plus weather! But as soon as I put it on, my imagination whisked me off to the frontier days. (Leah texted a photo recapturing the moment from a gift shop.)

Leah and her friends laughed when I told them this story as we toured the theater, which is now nestled in a large shopping mall. Alas, "progress."

We visited the Country Music Hall of Fame, as well. In the lobby, there’s a historic display of Gretsch and Gibson guitars that were made famous by the likes of Chet Atkins and James Burton. I noticed the red cigar box-shaped Gretsch model of Bo Diddley’s famous “Twang Machine” guitar. I mentioned it to the kids and the curator overheard me.

“Yes, that’s right! Do you know The Bo Diddley Beat?” she asked.

“ I am The Bo Diddley Beat!” I answered.

“Well, come on up then!”

She unlocked the guitar and handed it to me. I sat down with the odd-shaped instrument and jammed the famous rhythm in the key of D. People watched and clapped.

“That’s it! That’s the Bo Diddley!” the curator said and smiled.

Cool stuff.

         Traffic is insane in Nashville. It triggered My Beautiful Bride, so I did most of the in-town driving. It’s easier for me to fall into the chaotic flow of a crammed metropolis, especially when I am enjoying the stress-free mindset of vacation.

Oftentimes when I’m on vacation, I romanticize the notion of moving to that place. I fell in love with Texas and it instantly became a “place to retire” contender. The Florida Keys enchanted me. In Key West, I had an impromptu interview with a radio station, but had that dream deflated when I found out they paid in “sun dollars.” For a moment though, the thought of fishing and doin’ radio everyday and…well, what else is there?…seemed within reach.

I’ve fell in love with Michigan and took my life-savings at the time to buy my own forest there. It’s a wild paradise that is woven into the fabric of my being. Every visit there is a soul-cleansing experience. It is my sanctuary. Whenever I walk my trails, plant supplements for the wildlife, canoe, hunt or fish there, every concern of the “real world” disappears. (I love it, but the winters are too harsh for me to consider retiring to that off-the-grid Heaven-on-Earth.)

And every time I visit Tennessee, something stirs deep inside me, as if I’m being called home. My summers as a child were spent there, visiting relatives on my mother’s side. Some of my most treasured childhood memories were made in that wonderful state. Fishin’ Reelfoot Lake with my father, my Uncle Virgil and Cousin Stevie. Family fish fries. Pickin’ wild blueberries. Huntin’ raccoons with dogs in the swamps. Talkin' with Native Americans and feeding bison at Land Between The Lakes. Shootin’ my first real gun; Uncle Ferris’s 16 gauge Remington. Catchin’ toads. Ridin’ go-karts through cow pastures (and cowpies!) And the warm sense of family.

Driving home, my wife and I had a serious conversation about someday moving to Tennessee. The primary consideration is where our daughter settles once she begins her career. If the Tennessee bug continues to buzz in my brain, I might try to talk her into it. Or maybe Wyoming. Or Alaska. Or Montana. (Yes, all cold, and I hate winter, but the sporting opportunities outweigh the dread of snow and sub-zero brutality.)

As always, the time we all spent together went by all-too-quickly. We cleared the rented house and went our separate ways. Denise and I headed back to Illinois, while the kids took the day to hike Land Between the Lakes and Garden of the Gods.

Our travel time was lengthened by dust storm detours and closures, and I made sure to call Leah to give warning.

And just like that, we’re back at home. Our Nashville trip now memories and photographs.

And just like that, Leah’s 21. Wow.





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