36 Hours: the Bike Trail

Touring some of the most exciting and exotic corners of Knoxville, without a car

(With apologies to the New York Times)

If you're like a lot of Americans, you don't have a lot of money to waste on gas. If you have kids in college, you don't have money for any gas at all. But somehow, damn it, you still keep accumulating vacation days.

As it turns out, if you've got a bicycle, you can have a lot of fun without ever picking up a nozzle. It doesn't even have to have a very good bike. An old one-speed Schwinn girls' bike will do the job. Take the bike trail. It spans some of the most exciting and exotic corners of Knoxville.


9 a.m.

1. Seize the Bacon, Then Seize the Book

Saturday breakfast at Big Fatty's is famous. Is it ironic that Big Fatt's has the thinnest-sliced bacon in town? The crowd is a surprising combination of the hautiest haute-cuisine sorts of Sequoyah and downtown bohos. Then drop in at Carpe Librum ("Carpe" to natives) and check on sidewalk sales, another Saturday tradition.

10:30 a.m.

2. A Walk in the Memorial Park

Well named because it's one of the steepest graveyards in town, Highland Memorial Cemetery is the home of the late Ray Mears—the University of Tennessee's most celebrated men's basketball coach before Bruce Pearl and originator of the phrase "Big Orange Country," as the inscription on perhaps the cemetery's most prominent tombstone, near the entrance, lets you know before you even get close. It also holds the graves of lots of other local titans, including industrialist Weston Fulton, inventor of the sylphon, whose grave is like a Craftsman version of a Greek temple; and Marcus de Lafayette Bearden, the Union captain, mayor, and state representative for whom the community is named. Even if you don't go back very far in Knoxville, the words on the graves will be familiar, because a lot of these business founders' names are still in the Yellow Pages.

11:30 a.m.

3. Down Newcomb Avenue Way

Along the trail, you can stop off in Bearden's Little Mexico. Try the excellent bakery La Flor for a post-breakfast pastry. Or, for an early lunch, stop in for a taco at El Girasol. (Anglos may not notice right away, but the strip has a floral theme: La Flor is Spanish for flower, and El Girasol means sunflower.)

12 noon

4. History Underfoot

Bearden is not necessarily the most historical neighborhood in Knoxville. It is, without question, the best-commemorated. Near an extinct Bi-Lo, granite plaques in the trail tell you something about the first railroad in East Tennessee in 1855—it came by right here!—as well as the site of the Alex A. Scott Brick Company from 1904-1922. Nearby, a wooden sign tells us that the same site was, from 1950 to 1982, the Knoxville Drive-In Theatre, reminding us of a time in the distant past when we used to spend all our time in cars. Other granite markers on the trail offer commemorations of Tudor architecture of the 1920s, the ancient Gingko tree, of which examples are obligingly handy, and a KUB substation, "built in the early 1950s to serve the Bearden community."

12:15 p.m.

5. Historic Bike Trail

The oldest bike trail in the area commences near the Golf Range Apartments' parking lot. The next two miles, along the creek on the netherworld below Kingston Pike, dates back to the first energy crisis, during the Nixon administration, perhaps with some urgency: With the price of gas shooting way up to 50 or even 60 cents a gallon, city fathers and a coalition of bicyclists and landowners figured people would soon be unable to afford to drive.

Further on, the bike trail takes you by the original site of McGhee Tyson Airport; in biplane days, it was right on Sutherland Avenue, partly on the site of West High School. Yes, the Everly Brothers' alma mater, which opened here in 1951, is still in business. Ever picture the humiliating scenes of their last big hit, "Cathy's Clown"? It was all right here. Unfortunately, they're closed during the summer, Everly tourist season.

(Hankering for another snack? Just beyond West is Sutherland's international strip. Try some Pakistani-made pizza at the Red Onion, or dos tacos, por favor, at La Ilusion.)

Just beyond Tobler Road, where the bridge crosses the creek, note the picturesque masonry trestle—bicyclists go beneath the same tracks that Kingston Pike motorists pass above. Later you cross another wooden bridge, where you can still see the merest trace of the foundation of an old mill, fastidiously removed. Parts of the bike trail look like a trail in the Smokies, parts like the Ugandan savanna, parts, if you squint your eyes, look like the Shenandoah River from about a mile away. Here's something most tour books fail to mention: Third Creek actually is the third creek! From downtown Knoxville, that is. Count them sometime. After all these years, the pioneer math still works.

You'll cross a quaint zigzag bridge across a swampy area, come into a clearing, cross Concord Street (the locals pronounce it like the moral principle, and with contrary Appalachian willfullness, unlike the town in Massachusetts).

1:30 p.m.

6. It's Nice in Tyson

Here's what to do for lunch: Ride through Tyson Park, then cross Cumberland Avenue and go to Pilot for some hot dogs and beer. Then take it back to the park and pick a spot for a lovely picnic. (Don't let the cops see that beer open!)

Tyson Park is the other part of the story of McGhee Tyson airport. Bettie Tyson, mother of McGhee Tyson, the Navy captain killed in a plane crash over the North Sea in 1918, donated this land, which was not very far from their home, over on what was then Temple Avenue. Knoxville had always been deficient of good parks and cheap about buying them with public funds. Bettie Tyson's deal was that if Knoxville wants her land for a park, it has to name the airport after her son.

The family moved away—one niece is currently the president of Harvard—but once every year or so, they send an attorney to Knoxville to be sure the airport is still named for McGhee Tyson. Nice work, if you can get it.

Tyson Park is home to dozens of tennis courts, a playground, and picnic facilities, and, just lately, the most up-to-date skatepark in Tennessee. Even if you're not a skateboarder, it makes a fascinating visit. Gliding up and down amongst each other, those kids out there look like creatures of a slightly different species, fish perhaps. It's hypnotic, like watching an aquarium.

Tyson is also the site of one of the first golf courses in Knoxville, a nine-holer established in 1898. It's not clear where the holes were, but you can imagine. Bring your clubs?

Nearby is Fulton Bottoms Field, where you're likely to see soccer, rugby, field hockey, nearly any of the British sports. American football, which is called Monkeyball down here, is apparently banned.

3:00 p.m.

7. Stop Wishin,' Go Fishin'

Approaching the mouth of Third Creek, watch for angry goose families—some of them are mean, and may be bigger than you are! Also, the shyer herons, and if you're quiet, you may see turtles, some of them approximately the size of some of the earlier Mini Cooper models. Those large, dark shapes cruising below the surface like Nazi subs are usually carp. If you go in for fishing, you'll always have plenty of company at the mouth of Third Creek, where sportsmen spend the day with a rod, reel, and cooler. Remember: Don't eat the larger fish, like catfish or carp, because they may be contaminated with PCBs. (We're just kidding. Go ahead!)

4:00 p.m.

8. Down the Garden Path

From there, a hard right will take you on a side trip to the UT Gardens. They used to be called the Experimental Gardens, but then they got very nice, like a pocket theme park of botanical pleasure. The 10-acre grounds supports something like 3,000 different species of plant, plus some interesting garden architecture and whimsical sculpture.

Return to the main trail, and a little industrial tour is next, offering intimate scenes of a concrete factory and the sewage treatment plant, which, you'll have to admit, smells much better than it used to, and probably even better than the one in your usual vacation destination. Myrtle Beach has nothing over Knoxville where sewage treatment is concerned.

You'll pass beneath a couple of ancient railroad trestles, and on your left, don't miss Thompson-Boling Arena, one of the largest things of its sort in the world (some say you really need to see it on the inside to get the full effect) and then Neyland Stadium, which is believed to date from the days of Neyland. Tip: traffic can be very slow with cumbersome pedestrians on this section of the bike trail on certain Saturdays in the fall.

5:00 p.m.

9. Rockin' with Rachmaninoff

At Second Creek, take a left on the newest section of the bike trail, which will take you to the Knoxville Convention Center you may have read about (it's ready to start having conventions, we hear), World's Fair Park, and the largest statue of Sergei Rachmaninoff in the tri-state area. Kids love to climb the composer's famous pants.

The ancient University of Tennessee is visible to the southwest. While you're in the park, try out the fountains on the north end and then, when you're good and soaked, drop in the Knoxville Museum of Art. Whoops! It closed at 5:00.

7:00 p.m.

10. Restaurant District

Return to the river the way you came, and as soon as you can smell the water you know you're in the bike trail's Restaurant District. The Bridgeview (named for its views of bridges), Calhoun's, and Ruth's Chris Steakhouse are all conveniently right on the bike trail, though some swish customers do arrive by automobile. None of them are cheap, but then again, none has an entree to compare with the gas you'd burn going to Orlando or some other of those lame car-driving places.

8:30 p.m.

11. Pub Crawl!

Hang out in the bar afterward, or, if you're feeling adventurous, climb the bridge up into fabled downtown Knoxville, the city's business district, which after hours becomes the city's bar district, offering at least 30 bars to suit every legal urge. Hookahs, bluegrass, sushi, jazz, cigars, fondue, mojitos, post-punk, latte, international funk, shepherd's pie, techno, breakfast cereal. Heck, you're not driving. Try them all!


4:13 a.m.

12. Resting on the River

You may be ready for bed by this point. There are, unfortunately, no actual hotels on the bike trail itself, a deficiency sure to be remedied with time.

If you insist on posh accommodations, the Marriott is at the top of the hill, perfectly accessible by bicyclist, though the actual bike trail peters out before you get there, and the hotel curiously seems to lack a bike rack.

But right on the bike trail is the marina. About a year ago, this writer mentioned that the city-subsidized boat dock, which was open to the public, made for a wonderful morning stroll, just to look at the fleet of swank boats and read their zany names. Ever since that column ran, the marina has been closed to the public. But if you're not above a little wading, you can easily get around the gates, which are intended to deter pirates and disreputable reporters, not you. Not only does a moonlit stroll on the marina offer the best view of the city's 1890s Main Water Intake, and a fascinating assortment of boats to look at, but aboard the boats are always dozens of beds, many of which have no one sleeping on them, and are therefore being wasted if you don't use them. (Was Goldilocks so bad?) Some of the bigger boats also offer bathroom accommodations (remember, call it "the head"). It's all perfectly legal, because these are international waters. The Tennessee River is made up of raindrops that fell in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee; before that, they all evaporated from somewhere, and we figure it was the ocean.

1:30 p.m.

All Aboard

Drag yourself out of bed to face a new day on the bike trail, because Volunteer Landing is the most intermodal transportation node in East Tennessee, offering riverboat, train, bicycle, and automobile access. So catch a ride on the Three Rivers Rambler, the only passenger train that goes non-stop through factories, woods, and fields to a quarry in Forks of the River, and, on the way, offers a better view of the actual origin of the Tennessee River than you can see from any car; or shake off the landlubber in you and climb aboard the Star of Knoxville, the city's only riverboat line, for a tour in the other direction, usually to the vicinity of Looney Island, near Sequoyah, to reveal a side of the city never seen from land, including excellent views of the backyards of the rich.

Or, if you've already blown your wad at Ruth's Chris, spend a lazy afternoon frolicking in the fountains with the fat kids at Volunteer Landing, and congratulate yourself on a weekend well spent.