It was July 1977 and my dad had just bought a beautiful new Chevrolet Impala a few months earlier in March. It was a heart churning “Firethorn Red” 2 door coupe with a white top, curved Landau rear window – and bright red interior with custom wood trim. It was the hottest looking car on the eastside of Indianapolis . . . At least to my dad and me.
To my 11 year old self, it was an instant classic that would go on to define my memories of childhood road-trips for the next decade as well as countless hours with my dad under the hood as he taught me how to change spark plugs, belts, and filters.
For our family of 5, it was a major leap forward in comfort. Mostly because it was our first family car with air conditioning. Plus my dad installed an eight track tape player so he and my mom could enjoy the latest hits by Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, and Charlie Pride. For myself, older sister, and little brother, the music was not as enjoyable. But decades later those songs came to form the backbone of my most cherished road-trip memories.
My dad was eager to break his new car in. And while it didn’t house the monstrous Chevy 350, it’s 305 engine was so powerful it would lift the car off the ground when you slammed on the gas, a feature I reveled in often once I inherited the car in my college years.
He was also eager to show it off to all his brothers and his own dad “downhome.” For Northerners who don’t know, the term downhome is a standard designation for any place a southern boy lived growing up – for some reason left – yet desperately longed to return to but financially it was never a realistic option. So it was for my dad’s version of downhome as well – a sleepy little town called Tompkinsville in south-central Kentucky that has since become so famous for its barbeque that even the New York Times wrote about it. Fortunately (for my mom Ruth) a few quick weekend trips seemed to quell his itch.
But this weekend trip was a bit different. It would be a tour-de-force extending beyond our typical 1 or 2 weekend nights downhome to include an exotic destination far beyond the Kentucky/Tennessee state line. One that would take us kids farther from our hometown than we’d ever been. We were going to “See Rock City.”
It was all fun until the “Fun Meals”
When you’re only 11 years old and have never been more than a five hour drive down I-65 from home, a place called Rock City definitely perks your ears up.
Images of rickety skyscrapers made of boulders and slabs of stones stacked like houses of cards filled my head. . . all inhabited by Stone Age hillbillies riding around on crazy-eyed (and slightly drunk) mules. And trolls. Lots of tiny mean eyed blonde trolls (according to my sister who was 4 years older than me and well read on such topics). Why blonde, I’ll never know. It was even rumored (via my mom) that the trolls were a sneaky bunch so we should hold on tight to the $2 she had given each of us for souvenirs.
There was also a bonus destination: Ruby Falls. I didn’t know what to think about it. All my parents would tell us was it was a big dark cave and that once inside they’d turn all the lights off. So we better behave otherwise, well they’d just leave us down there.
The road-trip downhome went smooth as silk. Once our Impala outran WIRE radio’s AM signal from Indianapolis, my dad reached down into a big black lizard-skinned 8 track tape case, grabbed a random tape, and shoved it in the player, leaving an empty slot in the case’s red velvet lined interior. There was a lot of red velvet everywhere back then.
In the big bench seat in the back, about the length and depth of most modern sofas, us 3 kids stuck our noses against the windows counting license plates from various states. Then making up games. . . then taking a nap on the red cloth seat (thank God it was just plain red and not red velvet – even at 11 that would have traumatized me for life).
As we drove through Glasgow heading towards Tompkinsville it started to get real hot outside. But inside we were ice cold thanks to that beautiful Chevy air conditioning unit humming along under the hood. We were also hungry so dad pulled into the Burger Chef and we hopped out, eager to get the latest fun meal that could be made into a Star Wars X-wing or Tie Fighter. They were all the rage at school and we coveted them much more than was logical considering they were just cheap cardboard. We even hung them from our bedroom ceiling using thread.
But as we climbed back in the Impala and headed towards Tompkinsville it started to get hot. Too hot. Up in the front seat my dad suddenly said a very short word I had never heard before. Then quickly pulled off the road.
He hoped out and checked under the hood. The AC was out of freon. “Ding dang it” I murmured. Even at 11 I knew how serious the situation was about to become, especially in July in the South.
The rest of our trip would be a “bee-hind sticking to the seat” kind of hot. Luckily the new Impala’s seats were cloth, not vinyl. We had suffered thru the entire 1970s to that point with our shortpanted legs and bare arms sticking to clear plastic vinyl seat covers – the really bad kind with the little bumps molded all over them. They would leave deep imprints on your skin that would last for hours after you got out of the car.
We sweated it out to T-ville then on to Chattanooga, Tennessee – windows down all the way. We were all drenched in sweat and most likely suffering from dehydration because I swear, to this day, I vividly remember us all sharing a collective G-rated hallucination involving Dolly Parton (who we would see in-person during a filming of Pop Goes The Country a year later) and a few of those trolls. But there is always the very real chance it was real considering it happened just as we reached Lookout Mountain.
Rushin’ ’round Ruby Falls
After a rough nights sleep in the cheapest motel in Chattanooga (equipped with a black and white TV that could only pick up 2 stations) we headed up to Ruby Falls. It was the steepest road I’d ever seen. The parking lot was packed, and even steeper than the road. As soon as we parked, a teenager popped up, gave a little wave and said “hey” then started wrapping a large cardboard sign around the bumper using metal straps. See photo. Then quickly dashed away.
As a family, we never lingered when it came to sightseeing. We got right to work. After all, whenever we took a family trip it was costing my dad money. He didn’t get vacation days so he had to take the days off without pay. So our vacation trips were always 1 to 3 nights. Not enough time for my dad who routinely worked backbreaking hours 6-7 days every week. But it was enough for us kids and my mom to say “ok, we got out of the house and experienced a little bit of the world.”
My mom rushed to get our tickets and we narrowly caught the tailend of a group just entering the cave. In fact, I believe I got to close the door.
As we entered the cave, the lights faded behind us. After a moment, our eyes adjusted. And ahead we could see lights arching upwards against several disturbingly human-like shapes. We crept toward them then slowed further to a short shuffle as the poor souls in front came to stop, either out of fear of the mysterious shapes that now engulfed them or, more likely, because there wasn’t enough light to see where to walk.
Suddenly – the remaining lights went out. Without warning and with much trepedation, a great “GASP” flowed outward from the group. An old woman shreiked. And a young boy cried. I myself stood in splendid adoration of the darkness that was so silent and chilling that I could hear the quickening heartbeats of those around me.
As the lights returned, we travelled on until a faint murmur began to echo all around. As it grew louder a colorful light began to dance ahead of us. And without warning the shiny rocken walls that enclosed us peeled out and upward, revealing a tower of light the likes of which I had never experienced before. And with it, a slightly swirling mist that wrapped warmly around my body. We had reached the falls.
My dad lead our tiny group around the falls. As we circled it, my mom said “stay low – or you’ll crack your skull.” We all headed her words – except for me. Entranced by the rushing sound of Creation all around us, I feigned ignorance and paid the price and it turns out she was right. “CRACK” went my skull as it hit the low hanging stone. Dazed I continued on as a small bump emerged on my head. Looking back, I consider it a small price to pay for a personalized souvenir on my head. One that, 46 years later, I still remember – and in a strange way – cherish.
Seeing Rock City, Lookout Mountain
Next up: those Stone Age hillbillies living in the rock houses. To me, that was definitely of interest. After a decade of watching The Flintstones I was ready. I had already imagined how the streets would be laid out and how the large stone garage doors on the homes would actually work. I was also hoping to sample a large rack of dino-ribs with my dad. But, alas, my imagination once again got the best of me.
As we entered Rock City there were no streets lined with neatly manicured lawns and no stone houses. Instead I found something better – a swinging bridge. A big one. Even at 11, I knew the scare factor of crossing it alone would prime me for early manhood. So I broke from the family and ran quickly across it – halfway. Then I looked down and realized “good golly – there’s nothing down there.” I froze for a moment, a hand on each cable and blocking the way for others.
Now, my dad has a lot of common sense so he initiallly stayed off the bridge. But once he saw my distress, he came to my rescue, carefully shuffling me off. To my credit, I was able to walk the rest of the way across on my own. And that did help me avoid any fear of heights that I otherwise may have developed. And now, decades later, I’m still the first to cross any swinging bridge we happen across, including the magnificent mile high wonder located at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. I’ve crossed it several times, including during a rainstorm. And each time remember my first experience at Rock City.
As we continued on we reached the infamous Fat Man’s Squeeze. Now, my mom had been teasing my dad about this for a while. She had even, in her own evil little way, been fattening him up for the slaughter so to speak. To his credit, my dad didn’t opt out and take the alternate route. As an old Kentucky boy he was determined to make it work – one way or the other. Regardless of the pain. And through the sheer determination that you can only find in someone who was getting hungry and determined to make it to the snack bar – he entered the squeeze.
The way I remember it was, well, it was a very tight trip through Fat Man’s Squeeze for him. Not that he was fat, he really wasn’t. But his belly was definitely getting hung up on the rocks. Somewhere there is a photo of him looking “somewhat stuck”, staring back at my mom with an expression similar to Fred Flinstone once he realized he shouldn’t have eaten that whole rack of dino-ribs.
I look back and realize he was about the same size as I am now as I prepare to traverse the squeeze myself. So I’m quite proud of the fact he didn’t get stuck. It gives me hope. A lot of hope. And since I’m over 200 pounds, I need some hope right about now.
While our family’s M.O. wasn’t to linger when sightseing, we somehow began to. The gardens at Rock City were quite pretty. And the trolls didn’t really seem the pickpocket type. We spent quite some time at Lover’s Leap viewing all seven states, including my future home of North Carolina. And I distinctly remember entering a trail along the side of a stone cliff that had been encased on one side in multi-colored glass. As a young artist, I found it so captivating as the sunlight burned through on that mid-summer’s day. “Look through the blue and you’ll be cool” said an elder wanderer as he whisked by me. So I did. And my family? They sat . . . and lingered.
46 years later . . .
My dad had been a Chevy man all his life. The roadtrip to Rock City and Ruby Falls changed that forever. And it would be 46 years before I’d have the chance to “See Rock City” again. Fortunately, that time has come. But we’ll be driving in air conditioned comfort and staying at the most charming inn in town – The Chanticleer – where I won’t really care whether the television is black and white, or color. I’ll be too busy enjoying time with my wife. Actually, black and white might be rather romantic.
After years of telling my wife about Rock City and Ruby Falls, I’m looking forward to the moment we walk together onto the swinging bridge. And perhaps she’ll snap a quick photo of me “somewhat stuck” in Fat Man’s Squeeze. If so, it’s going on the mantle.
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