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The Second Time Around

August 13, 2014

Welcome to Tennessee

Two years ago when the Hamster and I toured the deep south, Tennessee was one of our favorite parts of the trip. This time around it’s a necessary evil. I say this not because we aren’t enjoying it this time, but because the only reason we’re traversing it now is that it’s on the way home.

However, a do-over of Tennessee, while generally underwhelming, affords us the opportunity to do a few things we missed on our first trip through the state. So we started this morning in Memphis at the Gibson Guitar factory. Two years ago Sam decided at the last minute that he wasn’t interested in touring the factory. I’m not sure why. But this past year Sam took guitar lessons, so now a peek inside a guitar factory was much more interesting to him.

Gibson Guitar Factory

The reception desk at the Gibson factory

Most factory tours, while fun, are ultimately a little disappointing because you just watch everything through big windows rather than walking on the factory floor for up-close views of the process. At Gibson, that’s not an issue. We were given safety goggles, told to put away our cameras and keep our hands of the dangerous machines unless we wanted to lose digits, and led right into the middle of the action.

We learned that the main factory and corporate headquarters is in Nashville, where they make all the solid-body electric guitars. All the acoustic guitars are made in the secondary factory, which is in Bozeman, Montana. The Memphis factory, where they manufacture all hollow and semi-hollow electric guitars, is the smallest but it’s also the only one that offers tours to the public.

We also saw every step of the manufacturing process: cutting and shaping of basic body parts, hand-lathing of the necks, gluing of various parts, painting and varnishing, hand-finishing, and the insertion of electronics.

Most impressive to me was the revelation that very little of this process is automated or even standardized. Each painter decides how many coats a particular guitar needs. Each lathe operator shapes the curved backs of the necks by hand and by eye rather than stencil, yet rarely deviates by more than 1/16th of an inch. The installers of the strings and the electronic innards tune and play each guitar to make sure it sounds just right. All of this requires extremely skilled technicians who have not just knowledge but a feel for when everything is just as it needs to be, and when it’s not.

And we watched it actually happen. This was not some phony Hershey or Coke “factory tour” that was really just a walk-through commercial with some vague explanation about magic and secret formulas. We stood just a few feet away as one worker took disparate guitar parts and built a guitar, just like that, for some customer’s semi-custom order. We watched the lathers lathe and the painters paint and the scrapers scrape and the lacquerers lacquer and the buffers buff and the tuners tune. It was loud, and it was messy, and it was genuine, and it was awesome.

We were glad we got a second crack at Tennessee.

Unfortunately, most of our second crack at Tennessee is about driving. We’re planning to get home on Friday, and home is pretty stinking far away, so we’ve got some ground to cover. We woke up Sunday 1,600 miles from home. We woke up Tuesday 1,200 miles from home. As I write this Tuesday night, we’re down to about 850. Needless to say, most of the rest of the day was in the car.

We made an attempt to get that car washed at some point today, but the city of Jackson, TN, was not having it. We got off the highway looking for a car wash but found only placed that were closed or out of business altogether. The wild goose chase delayed us by about 40 minutes and caused much frustration. Eventually we gave up and made our way back onto the Interstate with the car still filthy.

I was originally thinking that Nashville would make a good stopping point just to break up the long drive across the state. But we had covered Nashville pretty thoroughly the first time around and we couldn’t think of anything we really wanted to do there. This is hardly a knock against Nashville; it’s a fun city and there’s a ton to do if you’re a big country music fan or if you’re there at night without any minors. But we’re not really into country music and we weren’t planning to spend the night and one of us is 12.

Serendipitously, an activity presented itself. Lisa, who I dated briefly in high school and then completely lost touch with for 20 years until the magic of Facebook reconnected us, posted that she was in Nashville on business. So this afternoon we met for the first time since at least 1992 and spent an hour or so catching up.

I love that these road trips allow me to visit friends who are scattered across the country and I never otherwise get to see. Sam, understandably, does not love my reunions, as he is forced to sit through conversations he doesn’t care about and discussions of people he doesn’t know. To his credit, he has been patient and well behaved every single time, and this afternoon was no different. At home when he’s bored he is not shy about making that fact known but on the road he finds ways to entertain himself and he never complains–at least not until we’re alone and back in the car.

Anyway, our final stop in Tennessee is yet another attempt to right an omission from our first time here. Just south of Knoxville, outside the town of Sweetwater, there’s a cavern that is home to the largest underground lake in the country. Our first trip to Tennessee was supposed to include a boat ride on the underground lake, but our plans were thwarted by the Eastern Time Zone, whose border lies somewhere between Nashville and Knoxville. I didn’t know this at the time, so when we lost that hour on the way to the cavern we also lost our opportunity for the boat ride. To make sure that didn’t happen again I scheduled our boat ride for Wednesday morning and made sure to get enough driving done Tuesday night so that we’d wake up in the same time zone as the cavern.

Yes, folks, for the first time in 30 days the Hamster and I are now back in Eastern Daylight Time! Of course, we still have 850 miles to go, and we’ve already been through the entire Book of Questions and found six Alaska license plates (we saw another one today), and the car still badly needs a wash. But tomorrow we have a date with an underground lake.

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