High Times in Chattanooga
Tennessee’s mountain hideout never misses a chance to reinvent itself
In Chattanooga, Tennessee, you could have recently won the following things: tickets to see Huey Lewis and the News at Riverbend 2011, the city’s nine-day summer music festival; the opportunity to name the world-class aquarium’s newborn penguin (she is Shivers!); or the privilege of cloaking the city’s buses in your own two-dimen- sional artwork. A universe of Southern opportunity.
But you could also have lost the Tennessee Tree Climbing Championship. I know this because I held the title for a year, having snatched it from my older brother, the “former champion,” as I took to calling him, in a heated battle in Knoxville. He won it back the next year in Nashville, and then we were in Chattanooga for a 2003 hometown climb-off in a downtown park with towering hackberries and thick-trunked chestnut oaks. We were neck and neck. Sweating, sunburned, a few dozen folks wearing Vermeer and Husqvarna baseball caps cheering us on. Including Mom.
My brother and I were working hard to keep it in the family. We both made it to the final event, a timed flight through a tree’s canopy to hit five different stations before descending safely to the ground. Then we got disqualified. He grabbed a branch that dislodged. Nothing can fall, said the judges. You’re out. Then I, too, grabbed a branch only to have it pop from its collar (just too freakishly strong, we decided). The winner was a guy with a goatee shaped like an anvil point and a tattoo of a chain-saw chain circling his bicep, immediately adjacent to a real chain-saw wound. His name was Craig.
So what do you do after losing the Tennessee Tree Climbing Championship in Chattanooga? I woke up the next day and went to work. The sun was peeking over the surrounding mountains, and it was already humid, already a little sweltering. But I had a job up on Lookout Mountain, that monolith of wealth, Civil War history, a fancy Presbyterian college, and a million musket balls buried just beneath the peat. A big bur oak right on the ridge was hanging precariously over a house. I gassed up my chain saws and drove from my downtown apartment on Oak Street ($255 a month), past the University of Tennessee–Chattanooga, and took a right on Main Street. Despite losing the championship, I still felt like the city was mine.
Chattanooga is a shape-shifter, a city in flux. It once had—and this is no joke—the worst air quality in the country; 1969, “the dirtiest city in America.” It was industry and smokestacks, and then the mountains trapped it all into a toxic pudding that filled up the valley. Throughout the 1980s people started to pack up and leave.