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Moonshine By Night: Road Trip to Rural Tennessee

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Whenever I mention travelling Tennessee to anyone, the immediate response (aside from, “Have you seen Deliverance?”) is, “Are you going to Nashville?” I’ve been to Nashville before, and it’s a great place, but for the past few summers I’ve made a trip to a town east of there, to meet up with a friend and do the kind of normal things one would do in rural Tennessee—like sweat profusely and fend off giant, possibly radioactive spiders. I recently took a trip, accompanied by my husband, Andy, and our friend Stuart, driving 13 hours from Toronto to Clinton, Tennessee.

Clinton is a town of about 9, 000 people, located not too far from Knoxville. From what I know, it’s named after the George Clinton who wasn’t in Parliament Funkadelic and is mostly covered in kudzu, an invasive species of vine that coats most of the eastern U.S. in a thick layer of choking green. Everywhere you drive in the area, you see kudzu covering trees, buildings and slow-moving wildlife.

Shutterstock

Shutterstock

Sietske’s family’s place in Clinton is basically a souped-up log cabin in the middle of the woods, surrounded by giant trees and even bigger spiders. Ducking around webs filled with what I can only assume were the previous owners of the house, we unload and dive into a duffle bag filled with beer like the responsible adults we are.

Later, I’m lying on the floor of Sietske’s apartment firing foam darts into the ceiling fan when her roommate comes out and asks if I would like some cherry moonshine. For those who have never encountered moonshine before, I like to describe it as similar to vodka, but better. While vodka has that weird bite to it that makes me think of varnish and all the dumb things I did between the ages of 17 and 20, moonshine does not. It may smell like paint thinner, but the actual taste is much nicer than most other clear alcohols. He comes out of his room with an unmarked jar of bright red liquid, brimming with maraschino cherries.

Sietske tells me the lake feeds the ponds near the Oak Ridge National Lab, meaning there are sections you can’t go into due to radioactivity.

“Oh, ” I say, “You mean actual this-might-make-me-blind moonshine.” Prior to this, I’d only ever had the stuff you can buy in the nearest creepy liquor store, rather than the stuff you can buy in the parking lot of your nearest creepy liquor store. I take a sniff and it smells like shellac and body wash, but once it’s in a glass of orange juice it’s beautiful, the booze equivalent of watching a sunset through the cracked window of a K-car.

To escape the crushing heat, we’ve gone in the past to Melton Hill Lake, a sweet little spot that looks like it should be part of an ad campaign to bring yuppies to the state. As we float in the water, Sietske tells me how part of the lake feeds the ponds near the Oak Ridge National Lab, meaning there are sections you can’t go into due to radioactivity. I nod silently, expecting to look down and see a three-eyed fish swim by and nibble my toes. The sun beats down on us and I watch a couple of university students dive in to the clear water. With the way the sun shines off them, they’re basically glowing.

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Shutterstock

On the Saturday, we load into the rental car and head to Knoxville for Biscuit Fest, a festival about all the things you can put on biscuits (answer: everything, including moonshine). We get there just in time for everything to be sold out, so we scrounge around to find any tents still scraping dough off of the grill. The few we scavenge are delicious, but since we’re still hungry we end up grabbing lunch at a restaurant called Soccer Taco. There’s no soccer playing anywhere in the building, although there are various TVs playing sports like baseball, lacrosse, curling, crokinole and shin-kicking. We sit in the back and I eat guacamole with a spoon while watching what appears to be water polo on the TV in front of me, languishing in the remnants of the mildly radioactive glow of Tennessee.

 

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