Thursday, August 28, 2008

Classical History on the Open Road

America has got to be the best country in the world for road trips. We have gorgeous scenery, quality roads, a ton of land, and best of all, 300 million people itching to show their creativity. Through bustling metropolis and country town alike, the best and worst of American ingenuity and artistry is on full and unabashed display.

Sometimes these exhibitions are serious and awe-inspiring. Others, like the "Goats on the Roof" convenience store in North Georgia (yes, they literally have goats on their roof), are just plain hilarious. Click here for video...

What my wife Katy, my friend Evan and I saw as we traveled recently on the I-65 corridor from Louisville, Ky., to Nashville, Tenn., was somewhere in the middle of that continuum.

The drive was reminiscent of a coming-of-age excursion Evan and I took after high school graduation. Five years ago, we packed up his mom's Cadillac and took a 7,700-mile journey to 13 different baseball stadiums over two and a half weeks. On that trip, for various ridiculous reasons, we covered the stretch of highway between Nashville and Louisville at least three times.

On this recent jaunt, we were headed home to Georgia from my cousin's wedding in Kentucky, but didn't want to give up the road trip spirit just yet. Fittingly, Evan had brought along the same tattered atlas we used during our inaugural baseball trip. We consulted it to see if there were any interesting bits of Americana we had missed while zipping by Nashville.

The Music City did not disappoint.

"We can go to the Parthenon," Evan said with the typical mix of utter seriousness and whimsy that makes him such a great travel companion.

I didn't know how to respond. He explained.

"Nashville has a full-scale replica of the Parthenon in the middle of a city park."

"With the ruins built in, or as it was supposed to be?" I asked.

"I'm not sure. You wanna check it out?"

How could we not?

We took awhile finding it, but soon we came upon Nashville's Centennial Park. This is no Acropolis, but the modern-day Parthenon's digs are not too shabby. Students threw frisbees on open, grassy fields near the imposing edifice. Folks sat on picnic blankets and wandered on concrete walkways next to man-made lakes, where greedy ducks gorged themselves on store-bought bread. To me, the Parthenon stuck out, its concrete columns and sculptured frieze out of place in the park setting. To locals, it's simply the anchor of this public space.

Turns out, this Parthenon was built to show what the real thing would have looked like before erosion and looting took its toll. As far as I can tell from the Web site, it was initially built in 1897 for Nashville's Centennial Exhibition, which means this was a hundred-year-old replica of a 2,500-year-old architectural wonder: a historical portrayal of history.

We didn't make it inside. The museum was about to close, and we felt satisfied without paying $4.50 to see the 42-foot Athena statue (another exact replica) they keep behind 24-foot bronze doors.

For me, the best part was the fact that no one thought this was weird. Everyone seemed perfectly content to enjoy their Sunday afternoon in the shadow of what the Web site calls the "pinnacle of classical architecture." Even street signs apparently saw no need for explanation: "Parthenon, Straight Ahead," they said.

And then there were the modern rules posted near the "ancient" building: No skateboarding on the Parthenon, and if you go into the building, which also serves as Nashville's art museum, make sure to put out your cigarette and toss your water bottle.

A meal at Five Guys near the Vanderbilt campus brought us back to the 21st century. It was a brief stop but a historic discovery for the three of us.

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