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Tennessee travelblog: Pancake Pantry & the Great Smoky Mountains

A line of people wait to get into the Pancake Pantry in Nashville. (Photo by J.J. Argyle)
A line of people wait to get into the Pancake Pantry in Nashville. (Photo by J.J. Argyle)

Tennessee is quite a state. On one end is Memphis, a flawed but great old southern city with so much character that John Grisham can’t quit writing about it. In the middle is rip-roaring Nashville, the Austin of the South only with the tourism kicker. And on the east end is the Great Smoky Mountains, with Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge magnets for vacationers.

There’s probably all kinds of other great jewels in Tennessee – I mean, I’ve ridden a boat in the Vol Navy down the Tennessee River to the banks of Neyland Stadium, and seen the Volunteers play a rousing showdown against the Sooners; and I’ve been on Lookout Mountain outside Chattanooga – but on Saturday, we got to experience both Nashville and the Smokies, in small doses.

We awoke in Nashville, ate brunch at the iconic Pancake Pantry next to Vanderbilt University, then drove to the Smokies and at least got to drive through Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge before sundown and arriving at our mountain rental cabin.

The Pancake Pantry was sensational. A block from Vandy, in Hillsboro Village, the campus commercial district, the Pancake Pantry is open 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., sits on the corner and almost always has a line stretching out the door. We arrived about 10:30 a.m. Saturday and the line was about half a block long. My son-in-law, J.J., and I stood in line while the girls browsed the shops along the block. The temperature was pleasant, we stood in the shade and the 50-minute wait didn’t seem bad at all.

I met a Thunder fan from Bartlesville who spotted me and said hello. Another street performer sat on a bench, singing original songs. We gave him a couple of bucks. We were worried that having a party of seven might keep us waiting, especially since a group of 10 was just in front of us, but both us and them jumped a couple of twosomes. I guess a couple of big parties left at the same time.

And the Pancake Pantry was fabulous. In business since 1961, it serves 23 variety of pancakes, plus other assorted breakfast specialties, sandwiches and salads. My pancakes were great, and I think I know the secret. Whipped butter. Whipped butter means it’s easy to spread along the pancake, and every bite gets the requisite amount of butter and syrup.

I’m a vanilla man, so I stuck with buttermilk pancakes. A couple of the girls got chocolate-chip pancakes and liked them. Everybody liked everything, to be honest. Just a great experience, and relatively inexpensive.

Then we headed east on Interstate 40, and the topography, which already is picturesque around Nashville, got even better, as the Appalachian foothills arrived. We also saw a couple of things named after Sgt. Alvin York, the World War I hero who was raised in rural Fentress County, which sits just north of Cumberland County, through which I-40 runs. I’ve always been a huge Sgt. York fan, ever since seeing the Gary Cooper movie of 1941.

Three hours east of Nashville is Knoxville, home of the University of Tennessee. I’ve been to Knoxville twice for football games, and it’s a great place, too, with a population of 178,000 in its city limits and a population of 868,000 in the metro.

I figured we’d drive through Knoxville and exit about 20 miles east to go down to Sevierville. We stayed in Sevierville back in 2015, because we got a better hotel rate for the Sooner-Vol game than we could get in Knoxville. But I guess the traffic on summer Saturdays can get pretty jammed with people trying to get to Gatlinburg.

So GPS suggested we exit I-40 on the west side of Knoxville and meandered around to Sevierville before looking for our cabin.

Trish the Dish had wanted something in the mountains, and danged if she didn’t find it. We went through some back country and tiny mountain roads – one-lane pavements, but two-way traffic, before hitting a little better road and finding our place. At the top of a driveway that seemed to go straight up.

I swear, it was a 40-degree angle up the mountain, not very far but with a tight, 90-degree turn halfway up. Our rented Ford Expedition was up to the task of making the climb, but making the turn was another thing. Just getting in and out of the cabin each day is going to be an adventure.

Our cabin is quite reminiscent of some of the Colorado cabins we’ve rented – three bedrooms, $320 a night, which isn’t terrible. Quite comfortable, with a gameroom for the girls and triple-decker bunk beds. The cabin has two balconies that overlook the Smokies, though since we’re right in the middle of the Smokies, you can’t see all that far.

But it’s a modern, well-kept place that is vastly different from Norman. Or Nashville, for that matter.

We unloaded our stuff and headed to town for supplies. We could have gone to either Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg, but our GPS didn’t work at the cabin, so we just circled back the way we came until we got some cell service. By that time, we were close to Pigeon Forge, so that’s’ where we went.

Pigeon Forge is about five miles north of Gatlinburg and about 10 miles south of Sevierville. It sits along the beautiful Little Pigeon River. I first heard of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, because Harry Caray, then calling St. Louis Cardinal games, used to enjoy talking about it being one of his favorite-named towns.

Pigeon Forge today is a resort town that appears to be less organic than the venerable Gatlinburg. Pigeon Forge has a strip of a few miles that caters to vacationers – restaurants, hotels, amusements for kids, tourist stores – all along a six-lane boulevard. I’m going to try to learn more about Pigeon Forge this week, but that’s my impression. It seems to be a town that took advantage of Gatlinburg’s popularity and got popular itself.

Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are separated by five miles of the Great Smoky Mountains National Forest. Gatlinburg abuts the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and for decades has built from a strong German heritage into a major resort town.

I remember traveling through Gatlinburg in 1976, and it was bustling back then. Now it’s bustling even more. Much more tightly-packed and crowded than Pigeon Forge, with barely enough room for four lanes through town and hundreds of people walking up and down each block. High above Gatlinburg is Ober Gatlinburg, a ski resort in the winter, which remains open in the summer with an ice skating rink.

With the sun setting, we drove back through the mountains to Pigeon Forge, grabbed a quick snack since the Pancake Pantry had long worn off, and we hit Food City for supplies.

By the time we got back to our crazy driveway, it was dark. Driving up to the cabin was an adventure in the daylight; at night, it was quite harrowing.

This is going to be an interesting week.

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Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›