We Left Our Heart in Knoxville

Adam Henig at Alex Haley Heritage Square
Adam Henig at Alex Haley Heritage Square

The following is a guest post from author Adam Henig. Born and raised in San Francisco, he’s an author and blogger who came to Knoxville to research his book  Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey (2014) and fell in love with the city. When he originally contacted me regarding the possibility of writing an article, he intended to write about Alex Haley. As he began writing, he realized he’d rather write about his visit to our city. Here’s what he has to say:

It was my first trip to Tennessee. Though I had visited Austin and Miami, hardly representative of Dixie, I think it would be safe to say that this was my first experience in the South.

Traveling from the bluest of blue states, California, where Obama and Planned Parenthood bumper stickers are proudly displayed, my girlfriend (soon-to-be wife) Jen and I were in for a bit of culture shock when we arrived in Knoxville.

“What brings you here,” was the most frequent question we were asked during our brief stay. Locals were puzzled why two West Coasters would make the trek to the Eastern part of the Volunteer State. Two words (and it wasn’t the Smoky Mountains).

“Alex Haley.”

Immediately, we were told to go to the Alex Haley Heritage Square, which I was planning to visit. My purpose, however, was to conduct research for the first biography of the author of Roots. Although his personal papers are under lock and key, Haley’s designated biographer, Anne Romaine(who died in 1995), made her research open to the public. The material she had gathered was so vast and vital to anyone wanting to reconstruct Haley’s life, a visit to Knoxville was a must.

Since I didn’t have an agent or a publisher, I was covering the entire costs for the two plane tickets, five-nights in a downtown hotel, meals and incidentals.  

“So, we traveled all the way to Knoxville to go a library,” Jen continued to inquire in the taxi en route to our hotel while passing by a Pro-Life billboard and many gun shops. “That seems so strange.” 

“Don’t worry, we’ll go out to dinner and there will be a place to shop.” 

A smile emerged, but just a little one. 

The first two days in Knoxville were spent at the university’s library. We arrived when the Special Collections division opened and stayed until we were asked to leave. Our lunch consisted of a bagel, yogurt, a banana and coffee at the library’s in-house Starbucks–of course, we couldn’t take any of the goodies inside.  Jen helped out with making copies, which numbered in the hundreds, and kept the files and folders organized to the staff’s delight.

On the third and final full day of research, I cut it short so we could explore the city’s downtown. We walked over to Market Square to find it bustling with outdoor dining venues, live music, sidewalk vendors, and couples and families mulling about, enjoying the temperate weather.  Jen and I were taken aback. It had all the characteristics of a European city. Was this really Knoxville?

With her shopping radar on, Jen immediately zeroed in on Bliss, a chic fashion boutique. She was in heaven. An hour later, we ate delicious pizza at Tomato Head. From there, we walked along Gay Street, admiring the architecture, the Tennessee Theater marquee, and, eventually, the waterfront.

I admit I had preconceived notions of what life was like in Knoxville. This was not what I had expected. 

The next day, we rented a car, stopped by Alex Haley Square (and of course, took a picture), and drove north to visit John Rice Irwin’s Museum of Appalachia. On our way back, we stopped off in the older section of town. Surrounded by railroad tracks and abandoned buildings, we stumbled upon a pub, a tattoo parlor, and a used record store, the capstone to any hip town. 

Now, I was in heaven!

That evening we walked back down Gay Street, toward the waterfront and ate at The Bistro. Our friendly and inquisitive waiter (who not surprisingly asked, “what brings you to Knoxville?”), provided us with two complimentary tickets to a bluegrass show at the Bijou Theater, which was next door. The show was entertaining and on our jaunt back to the hotel, we wandered through World’s Fair Park. 

Relaxing along the river that runs through the park, with the golden golf ball staring down upon us, Jen, cradled in my arms, whispered to me. 

“I could live here.”

I agreed. 

Although reality sunk in once we returned to family and jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area, our fondness for the “Obscure Prismatic City” will always remain.


Adam Henig , a blogger and book reviewer, is the author of the eBook,  Alex Haley’s RootsAn Author’s Odyssey (2014). For more information, visit Adam’s website, www.adamhenig.com.