Isn't it funny how your life can center around themes? Sometimes it's a lesson; other times, a reminder, reinforced by a slew of unrelated events that seemingly share a message, if you have the eyes and the heart to receive it.
Following a recent trip up north, it wasn't just mementos I brought home. On more than one occasion, I was reminded of the importance of perspective. For instance, in Philadelphia, my ideals of George Washington were challenged. Upheld as the father of liberty, I was saddened to learn that he surreptitiously moved his slaves from the city (at that point the capital) every six months so they couldn't be freed under Pennsylvania's Gradual Abolition Act of 1780. And visiting the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, I was able to see the true impact of the French and Indian War, which essentially set the stage for the world — and especially the nation — as we know it.
Upon returning from that trip, I got the opportunity to play tourist in my own town with help from The Chattanooga Tennesseer, a converted open-top conversion van operated by the former owner of the Chattanooga Double Decker tour bus. Though quaint, the bus was plagued with maintenance issues, and has thus been retired. Owner Rufus Marye, meanwhile, had also started a van rental business, and since boys will be boys and the entrepreneurial spirit rarely takes a day off, he decided to cut the top off of one and continue offering tours. It turns out he wasn't off-base — he managed to turn up a historical black-and-white photo that shows a similar-looking vehicle bearing the same name parked in front of the Incline Railway.
"I promise to teach you something new or your money back," Marye told my sister and me as we embarked on the van's maiden voyage. Melissa has a special head for dates and details, so I'd brought her along to test the company's claim to be the most historical (and scenic) tour in Chattanooga.
The route and information are the same as with the Double Decker, though Marye seems to have a similar head for historical details and welcomed us to try to stump him. We didn't have to. True to his word, we'd learned something new before the tour was halfway over, despite us both having grown up here. Even as a 10-year veteran of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, I was surprised to learn the correlation between our founder, Adolph Ochs, and the festivities in Times Square that usher in each new year. And in another illustration of the power of perspective, the tour helped me finally make the distinction between four Chattanooga businessmen's foresight to bottle Coca-Cola versus merely serve it via Atlanta soda fountains. Covering the city from the North Shore to Finley Stadium and Patten Parkway to the downtown library, we zigzagged our way across bridges and city streets as Marye told us of how the MoonPie came to be, expounded on the city's storied Civil War history and pointed out the now-razed site of the apartments where Samuel L. Jackson grew up, all while swapping recommendations for local restaurants and other tourist attractions. We were admittedly the only two passengers, but I got the sense that Marye is affable in any company. In fact, the tours were born in 2010 to marry his love of history with his love for people, he told us.
Beyond the information Marye shared, the van itself offered a new view of the city I know and love. Much like riding a bicycle, traversing my well-traveled downtown paths from this alternate vantage point turned up things I'd never noticed before — a Mexican restaurant I didn't know existed (and which sadly no longer does), historical markers I've passed countless times without registering, and an unremarkable church that served as Chattanooga's first school.
As Bessie Smith's throaty voice belted the blues over the van's radio, signaling the end of our hourlong tour, I reflected on my many takeaways, not the least of which was that with open eyes and an open heart, there is always something new to learn, no matter how well you think you may know something. After all, it's all about perspective.
Tours depart from the traffic circle in front of the Tennessee Aquarium every Friday-Sunday. One tour is offered each day at 2 p.m. Reservations must be made in advance. In the event of rain, a closed-top van is used. While no food is allowed onboard, drinks are — including alcohol.
Tours cost $20 per adult and $10 per child age 12 and younger.
The Chattanooga Tennesseer can also be booked for private parties, and as Rufus Marye also owns Chattanooga Brew Choo, he can accommodate up to 30 people between the two, with the pedal bar being towed by the van.
To learn more, visit tennesseer.us/home.html.