Traveler: See Rock City

(Not to mention the old painted barns that urge you on to Lookout Mountain)

My husband is a geology buff. On a shelf above his desk he keeps a small collection—assorted chunks of fossiliferous limestone, a gritty volcanic cinder. He likes to read about plate tectonics, pillow basalts, and the vanished Iapetus Ocean. In the car, he slows down to stare at outcroppings along the highway, and I have suggested that he get a bumper sticker to warn other motorists: I brake for the Triassic, the Cretaceous, the Paleocene.

We are on a nine-hour drive, threading our way south through Virginia's valleys—from the Shenandoah to the New River—and across the border into Tennessee. As we travel, he explains to me how the mountains were formed, a process called orogeny (we brake for orogenous zones?), and I am aware that the two of us are clearly looking at different landscapes. While I gaze out at a stolid spread of countryside, not unlike a folk art painting, he is admiring the handiwork of earthquakes, the design of crashing continents.

Our destination, aptly, is a place called Rock City, just outside Chattanooga. This 14-acre tourist attraction on the slope of Lookout Mountain is not an actual city, but it offers up an improbable mix of enticements, including wildflowers, massive sandstone formations, gnome figurines, the 180-foot Swing-A-Long suspension bridge, a cornfield maze, and the Mother Goose Village. Rock City is not best known, however, for any of those things. For the past 73 years, it's been famous for the genius of making itself famous—for having its name emblazoned in gigantic letters on barns all across the South and up into parts of the Midwest, as far north as the Great Lakes.

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