KNOXVILLE—Getting here from Athens (Georgia not Tennessee) remains an ordeal if you drive — even by connecting with Interstates 85 and 75 which take you around the mountain.
For years, the Georgia football team traveled here for games by bus, a six-hour ride. Now that the team flies from the Athens Airport direct to Knoxville, lift off to set down, is but 25 minutes. Lift up, level off for 10 minutes and then it is time for the pilot to begin the landing approach.
Believe it or not, the interstate was something of a godsend when I-75 was completed into Atlanta. This meant that travelers didn’t have to negotiate the winding two lane roads over Ft. Mountain from Chatsworth into Tennessee. To drive though the Great Smoky Mountains on U.S. 76, you got a close up view of the “The Stones,” a formation that forms a ridge of unknown origin. It is believed to have been built in the 16th century, crafted by “pre-Columbian Native Americans.”
According to the Internet, “early historians attributed the stone piles to a race of moon-eyed people who pre-dated the Cherokees,” a reminder that this old world has been around for a long, long time.
The two-lane roads over Ft. Mountain had more curves than a Hollywood model. The roads made you observe the speed limit — accompanied by screeching tires and groaning engines.
I have always enjoyed trips to Knoxville which is the third largest city in The Volunteer State. Owing to a quail hunting opportunity with “Quail Unlimited,” in Albany, a friendship came about with a self-made man, Gene Hartman, who considers a day spent on his farm an hour south of Knoxville near the town of Ten Mile, Tenn., about as close to nirvana as one could expect.
He grew up in Nashville, but found extraordinary business opportunity in Knoxville where he naturally became a supporter of Tennessee athletic teams. When Tennessee prospered in competition, Geno, as his friends call him, was very proud. However, he was never loud.
Not only did he and his wife, Becky, support Tennessee athletics, they also pitched in for any worthy venture or popular charity in the community. They were not concerned that their only child, a pretty daughter named Sheree, chose to marry a Georgia man, Butch Johnson, who grew up in Manchester in our state’s mid-section. They only wanted him to be a good person with ambition and good habits. It would help, from Geno’s perspective that the addition to the family was one who appreciated firing a shot gun, wetting a hook and driving a John Deere tractor. Geno got all three with his son-in-law.
For years, Gene partnered with the son of a Georgia man, Cameron Harris of Charlotte, N.C. — first to prop up “Quail Unlimited” and then to save it. When the challenge became an overload on their time and budget, they made a deal to merge the organization with “Quail Forever.” The former organization was a losing proposition, but Geno and Cammie didn’t want to simply walk away. They found a home for something they were passionate about in that it was connected to wildlife conservation.
In the past, I have driven to Geno’s farm at Ten Mile, in advance of the Georgia-Tennessee game and enjoyed a nice warm-up before an annual gridiron skirmish by the Tennessee River. Riding the farm with Geno in his pickup was emotionally stimulating. “You gotta come back after Thanksgiving,” he would say. “We really work at making our quail hunts productive.” What is so fulfilling about an outdoor outing with Geno is that you can enjoy a country ham breakfast, kill a few quail in the morning and then hook a five pound bass before lunch.
Following an afternoon hunt, your emotional state is further enhanced by an indolent fire, your favorite beverage and a thick steak. This has been a way of life for Gene Hartman for years. What has given him the most pleasure is to share his outdoor life and business success with his friends. Even after 91 birthdays, you will find him on his tractor at Tenn Mile and hosting friends and customers when quail season comes in.
Tennessee coaches, country music stars and business associates and friends have enjoyed Geno’s hospitality for years. In November he will be calling up his hunting buddies and beckoning them to Ten Mile. Shotguns will be cleaned, diets will be discarded “can’t wait” preachments will permeate all vocabularies.
Thanksgiving is coming into view, and, as always, I will have a lot to be thankful for. One of the things I will be most thankful for will be my friendship with my Tennessee friend, Geno. When I go see him after Thanksgiving, I will drive over Ft. Mountain for old times sake.
I can’t wait.