A couple days ago, my brother told me we needed to try Creekers in Elizabethton. It's a barbeque restaurant with sliced pork in the style of Ridgewood (not quite as good, but still completely delicious), pulled pork barbeque, and burnt ends. They have several distinct house sauces, and everything they make--or at least everything the two of us sampled--is worth trying.
This was my first time going there, and as I walked in the door, I saw Vols paraphernalia covering the dining room. There was a picture of Neyland Stadium on the Third Saturday in October on the wall (I'm not sure the year, but it was in the days when the middle of the field still boasted an interlocking "UT" logo), as well as a ticket stub from the 1997 Tennessee/Ole Miss game and a painting of Smokey treeing the rest of the SEC mascots. The ceiling tiles made a checkerboard pattern, alternating orange and white.
Near the register, I saw something very familiar--something a bit more recent. It was the "We HATE L. Kiffin" sign from that night in January of 2010 when the big orange world was cast into upheaval. It was framed, along with photos of the girl who made it--photos I'd seen many times before--a clipping from ESPN, and a partially burned "IT'S TIME" t-shirt. It felt like home.
Perhaps this is old hat to those who grew up in East Tennessee and never strayed far, but I haven't been in-state for more than a month or two at a time since 2005. I've spent the last two years in North Carolina and the two before that in Massachusetts, and I get excited whenever I see Vols gear around town. When I come back to visit my family in Johnson City, one of the first things I see driving down out of the mountains is a sign that says "Welcome to Elizabethton: Home of Jason Witten." And things get more orange from there.
I don't live in Knoxville. My parents don't live in Knoxville. Unlike the rest of our staff, I didn't go to UT. I've never stayed a night in Knoxville, though I've spent many an evening there. But seeing restaurants, shops, even cars decked out in orange and white is a constant reminder that I'm back in the Volunteer State, something I share in the Tri-Cities with people in Knoxville, Chattanooga, Nashville, Memphis, and everywhere in between.
A classmate of mine in graduate school is from Eugene and is a huge Ducks fan. I brought him to the Florida game last year, and while he wasn't sure Neyland's volume matched Autzen (he did admit it was close), he did say that he had never seen a city that identifies so strongly with a football team. He saw a city, I see a state. And every time I walk into a business and see the checkerboards on the ceiling or floor or the Vols-themed pictures on the wall, I feel the community with all these people I've never met. Some are UT grads, some have never been to Knoxville. But we are all Tennessee Volunteers.