I traveled to Tennessee for the first time to visit Dollywood and other attractions.
People's Southern accents were stronger than I was anticipating.
I was also surprised to see magazines about guns sold at grocery stores.
I recently visited Knoxville, Tennessee, for the first time on a reporting trip.
Here are six things that surprised me during my time in Tennessee.
People's Southern accents were stronger than I thought they would be.
When I stepped off the plane at the Knoxville airport, I was immediately struck by the strong Southern accents I heard around me. I had assumed I'd need to go further south into Alabama of Mississippi to hear a deep Southern drawl.
Almost every local I met addressed me with terms of endearment like "sweetie" or "honey," which I found charming.
People are friendly in the Midwest, but I experienced the unique warmth of Southern hospitality through almost every interaction I had with baristas, cashiers, and locals I met during my trip. It could just be because I look young for my age, but I don't usually get addressed as "sweetie" by anyone who's not my parents.
Publix sold magazines about firearms, hunting, and gun ownership, which took me by surprise.
Tennessee passed a permitless carry law last year, allowing people over the age of 21 to carry firearms without a permit as long as they have no criminal history and follow posted signage.
It's not a predominantly Southern policy — other states with permitless carry are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming. But as a Wisconsinite who now lives in New York, I've never lived in a state with these gun laws, so I was surprised by the wide selection of firearm magazines at the Publix grocery chain I visited.
Christianity was more prevalent than I expected.
My trip to Tennessee was my first visit to the "Bible Belt," where religion plays an outsize role in the region's culture and politics. I knew that Dollywood paid tribute to her Christian upbringing with attractions like gospel music performances, but I was surprised to find souvenirs such as cross necklaces, Jesus iconography, and shirts with Christian nationalist messages for sale.
I also stopped in a coffee shop in Maryville that had Bibles and other religious books on display, which isn't something I've seen before.
I wasn't used to seeing Southern specialties like grits on grocery store shelves.
A Southern breakfast staple, grits were shelved alongside oatmeal and granola.
I encountered more RVs than I've seen anywhere else.
Maybe it's just because summer travel was in full swing, but I was surprised by the large amount of RVs and camper vans I saw as I drove around Tennessee.
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