One Year, 95 Counties: A True Tennessee Traveler
It was on the drive back from Lewis County when I really started thinking about it.
For months I had been traveling this great state of ours, talking about things like the roughly 570 miles across, discussing with partners the diversity of the geography, history, music and attractions. We mapped out the daunting task of observing that diversity first-hand by visiting all 95 counties in a year’s time — to survey what was out there.
Then I thought of Lewis County’s namesake; Meriwether Lewis, leader of the Corps of Discovery — that 4,000-mile, up-and-back journey to survey what was out there.
Suddenly my task did not seem so intimidating.
The plan was to put rubber to the road, meet partners, talk with them about their successes and challenges. Share ideas. The goal was to have a better understanding of those 570 or so miles and all points in between, to be more equipped to tell folks in the rest of the country, and parts of the world, why they should spend time in Tennessee.
Many along the way heard me say I was not surprised by anything but was amazed at every turn.
From Blount and Sevier and Boone and Crockett to Jackson, Johnson and Polk. From Civil War battles fought on our own soil to native son Alvin York fighting in places that a year earlier he probably could not find on a map and still might struggle to pronounce. Our history is as deep and long as the many caves and caverns that run under our grounds and the rivers that flow over them.
From more than 6,500 feet elevation at Clingman’s Dome to less than 400 feet above sea level in Tipton County, our offerings are as varied as our landscape.
We stepped back in time in Cumberland Gap and Rugby, La Grange and Granville and saw the future at Discovery Park. In Bradley and Meigs Counties we discussed the resourcefulness of Native Americans and pioneers on the frontier in making tools from inanimate objects and medicine from plants. Fast forward to today and we marveled in the ingenuity of scientists at Oak Ridge.
Staring across Dale Hollow Lake at a Bald Eagle, he majestically took to the air. It was if he was saying, ‘you think I am something just sitting here, watch me fly.’ Yet another eagle sat in a tree above my head at Fort Donelson. A huge barge chugged up the Cumberland River below us and a cold wind blew. The morning was gray as I stood on the exact spot almost 154 years to the day from when it was altogether different and, I am sure, a lot louder.
We “cut the ribbon” on several Civil War Trails markers, including two in Brownsville, commemorating the contribution of more than 200 African-American troops from Haywood County who fought in the conflict and another one detailing the thoughts from the diary of a young Sarah Madison Taylor who witnessed the burning of part of the town. Her words were riveting.
It was not in the plan to crawl on my hands and knees in Ruby Falls or stand on a rock ledge way higher than I care to in White County but sometimes one gets caught up in the moment. I stood looking up at the balcony of the Civil Rights Museum (formerly the Lorraine Motel) and I got a tear in my eye. I stood at the grave of Elvis at Graceland … and I got a tear in my eye. Caught up in the moment again.
We all know Goo-Goo Clusters and Moon Pies and Jack and George all originated and still are made today in the great state of Tennessee. But I learned, in the valleys of bottomland of the Upper Cumberland, around Fentress and Pickett Counties, the card game PIG was created.
The smell of fried bologna, I believe, can thwart crime but in few places does it smell better than the R.M. Brooks General Store. I have tasted barbecue from all over this state that I hope they have in heaven and fudge that was sinful. I learned the story of Vinegar Pie and tasted a milkshake from one of those old fashioned machines spinning the concoction in metal tumblers that get so cold ice forms on the outside. All in the name of research, of course.
It was with curious appreciation I watched Jack Martin, holding a handful of straw, manipulate a century-plus-old Willy Wonka-looking contraption his great-grandfather used and produce a Hockaday Handmade Broom, the Everlasting Gobstopper of house-cleaning tools. It is a process so steeped in tradition, so Tennessee, he has sold them to the Smithsonian.
Three-hundred feet underground in Cumberland Caverns I watched modern expertise blend with nature’s wonders as technicians, producers, sound engineers swarmed like ants at a picnic to prepare for the taping of Bluegrass Underground. That is thinking outside the box under the earth.
I strolled through Leiper’s Fork and sat in a chair in a farmhouse in Bon Aqua where, I was told, Johnny Cash used to relax. I closed my eyes and tried to think where he found the words to his songs. Then I thought of his wife, June Carter Cash, and her mama, Mother Maybelle Carter, Maybelle’s cousin Sara and her husband A.P. who were discovered during the Bristol Sessions in 1927. Funny how the mind rolls sometimes, isn’t it?
We stood with Governor Haslam on the stage at the Ryman, The Mother Church, and announced the economic impact of tourism on Tennessee. The impact of standing there went deeper than that. In the back of my mind I heard Roy Acuff.
I have heard music: bluegrass, blues, country, soul, southern gospel, rockabilly and rock and roll, from artists ranging from those you have heard of to those who hope you hear of them. And I dare others to try to listen to what I heard and sit still.
Following the steps of Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners, I wanted to touch the typewriters from which the words poured that have impacted so many. I stood on the steps of Milky Way Farms where Frank Mars (yes that Milky Way and that Mars) built his manor and employed nearly half the men of depression-torn Giles County to help them feed their families.
I stood in places where towns were destroyed by flood or fire and they were moved a couple of miles up the road. I stood in towns destroyed by flood or fire and rebuilt on the same spot. I stood in another that was saved from flood by a vocal group of citizens and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
The Tennessee spirit oozed from every pore.
“We have to care,” said one store proprietor with whom I talked. “If we don’t care enough about our own hometowns to do something, why should we expect anyone else to?”
In community after community, plays — musicals, comedies, dramas — are being written by locals and performed by locals. And they are attended by folks from all over.
On the back roads I shared space with Amish horse-and-buggies and bicyclists from Europe. I sat and watched the Tennessee River flow and imagined the steamboats of the 1800s moving people and product up and down the water. I closed my eyes and listened to the roar of the Ocoee, interrupted eventually by the whoops and hollers of a raft full of folks trying to tame it. It was as calm as an empty church overlooking Reelfoot Lake as I tried to comprehend an earthquake so violent the mighty Mississippi flowed backwards for a time and left this body of water as evidence.
I could go on and on … and on.
I hesitated to mention anything or anyone specifically because so much good is happening I did not want to leave out anyone. I realized, short of posting 95 listings with multiple examples, that was going to happen. So please understand any omission is not intentional whatsoever.
So the first year is in the books. But that is just the beginning. After visiting every county, I am more honored to be in this position than I was the day I walked in and I did not know that was possible.
Keep up the good work. I have been inspired by what I have seen. Our guests will be too.
See you on the road.
Commissioner Kevin Triplett
Tennessee Department of Tourist Development
The mission of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development is to motivate travel to and within Tennessee by inspiring enjoyment, creating memories, producing a desire to return, and establishing key long-term relationships that result in visitors becoming residents. The promise of Tennessee—the birthplace of the blues, bluegrass, country, gospel, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll—is to be the global music destination of choice. To deliver an unparalleled experience of beauty, history, and family adventure, infused with music that creates a vacation that is the “Soundtrack of America. Made in Tennessee.”
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