TENNESSEE -- Mountain men's lore or Civil War, presidential stitches or buried riches -- in these parts there's a trail to it and a tale about it.
Which is only appropriate, since the original pioneers' trail west across the mountains at the Cumberland Gap was found here. Davy Crockett forged it, following the footsteps of generations of American Indians who had followed the hoof prints of buffalo through the notch to the hunting grounds and bluegrass of Kentucky.
Tennessee takes a lot of getting around. This long, long swath of territory cutting across the South borders eight states -- Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, Missouri and Arkansas. Natives identify themselves not as Tennesseans but as East, West or Middle Tennesseans, and often feel compelled to add additional directional qualifiers.
Thus Northeast Tennessee, comprising eight counties, 165,901 households, 103 historic sites on the National Register, 42 gristmills, seven lakes, four state parks, two national parks, one regional airport and the only planned non-profit hotel in the country. All of it, according to the various chambers of commerce and tourist boards, within a day's drive of half the population of the United States.
Within this finger of land pointing into the sides of Virginia and North Carolina, the undulating, scenic expanse between the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains, are First Frontier tours, presidential pathways and heritage trails for arts and crafts, history and music. They stretch from the big city of Knoxville to junctions of country lanes. You can't take a step along any of them without a story. Sometimes the smaller the town, the more tales it has to tell. Try these four, for example, which range in size from the 200 or so people of Cumberland Gap to the 4,000-plus of Jonesborough, the 5,100 of Rogersville and the 15,000 of Greeneville.
Jonesborough is story central. It is the state's oldest town (1779) and the first state entry onto the nation's historic register. It was formed as the capital of the State of Franklin, the first attempt at statehood after the founding of the original 13 states. Also the first failed attempt.
Jonesborough not only has more stories to tell, as the home of the National Storytelling Festival and the Storytelling Foundation International, it has more people to tell them. The National Storytelling Center, which should open in the spring of 2001, will be the first new building on Main Street in 60 years. You won't be able to tell it's new though, say locals, thanks to the design work of architect Robert Stern.
The festival, which began in 1973 with 60 attendees, now attracts tens of thousands who come to hear the world's best storytellers perform and perhaps to tell a few tales themselves. Anyone can sign up to tell a story at the "Swapping Ground,'' and the annual ghost-story contest is always a popular draw. This year's festival is October 6-8 and features legendary singer-songwriter Pete Seeger as well as 20 Asian, Irish, South American, European, African, Cajun, Western, Southern, Hawaiian, Cuban and Native American storytelling stars.
"Storytelling is an art, but like any art you can learn to get better at it," said professional storyteller David Joe Miller, a frequent participant. "It's a family event but topic-wise, anything is fair game. This festival is the Carnegie Hall for storytellers."
Jonesborough is a town where history is lived in. The Parson's Table restaurant, for example, began life in 1870 as the Christian Church. After the congregation moved to larger quarters, it was used as a temperance hall, lecture room and woodworking shop.
The continental cuisine that attracts capacity crowds is true to the area's heritage and features catfish, mountain trout and local herbs and vegetables like "kilt" greens, so-called because the dressing is hot rather than cold. …