Text and Photos By Lisa TE Sonne

“Anything older than 50 years is considered historic,” declared the information sheet I picked up while visiting the beguiling Cumberland Gap National Historical Park in Tennessee. The “anything” referred to artifacts (aka, “trash") that archeologists could study to piece together stories of the mining era, of the great migrations along the Wilderness Road, of both sides of the Civil War, and of the more recent Appalachian culture.

I laughed. Are we “over 50” Boomers now considered historic—trash to some, and valuable clues to others? We certainly can help tell stories, and listen to them, and Tennessee is fertile with tales.

Walk in the footsteps of Daniel Boone in the Cumberland Gap National Park, said to have the same flora and fauna and hiking pleasures of the most visited U.S. National Park, the Great Smoky Mountains, but without the crowds. Packed with cultural and natural lore, the park meanders through three states (Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia) and one entrance is the second longest car tunnel in the nation.

Night is good for story telling and conjuring up ghostly voices of the past. And when all flashlights are turned off in the Cumberland Gap Cave, it’s as dark as it can get.

With a flashlight back on, a ranger can point out where Confederate and Union soldiers wrote on the walls of this cave during the Civil War. Before the war between the states, high-society gathered here for Gap Cave galas including live music.

Another place for story telling is a library in Knoxville near the lively Market Square. But it's not the kind of library you might think. The Peter Kern Library is a bar, where the toasts are made with drinks named for great southern literary characters. Harkening back to speak-easy days, the beverage menus are embedded in volumes of the 1969 World Book Encyclopedia and include quotes from great literary figures.


Mark Twain, one of the world’s greatest story tellers is rumored to have been conceived in his parent’s rustic cabin that’s now part of the 65 acres of the Museum of Appalachia. The exterior of this eclectic museum is filled with gardens, peacocks, farm animals, and a large collection of authentic Appalachian buildings moved here from a 200-mile radius, including one with a sign that designates it as the “smallest building on the National Trust Historic registry.” After a visit with the family that founded this museum, Alex Haley, the masterful storyteller of ROOTS, chose to make it his home for a while.

Set aside plenty of time to explore diverse artifacts – from perhaps the oldest family Bible in the country (1571), to mid-wifery instruments, to banjos made from commodes. The dining hall offers fresh Appalachian food, and the museum is center stage for live entertainment the likes of the talented Teno Family Bluegrass band of home-schooled kids plsying homespun music. If you are fortunate, chat with the President Elaine Meyer, who is also the daughter of the school teacher, John Rice Irwin, who turned a collecting passion into a museum magnet. She can share great behind the scenes stories about her Dad, author Haley and current annual festivals.


Get a dose of musical story-telling and some live local NPR fun at the Blue Plate Special, where musicians strum and hum on air while diners eat and applaud. Old Time Remedy and WestWend are just two of the creative groups that earned their own blue plates on the wall. At the Rickard Ridge BBQ, you might be lucky enough to see and hear a 91-year-old do the chicken song. If you want to hear more lips smacking for juicy, low and slow BBQ, head to family-run Sweet P’s Barbeque and Soul House, named after the charming, now nine-year-old “Sweetpea” daughter of the family.


Delve into stories of the once secret center for the famous “Manhattan Project” where atomic bombs were manufactured. Tour the remnants of a quickly built, hidden city of more than 75,000 people in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Exhibits and films show the drama and clandestine living of the times. Visitors who apply for security clearance in advance can now tour parts of the historic center of uranium enrichment that is often credited with ending World War II.

The fascinating complex is gearing to make history in the future. Two of the world’s top super computers can be viewed crunching away at Oak Ridge where top minds work on secret and not-so-secret science and technology research. (For a lighter moment, ask about blue M-and-Ms.) The brain and hardware trust is surrounded by woods with deer leaping across the road.

MORE- Lincoln, Riverboat, Art, and Birds

Other visit-worthy sources of Tennessee tales:

*The Abraham Lincoln Library and Memorial is gearing up for 2015, the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination. Director Thomas Mackie gladly shares his vast knowledge on President Lincoln.

*The Volunteer Princess Dinner Riverboat is operated by the University of Tennessee Vols (that happily stands for Volunteers, not the rodents) who point out cliff mansions and regale with stories of celebrities and ghosts. They never fail to entertain with stories of the iconic World Fair’s Sunsphere and to the “Body Parts” farm for forensic fans.

*The Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge lets the birds sing the tales and the barns share images from quilts. It’s a rustic refuge for family strolling and daydreaming.

*For visual stories, The Knoxville Museum of Art shares captivating exhibits of local artists and relevant national works. Ansel Adams’ photographs of the nearby national parks are provocative. Outside the pink marble in the architecture is a local product that also graces famous edifices in Washington, DC; New York; and Toronto. You can stroll past pink walls to the Art Market Gallery and become an art collector. Over 60 artists from East Tennessee share their creations in many mediums.


PILLOW TALK: Crowne Plaza in Knoxville near Market Square leaves an aromatherapy kit on your pillow at night. The lobby is inviting and the staff friendly. The Hilton near the airport is convenient for air travelers. And further east, the Holiday Inn Express in Caryville has a pancake-making machine as part of its otherwise simple breakfast buffet. The stacks were delicious!

Lisa TE Sonne took the GOLD for best Destination Writing in the 2013 NATJA competition. She has explored all seven continents and has written for www.WatchBoom.com about the Amazon, Morocco, Turkey, Greece, Italy, England, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, and more. She also enjoys getting to know her own country better and has written about California’s National Parks, surfing in Hawaii, - and now historic Tennessee. Reach Lisa at Lisa@Possibilitators.com. © Story and Photos Lisa TE Sonne

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