White Lightning Trail offers taste of Appalachia

At the Museum of Appalachia in East Tennessee, Liza Jane Alexander, half of the mountain music duo called Good Old Music, strums a guitar while ensconced in a rocking chair on the rickety porch of a log cabin. As she begins to sing a catchy mountain ballad, “Old Joe Clark,” museum visitors stream out of the pioneer buildings that dot the bucolic property to listen.

Old Joe Clark is a good old man

I’ll tell you the reason why

He keeps liquor ‘round his house

Good old rock and rye

Curly Cottrell, the other half of Good Old Music, comes in on the chorus with his fiddle, drawing his bow faster than a lizard darting across the weathered planks of the porch.

The Museum of Appalachia, a 60-acre living history museum that portrays an early mountain village, features a unique collection of 30 pioneer buildings dating from the late 1700s to the turn of the 20th century.

It’s a highlight on the White Lightning Trail, a 200-mile driving route featuring dozens of attractions. The trail begins in Knoxville and winds through small towns and picturesque river valleys before ending at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.

“White Lightning” is a reference to the route’s history as a moonshine-running corridor during Prohibition, but many attractions, like the Museum of Appalachia, focus more on the region’s heritage and scenic beauty than on stills and illegal spirits.

The museum, founded in 1969, would not exist if it weren’t for the determination of 81-year-old East Tennessee native John Rice Irwin. Fifty years ago, he set out to preserve a culture that was almost as ephemeral as the mountain haze.

The idea for a museum was partly inspired when Irwin attended the public auction of an estate near his home in 1962. He was aghast when he saw heirlooms, such as handmade quilts and spinning wheels, go to the highest bidder, often to people who had no appreciation for their history.

Irwin had learned to appreciate mountain artifacts at an early age. His grandfather often gave him small family relics when he was a boy and told him the stories behind them.

“My grandparents had such a rich knowledge of the culture and the heritage, and I thought what a shame it would be if all their descendants knew of them was the inscription on their tombstones,” Irwin says. “So I started collecting items as a means of introducing people to their ancestors.”

As the museum collection grew, visitors from around the country began coming to learn about mountain life.

The museum shines a light on the struggles of Southern Appalachian people, but also illustrates their ingenuity. It’s impossible to leave without a newfound respect for a people who weren’t educated, but were resourceful, a people who were poor, but generous, a people who had a resolve as rock solid as the mountains themselves.

Knoxville

Nestled at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, America’s most visited national park, Knoxville is the third largest city in Tennessee, but it moves at the speed of molasses poured over a hot biscuit. There are almost endless ways to get into the laid-back groove.

History buffs meander through James White’s Fort, named for Knoxville’s founder, while art enthusiasts spend a leisurely afternoon viewing the latest exhibitions at the Knoxville Museum of Art.

At some point, visitors always seem to find their way to the Sunsphere. The 198-foot-tall tower topped by a five-story golden orb, has been a symbol of Knoxville’s hospitality since its construction for the 1982 Knoxville World’s Fair, themed “Energy Turns the World.” The fair’s 30th anniversary has generated renewed interest in this underutilized structure, and visitors are once again taking the elevator to the observation deck for a panoramic view of World’s Fair Park, the Tennessee River, and, of course, the Great Smoky Mountains.

In historic Market Square, children splash through bubbling fountains while their parents shop at the Farmer’s Market. The well-behaved are often rewarded with a trip to Mast General Store, just a block away. A popular stop on the White Lightning Trail, the cavernous store sells everything from hiking boots to cast iron skillets, but kids inevitably make a beeline to the candy barrels brimming with every imaginable flavor.

Heidi Berg, area manager of the mercantile department, says you don’t have to be a kid to find the candy barrels irresistible. Adults who unearth a hard-to-find candy from their childhood have been known to buy pounds of it so they can savor the sweet nostalgia long after they return home.

“Customers will say they used to go to the five and dime and buy a certain candy, or they say their grandmother always had some in her purse,” Berg says. “It reminds them of a special time in their past that brings back fun memories.”

If choosing from hundreds of varieties is impossible, do what the locals do. Buy a Tennessee-made MoonPie and wash it down with an RC Cola.

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park encompasses 24,000 acres of spectacular natural beauty that sprawls across the borders of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia, giving visitors some idea of what pioneer Daniel Boone experienced as he blazed the Wilderness Road in the 18th century. For early settlers, Cumberland Gap was a gateway through the Cumberland Mountains into the Kentucky wilderness.

Modern adventure-seekers come to hike to powerful waterfalls and explore the enigmatic rock formations in Gap Cave.

As for the White Lightning Trail, this park is the end of the road. Standing on a scenic overlook as the last sliver of pink sun slides into the horizon is the perfect way to wrap up a mountain odyssey.

Stay:

Hilton Knoxville, 501 W. Church Ave., Knoxville, 865-523-2300, www.hilton.com. Summer rates: $139-$159

The Oliver Hotel is a boutique hotel in the heart of Knoxville on Market Square. 407 Union Ave., Knoxville, 865-521-0050, www.theoliverhotel.com. A speakeasy-style bar features cocktails named for some of the greatest figures in literature, like Atticus Finch and Holden Caulfield. Summer rates: $165-$240

Eat:

Bella Luna Restaurant features seasonal Italian food using fresh, local ingredients. 15 Market Square, Knoxville, 865-247-7405, www.bellalunaknox.com

Attractions:

Museum of Appalachia, 2819 Andersonville Hwy., Clinton, Tenn., 865-494-7680, www.museumofappalachia.org. Admission: adults $18, senior citizens (age 65+) $15, youth (ages 13-18) $10, children under 5 free.

The Sunsphere is in World’s Fair Park. 810 Clinch Ave., Knoxville, www.worldsfairpark.org

The Market Square Farmer’s Market is every Wednesday from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. and every Saturday 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. May – Nov. on historic Market Square.

James White’s Fort, 205 E. Hill Ave., Knoxville, 865-525-6514, www.jameswhitesfort.org. Admission: adults $7, senior citizens $6, children (5-17) $3, under 4 free.

Knoxville Museum of Art, 1050 World’s Fair Park, Knoxville, 865-525-6101, www.knoxart.org. Admission: Free.

Mast General Store, 402 S. Gay St., Knoxville, 865-546-1336, www.mastgeneralstore.com

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, www.nps.gov/cuga/

Discover Tennessee Trails & Byways is a statewide initiative encompassing all 95 counties along 16 separate regional driving trails and includes the White Lightning Trail. US -25E, now the East Tennessee Crossings Byway, is a National Scenic Byway that leads to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. To learn more, visit www.tntrailsandbyways.com

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