Throwback Thursday part 2: Tennessee magic

English teacher Patrick Clements was granted a sabbatical leave in the Spring of 2005 for a self-designed project: a four month solo bicycle trip across America, following historical trails Americans used over the last four centuries to head to new homes and to new dreams. His goal was twofold: To follow the paths of these earlier Americans, and also to meet and talk with "modern folks along the way, inquiring always about their 'Dream of America.'"  

"As a teacher of literature, especially English 11 (American Literature) and Literature of Travel and Adventure," Clements explained, "as a proponent of the value of primary experience as a critical part of all our learning, and as a member of the community who wants to live the same values we profess, I [sought] to combine scholarship, personal challenge, experiential learning, and a little practice in courage and humility."

From Jellico in Northeast Tennessee, at the intersection of the Kentucky/Tennessee border and I-75, there is no southwest route toward Nashville, now my focus. I headed south down long valleys, climbing and plunging interior ridges as forks of creeks split, then headed west over larger ridges to the next river. The loveliest valley of the trip was an hour in running the length of Elk Valley, in Campbell County, a modest valley with good bottom land, steep and well forested ridges, and New Canaan Baptist Church at its western, coved end. I stopped there to repair a slow leak, one I had tried to fix the day before.

That first time, back on Pine Mountain in Kentucky, I had pulled into a church parking lot, eaten a snack, and dried out in the warm sun. Then, as I was stripping out the front tire's tube, a handsome woman in a shiny new car pulled into the lot, circled round, and then asked if I was ok or if needed help. I told her that I was fine, just taking a break, enjoying the lovely stream by the church, and fixing a leaky tire. She smiled, then reached into the backseat, grabbed a trio of bananas and handed them to me. "I just came from the store. You might like these," she said. "There's a nice Bible college up the hill where my husband studies, with waterfalls and lovely grounds. Feel free to walk around," she said, and drove off. My concentration broken, I bungled the tire repair, missing the cause of the slow leak.


This time, though, here in Fox Valley, I'd take my time and find whatever tiny sliver was slowing me down. Sitting a second time in a church parking lot, I examined my tire carefully, found the tiny wire that was the culprit, and put things right.

As I was putting the tire back on, two men emerged from behind the church, carrying Styrofoam food containers, looking like character actors. One man was burly, bearded and dressed in worn overalls. The other was thin and weathered, his belt winding around his waist with plenty left over, his flannel shirt buttoned up at the neck and both wrists. They walked to me, said hello, and offered me lunch, "You probably work up a good appetite on that thing. The chili's mighty spicy, so y'all be careful," said the formal thin man. This was my introduction to Maynard Crabtree, Deacon of the church.


I later joined him and a growing group of folks in the hall behind the church, where they were selling lunches and used clothes and bric-a-brac, raising money to finish the roof on the hall. After scoring some powerful peanut butter candy, I sat on a floral couch for sale and listened to Maynard, a woman with a guitar who earlier had been helping sort a clothes rack, and a beautiful young man with a terrific voice, flowing hair, and a brand new mandolin. They all sat down near the used clothes, tuned their instruments, and began making music. On a sunny Saturday morning in Elk Valley Tennessee I listened to this threesome sing "Down by the Stream," "The Sweet By and By," and a couple other tunes. They tried to convince a series of visitors to become their fourth voice, but they sounded mighty fine to me. Maynard sang bass, an unwavering, trustworthy bottom to the songs. The young man's tenor was sweet and strong, just pure goodness at ten in the morning.

Listening to Appalachian gospel music arising from the rummage sale furniture of the New Canaan Baptist Church on a Saturday morning in Tennessee, I was full. This scene was so lovely and pure that I kept my camera buried in my bike bag.  I know that had I sought this scene, I could not have found it. 

I climbed out the cove end of the Elk Valley floating.I headed west towards Jamestown, Alvin York's hometown, the town in which John Clemens, trying to establish himself, lived with his family before starting over yet again in Hannibal, Missouri, where Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born soon after their arrival. Seems Mark Twain was conceived here in Jamestown.


The Mark Twain connection is played out just a bit in Jamestown. There's a small park with a well from which the Clemens family drew their water. The park is well tended by the local garden club, but the well was dry when I was there. I had heard of a Mark Twain Inn, but was told by a man back in Rugby that it had closed down years ago. After 70 miles and with the sun about to set, I was too tired to ride another 12 miles to the local state park, so I figured I'd stop in the police station and ask directions to the nearest motel. 

On my way, I wandered up to the Mark Twain Inn, across the street from the Fentress County Courthouse, a storefront now among county lawyers' offices, regretting the news I had heard earlier. A small handwritten note on the door read "Rooms Available," but it looked old and unreliable.But I pulled on the door, it opened, and I fell into a huge new treat. 

I found another note, "Office upstairs, Room 16." There is discovered Judy Ipock Blair, a 76 year old fifth generation Fentress County woman who ran this little hotel, a rooming house I guess, 

"Because I need something to do. You know, you just can't be idle. My daughter lives here in town, and my son-in-law is a lawyer, right downstairs, so I keep myself busy right here. New Jersey? Back in the war I dated a boy from New Jersey. There was a German P.O.W. camp here in Jamestown, and he was a guard there. Eddie Rantuccio, he was handsome, and such a good dancer. But that was long ago. Will this room be ok?" 

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