Tall-Tale Tellers and Tall Tale-Tellers

Today was my last day of tall-tale telling in the park. I’m a fan of bookends so I stationed myself at the same spot along The Chimney Tops trail that I sat at for my first story session a few weeks ago. Today’s hikers were game. I had a steady stream of audiences members for three hours, including Sheridan, Shaniqua, and Stephanie, my lady crew of the Smokies, and one family who’s only wildlife sighting had been a dead turtle, which led to one of my favorite stories of the whole embarkation. Go figure.

Also, I finished reading Team of Rivals this morning. These two events- storytelling and reading Team of Rivals- are, as you may have gathered by now, inextricably linked. Why? Because if you’re the kind of person who finds imaginations to be cozy places to curl up for a while, the books you read are your life. They seep into every action, philosophical thought, and blog post. Reading about how Lincoln would crack himself up with a good tale and stay up all night swapping stories with whomever he happened upon, reminded me every day that I was storytelling that I could follow my own pleasure in telling without compromising my commitment to the audience. 151 years after his death his actions, philosophical thoughts, and written material are reverberating through my bones and out my mouth.

Lincoln was well known for telling just the right story to highlight a point or diffuse tension. I do not yet have that skill, especially not as an improvisor, but I’m getting better at knowing which details to pull from people’s narratives to craft a story that reaches them. In doing so, Lincoln is not far from my brain. For instance: Stephanie is going through a painful breakup of her marriage. Two people who loved each other are now at war. Sheridan is being pulled in two directions as she is caring for her sick father and tending to a more than full time job. Shaniqua spends all day crunching numbers and working on Excel spreadsheets in the effort to mobilize and organize an army of park volunteers.

Stephanie is the Union- fighting to hold waring factions together, her husband is the Confederacy- his wants are in opposition to the union so he wants out. Sheridan is a border state- she can’t make up her mind who to give her loyalty and time to. Shaniqua is Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War for the Union- just fighting to make sure everything gets done so the whole system doesn’t collapse. The story I told them based on the details of their lives was of a literal house divided; a story that took place in a home on the borders of North Carolina and Tennessee while state lines were being drawn. Except in this instance there was also an earthquake induced waterfall, a brawl caused by too many positive ions in the air, and a hotly contested outhouse. It took my experiences into account just as much as theirs and was a better story for it.

Honestly, I’m really going to miss this. It’s like right when the learning curve slopes into some level of comfort it’s time to move on. It’s no different than grad school where we practice a variety of subjects rather than master one. I’m just slowly chipping away at the things I care about and want to be better at, like storytelling, in the hopes of finding gems as I dig deeper.

But before moving on from this gig, there was one more tall tale to be had. This one was from Caleb, who with 3 inches on Lincoln is most definitely a tall tale-teller. On our last adventure he took me to where he grew up in Cocke County. I’d told him last week in the midst of our HowCanYouBeARepublican/Liberal?! conversation that I’d never shot a gun, and in fact had been stood up on at least two occasions to do so, so he said he’d teach me. I’ve been curious about it for a while, I’m a tactile learner, the country is obsessed with guns, I have such strong feelings about gun ownership, and yet I’ve never shot one, which doesn’t seem like a very informed position.

True to his word, Caleb taught me to shoot a shotgun, which, for the record, I am very bad at. I have “perfect precision and the worst aim I’ve ever seen at point blank range” according to Caleb’s Dad. It’s pretty clear after meeting Caleb’s Dad how Caleb became Caleb. His Dad is mechanically minded; putting together an 112 year old car from the ground up, unquestionably alpha, ruled by his passions and ambitions, and an incredible wealth of information on a myriad of subjects, about which he is no less of a showoff than his son. Following my shooting lessons, we were talking about how American perceptions of violence have changed over the centuries and I referenced the 1856 caning where Congressman Preston Brooks (D- SC) beat Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA) bloody right on the Senate floor for libeling him and Caleb’s Dad filled in all of the historical context around the event and gave me a history of dueling in America. The only other person I’d expect that kind of response from is my own Dad.

After we left the house, Caleb gave me a drive-by tour of the county with stories of outlaw neighbors, new constructions, a wildfire sighting up in the hills, and a visit to the factory his Dad owns where he used to run around as a kid. After all the snippets of stories and histories that I’ve gotten from park visitors, it’s refreshing to hear a fuller story of what living in Southern Appalachia is all about. Some of it is neighborly and chivalrous, some of it is cruel and makes my liberal soul squirm, but I’d rather know the backcountry of a place than just the asphalted portion. When it comes to the Great Smoky Mountain Region, as it is with most things worth pursuing, the more I learn, the more questions I have. Guess I’ll have to come back sometime.