CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - Tennessee tourism officials see gold in them there hills where moonshine stills once bubbled and bootleggers hauled illegal whiskey in fast cars. They are trying to lure free-spending visitors to retrace the mountain roads where "white lightning" helped give birth to NASCAR.
The newly dubbed White Lightning Trail traverses a network of roadways that span hundreds of miles across nine counties in northeast Tennessee.
Tourism officials who launched the promotion in Knoxville were quick — even a bit defensive — in saying the trail name is "not about promoting moonshine."
The trail's notorious name helps highlight a regional heritage that includes the hometowns of famous country musicians such as "King of Country Music" Roy Acuff at Maynardville and Chet Atkins at Luttrell. There is Knoxville's Market Square and Old City and the Museum of Appalachia between Clinton and Norris. There are also historic homes, antique and crafts stores, restaurants and natural attractions, some of which overlook the Cumberland Gap.
Along the way there's also a motel owner who might be persuaded to tell the sad tale of how he saw his moonshiner daddy shot dead in a long-ago raid.
"Visitors will travel some of the same routes ... bootleggers used to transport moonshine, a distilled corn whiskey also known as 'white lightning,'" according to a statement promoting the event. "To outrun tax collectors, bootleggers altered their cars from the original factory design so they could reach much higher speeds."
Tennessee Department of Tourist Development Assistant Commissioner Jennifer Spence said she knows of no other such government-sponsored tourism attraction based on moonshine and bootleggers. The White Lightning Trail is one of 16 self-guided driving trails that have opened or are being developed and is intended to be a "fun attraction ride."
"That is a culture of that area," she said. "Part of that was to come up with a fun name like that."
The state's promotional material also notes that moonshine running gave birth to stock car racing, which grew into the popular NASCAR.
One stop includes a visit with a self-described teetotaler who recounts that he saw his moonshiner daddy shot dead in a raid in upper East Tennessee in 1943. Seventy-four-year-old Hack Ayers owns motels along the trail in Caryville and hopes to cash in on the new tourist venture.
He will display the jacket his father was wearing when shot by a state patrolman.
"I think they are trying to copy off 'Thunder Road,'" Ayers said in a telephone interview, referring to a 1958 movie about moonshining.
Ayers said that after his father's death his mother "taught us how to work. She raised three teetotalers, three nonsmokers and three Christians."
National Tour Association spokeswoman Madeline Vied said the White Lightning Trail is unique.
"Travelers really crave authentic experiences and want to learn about history, culture and true Americana," NTA President Lisa Simon said in an e-mail statement. "This tour will be a unique addition to the slate of attractions Tennessee has to offer, and NTA tour operators who create original experiences for travelers will benefit from having this as an option for their tours in this area."