"Stop." My amble down the center of Main Street slowed considerably. "Stop." The impression hit me stronger. So I stopped. All weekend long these impressions had led me to new friends, and a journey into myself. "Look around." Did I have to stay in the middle of the street? There’s a bench right over there. I’ll just sit there and drink in this experience. "Stay here. If you move, you’ll lose the experience." Unwilling to offend this silent guide who had led me to Odds Bodkin and dramatic life decisions during my second festival, I obeyed. Sunday afternoon shadows lengthened their grip. Near empty streets marked the denouement of another festival. I stood in the middle of a near-vacant street and listened to the buildings. I listened. Jonesborough’s buildings seemed to lament the festival’s end, their empty storefronts bereft of visitors. "We, too, feel the loss." Behind me, a few stragglers—the last of the festival’s patrons—peered into darkened windows. "You may go." The feeling had washed over me. I had been privy to the town’s sense of loss. Now I could leave.
One of the most pronounced insights granted me during my festival ventures was that one must feel deeply. One must set aside the mental and emotional blocks that separate us from our emotions, from our yearning to cry, laugh, smile, sigh, grimace, exult. Sara Hughes, a regular festival volunteer, told me the festival means emotions. “It’s a roller coaster ride of emotions,” she told me. “It’s about emotions.” Emotions govern the festival, and to authentically relate to and connect with other festival-goers, I, too, needed to be in touch with my emotions. Never before had I remembered being so overtly conscious of the peace and tranquility that filled my soul.
I could accept the festival as an emotional roller coaster. I could accept the festival as a strange form of intimacy. But could I, in good faith, speak of my own emotions? Could I tell anyone that my buildings spoke to me—not in words, but in feelings? As the human instrument of this study, I questioned the authenticity of my own feelings. Perhaps I was too emotional to begin with. Perhaps I alone felt such strange vibes from the town. Yet as I remained in Jonesborough following the festival, I found others who felt as deeply.
Monday morning of my third festival I met up with Terry Julien, a regular attendee whom I had seen frequently throughout the weekend, but had never met. Sitting on a bench next to the courthouse in the now-brisk autumn air, we opened aspects of our lives to each other, savoring our conversation as though it could lengthen the festival somehow. Before, Terry had always left on Sunday. This year he chose to remain afterward.
"It’s a long drive home. Ten hours. The last session on Sunday, that mid-afternoon session where everybody says goodbye, you load up the car and head out. And it has always felt so abrupt. And harsh. Such a harsh departure. So this year I thought I’ll stay a couple of extra days and just enjoy going from the intensity of the festival, just almost emotionally coming down from that high and seeing the town go back to normal, and just settle down, just calm down a little bit. And like we were saying, it’s just such a pleasant time . . . but such melancholy also. Because it’s everybody leaving. Everything that made it such a special weekend is slowly filtering off. And there’s a bit of an emptiness left behind."
My own feelings echoed Terry’s. Sunday afternoon of my third festival, wandering like a phantom down empty streets to empty tents, I videotaped the vacant spaces. At one point I had to put the camera aside and record my thoughts and feelings on a mini-tape recorder.
I’m sitting on this rock wall looking at the Tent on the Hill, next to the Storytelling Center, feeling . . . empty. I feel like some ghost has come through and haunted my soul. All the joy and the zest of the buildup and fruition of the storytelling festival has sunk into the ground, and taken me with it . . . as I’m here. When I’m not here, it’s out of sight, out of mind. But this is . . . sad.
Images from both entries stand out. Terry spoke of an emptiness that pervaded the atmosphere. Everything and everyone that formed the festival, that created this cultural magnet, had filtered off, along with the magical feeling. People were leaving. Whereas earlier in our conversation Terry had spoken extensively of the magic of stories, he later failed to mention them. Rather, he mentioned people. “It’s everybody leaving” that led to the emptiness. When his images combine with mine, we see the intimate bond between space and people. I remarked feeling “haunted.” Tents, streets, and bodies had become haunted houses, empty dwellings. The festival space, so alive and vibrant when people filled the space, had become a lonely shadow.
As Betty Jean Skinner, a diligent festival volunteer, phrased it: “Without the people in the folding chairs there is no Jonesborough.” Evidently, the unification of town and festival is so complete in the minds of some that without the festival, Jonesborough is nothing. Betty Jean further remarked on this, saying: “I think of Jonesborough as an event. Now the fact of the geography—and that for fifty-one other weekends every year there are people that live here and have their lives, and . . . send their children to school . . . doesn’t interfere with my concept and feeling and notion that Jonesborough happens one . . . one weekend every year.” Afterward, both town and festival were gone. The “fact of the geography” may place Jonesborough on printed maps, but a mental map has already erased “all [those] roads that lead to Jonesborough” for the festival—until next autumn.
An odd juxtaposition imposed itself on Monday following the festival. The town both awakened and slumbered. To an outsider, the town probably mirrored (many) other small towns. Main Street teemed with cars rushing too fast through town. Business-clad men (along with an occasional woman) bustled into the courthouse. The air once again was tainted with vehicle exhaust, and the whirr of engines. Jonesborough has awakened to its regular life.
On this Monday, festival tents stood as mute reminders of the weekend’s festivity. No longer bulging with visitors, they appeared lonely, out of place. Yet their descent into slumber had actually begun the day prior. On Sunday (once the final teller waves a tired goodbye) the crowds thinned, and the cleanup crew began their task. Workers promptly emptied out the tents, swiftly clearing out chairs, lights, sound equipment, and even raised platforms, so that by Monday morning the revival tents had lost their spirit. They had become empty husks. Only one tent—the Resource Tent—required work. Inside this tent, a few remaining workers boxed up the last of the storytelling books, compact discs, cassettes, and apparel. Outdated-looking cash registers were lifted off their tables. The police guards formerly stationed at the tent have now assumed other posts, their services no longer required. Meanwhile, tent-workers were already stripping off the tent flaps.
No one visited these tent husks. Life has confined itself to Main Street, not the revival spaces surrounding the street. I meandered from tent to tent, videotaping the emptiness, and saw ruts in the grass where myriad feet created paths. No one was around.
Midway through the day I finally saw visitors at the tents. I was walking up the street parallel to, but up the hill (above the railroad tracks) from, Main Street. Looking down I saw Creekside Tent already dismantled. Strip by strip, tent flaps were getting rolled up, and a small forklift carried heavy tent poles to the back door of a diesel truck trailer. With the workers’ permission, I videotaped their dismantling efforts from multiple angles, trying to repress the sinking in my gut I felt at seeing Creekside packed away for another year.
One by one other tents succumbed to Creekside’s fate. From my vantage point behind the International Storytelling Center, I videotaped Tent on the Hill’s central tent pole as it slowly slipped sideways and finally disappeared beneath still-erect tent walls. Then I hiked up the hill to videotape the remaining process. Piece by piece the tent disappeared, and the crew moved onto a different tent. By Tuesday afternoon, the spaces were given completely back to nature.
Monday morning also heralded a change along Main Street’s historic district. Throughout the weekend shops had remained open well into the evening, with an energy pulsating through them. Special FESTIVAL HOURS had been posted alongside regular business hours, but the influx of patrons had sometimes extended the late hours even later. On Monday morning, however, opening time became an approximate time. Some shops opened a bit later than the posted time, and shut down early that afternoon. The practice carried over into Tuesday. On Tuesday afternoon I was supposed to meet Sonya Stacey in her shop, the Pig n’ Slipper, but the cashier said she’d left and that I should try back at five o’clock. “Will you be open?” I queried. She assured me she would, so I left to videotape more of the town. Shortly before the designated hour I returned and found a locked door, darkened interior, and a big sign: CLOSED.