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Northeast Tennessee will be shown to the world on Amazon series AWOL

W. Kenneth Medley II • May 15, 2019 at 11:00 PM

It will be movie night in Founders Park on May 22.

The attraction? Northeast Tennessee.

Viewers will get a sneak peek at an episode of Amazon Prime Video’s new  “A.W.O.L.” — or “Air, Water or Land” — travel series that features the region’s outdoor recreation offerings, followed by a Q&A with host Angel Verde.

Music from Virginia West, a duo from Bristol’s Birthplace of Country Music Museum, will kick off the event at 7.

Alicia Phelps, executive director of the Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association, said the public is invited and that it will be a “super casual” setting. “As soon as it gets dark we are going to be able to watch the show, which will be so exciting. After the show we are going to have a question-and-answer session with the show host, Angel.”

The association helped bring “A.W.O.L.” to the region, and Phelps spent every day with the film crew while they were on location.

Phelps said she’s looking forward to seeing what footage made it into the final edit. The episode is 23 minutes, and the crew filmed in several locations around Northeast Tennessee. Phelps describes the show as very raw, and said nothing was staged for the show.

Verde, the host of the new series, was born in Honduras and lived in South Carolina and Virginia, but he’s familiar with Northeast Tennessee.

Johnson City came to the attention of the host and executive producer while he was on a leisure trip.

“In my spare time I am a pretty avid river paddle boarder,” Verde said. “I whitewater paddleboard and river surf. I came down a few years back to Erwin and I went to NoliFest at USA Raft on the Nolichucky.

“I was in the area and just kind of wandered about. I saw this very unique and vibrant community. It is very Appalachian, but with this very dynamic and diverse community with a lot of people that come from a lot of different backgrounds.”

On his return to film the show, Verde went down the Nolichucky River on a rafting trip, fly-fished from a drift-boat, did lots of hiking, mountain biked Tannery Knobs and sailed Watauga Lake.

He called that a really special moment because it is rare to be at such an elevation and sailing in a deep valley. 

Verde said as a child in small towns across the South he had two options, sports or outdoor recreation. He said his childhood outdoor recreation was an adult activity, but he was more drawn to it than sports.

“I sort of just gravitated to being outside,” said Verde. “Then starting about three years ago, I went to work for a production company out of Canada. They produce a travel series up there, and I really felt that there was a gap missing in the space of telling stories about places that may not be the first places to come to mind when you consider traveling or vacationing.”

Phelps said the importance of the event, and Northeast Tennessee being featured on “A.W.O.L.,” is an economic one.

The return to the region will be in the form of people coming to the area and inquiries into offerings by tourists. She hopes that by featuring the region, more people will spend their vacation money here and help bolster the economy.

Her hopes have a solid foundation.

The U.S. Department of Commerce recently released statistics showing the outdoor recreation industry has surpassed oil and fossil fuels and many other industries. The industry is also growing faster than the U.S. GDP, according to the study.

“The common thought for being in hospitality and tourism is that you bartend or wait tables,” said Phelps. “One is not thinking about someone who works in a park. One is not thinking about someone who works at the Hands On! Discovery Center, in their education program or that works with the Paleontology Department. Fishing guides! It is a fun industry because you are not sitting at a desk all day.”

Verde’s motivations for the producing the show include showcasing the culture and diversity of places less traveled.

He says that places like Denver, Colorado, have been known as “outdoor meccas” for a long time, and feels it is time to shine the light on places like Johnson City and the region.

Verde said he wanted to showcase the region because it definitively belongs to the people here. He added that after living in South Carolina and Virginia and after extensive travels, Johnson City and Northeast Tennessee stand out because you can’t find another place like it.

“You have this city with these amazing outdoor amenities all around you,” Verde said, “but you have a city that has all the amenities that you would want from a larger metropolitan area, in a very approachable, accessible and livable community. It is not overwhelmed; you are not dealing with crowds or traffic. You can definitely tell that there is this underlying, passionate, community oriented spirit there. To me that is extremely unique in the entire South.”

Verde says this because of the cooperation of the multiple cities, towns and counties in play within the region. He said that it is the sense of community and togetherness that within such a large area that stand out to him.

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