It was an early fall day [in 1999] as we wound up Old Mountain Road to the top of Beech Mountain in North Carolina. I was a novice storyteller living in nearby Jonesborough, TN; I was on my way to meet a legend.

At my first National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, I had become vaguely aware of an old man, a traditional teller, who had – along with others – started this festival. People said he came every year. I quickly found out it was true; he had performed almost every year – for 30 years. He had also received a Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Education Association in Washington DC and been written up in newspapers and magazines from Los Angeles to New York. I was more than a little intimidated.

As we climbed the mountain, I remembered hearing stories about how Ray sometimes “schnookered” visitors. A Yankee reporter would stop his car and ask where Mr. Hicks lived. Ray would smile…”over yander” – and the duped driver would continue on up the road. By that time, as a gullible Yankee, I’d been schnookered a few times myself….

When we reached the house, firewood was stacked all the way around the porch. Inside, there was no greeting; Ray was in the middle of a story. He sat in an old upholstered chair near an ancient wood stove. The floor was bare planks. After a few head-nods and smiles, I sat – and listened. His speech was so strange. An anthropologist once said that George Washington and Daniel Boone would have recognized it. I had a little more trouble. But gradually, I was drawn in, fascinated by what I was witnessing. At funny moments, his face would crinkle up with glee – and he’d laugh with us. This was FUN!

At one point, I wandered into the kitchen. Ray’s wife, Rosa, was drying apples. As she put yet another huge tray of apple slices on top of the old wood stove, we talked. Bundles of herbs hung in every corner of the room. We went into the spring house and she showed me her preserves. Then she dipped a tin cup into the water and handed it to me. I will never forget the taste of that ice-cold spring water.

Later, in the car, in hushed tones, I talked about what a unique experience it was. “I’ve just witnessed a piece of living history!” Jim, the driver, nodded. He’d heard it all before. But for me, that afternoon was so special… a gem I would hide away inside me to keep…forever.

For the next three years at the festival, I always went to Ray’s tent early – to be sure and get a seat. In between, I read every Jack Tale (the stories Ray told) I could get my hands on. Bit by bit, I began to really understand; I even got the jokes! Each year, Ray would sit – in a brand new pair of overalls – onstage in his chair… and 800 people in that tent listened. He was kind and generous and funny – and utterly genuine.

I have a souvenir from those times – a buckeye nut. In Tennessee, the saying goes that if a friend gives you a buckeye nut, you must keep it always and never lose it. The nut is kind of bumpy and old and worn – just like the man who gave it to me. Both Ray and his wife, Rosie, are gone now. But I will never lose that nut…not ever.

Jill Johnson, Global Village Storytelling, Whidbey Island, WA