Story by Haley Perkins / Contributing Writer
There’s a lot to see in Tennessee: hills and hollers, mountains and valleys, metropolises and small towns. Ashley Perham aims to visit every county in her quest to know her adopted state better, but not from the comfort of her car.
Perham, 22, is methodically running her way across the Volunteer State. What began as a response to the boredom of the COVID-19 isolation has turned into a travel writing adventure as she documents her run in each county. To date, she’s hit the pavement, and sometimes trails, in 28 counties.
It’s a challenging adventure. Tennessee is a large and long state, with three specific Grand Divisions that are different in geography, climate and even accents. Within its boundaries are 42,181 square miles divided into 95 counties. Even with interstates Memphis to Johnson City spans 496 miles so making that trip still takes up the better part of a day.
Perham prefers a slower crossing of the state.
Born in Virginia her family moved to Phoenix when she was 6. Her father started a church there. Growing up she was active in two solitary pursuits, playing the piano and running, but she also learned early on that she had the desire to be a storyteller. When her family moved to Tennessee following her graduation from high school, she followed. At Middle Tennessee State University she majored in journalism and graduated in the spring of 2020. After graduating, Ashley found herself with not one job but four. She taught piano to 17 students, worked as a web content editor for the MTSU First Amendment Encyclopedia, wrote for the Hendersonville Standard and provided content for the website of a human resources company. Because the COVID-19 pandemic she was working from home.
Leaning down to lace up her Nikes, Perham recalled how she decided to take up the challenge to complete a run in each of the state’s 95 counties and write about the journey in a blog. The runs were a way to deal with the boredom of staying home. She said the tedium was affecting her mental health, so she decided to start running again. Perham had an example in her family. Her father ran marathons.
“He’d be doing crazy stuff like running 43 miles for his 43rd birthday,” she said. She started running a few miles with him and even logged 22 miles when she turned 22 last April.
Perham said she enjoyed running for the health benefits but also because running requires no fancy equipment. “I am the cheapest person I know. You just need shoes and then you can go.”
The idea of completing a run in each of the 95 counties came to her after realizing it would be a great way to visit parts of the state she’d never seen before. She told one of her professors about her idea to create a running blog that also includes travel writing and was encouraged by the response.
On July 26, Perham’s blog went live with a report about her first run in Williamson County. Perham said she decided to start there because it was near her home county of Rutherford. She said she runs in Rutherford county all the time, so she wants to save it as the 95th and final run of her series.
After becoming a fan of the 1990s sitcom, Friends, she decided to introduce her county-by-county reports the same way each episode was named. The titles of the TV show’s weekly stories began with the phrase “In which…,” followed by a description of what was happening to one of the characters in that episode. As adapted for her running blog, her run in Perry County, located about 100 miles west of Nashville, was titled: “In which a beautiful sunrise almost makes up for a sleepless night.”
Perham has no method for choosing the order of counties she is going to run and report from. She said she often chooses depending on what she is doing. For example, she visited her grandparents in East Tennessee and while there decided to check off a few counties. Perham said she always tries to arrange her schedule so that one run makes it convenient to move on to an adjacent county.
She has given herself a year to complete the goal. Currently she’s completed runs in 27 counties but hopes to ramp up the mileage in the spring and the summer.
Perham said her faith has been a motivation. “I personally find my identity in Christ and his love for me and how it covers me, even if I run slow or if I run fast,” she said. Each run is a different length, sometimes several miles, while others are short. She’s jogged on greenways and trails and county roads.
Of course, a variation of Perham’s idea has been done before, sort of. Each year there are endurance races that focus on trails and roads in Tennessee state parks that attract hundreds of runners. Retiring U.S Sen. Lamar Alexander famously walked 1,022 miles across the state in 1978 in his campaign to become governor. And of course, there’s Forrest Gump, who, well, loved to run.
Unlike the fictional character of Gump, Perham loves her challenge because of the beauty she sees. Taking the time to do such a feat in the middle of a world pandemic may seem odd, but the journey has its rewards, she said.
A title for her running adventure could be: In which a young woman discovers herself while discovering her homeland.
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