Day 24/ Mar 22nd – Fort Chiswell, VA to Wytheville, VA: The Wilderness Road

I was near enough to Interstate 81 today to be able to read not only the mile markers placed along its verge but also, more depressingly, the tenth-mile markers standing between them.  It takes a great effort of will not to look up and read these as you pass each one, thus condemning yourself to fifteen or twenty miles of quiet madness as you count down to the end of the day.

The road next to I-81

Close encounter with I-81

My little road and the interstate ran together this morning into the distance to a vanishing point between a gap in the hills.  There was little enough other development around them that it was still possible to imagine this as a wild place, as it still was in the 18th century when it was one of the most important settlement trails on the continent, the Great Wagon Road.  Since Roanoke, our route has followed this old road, which took countless settlers from Pennsylvania, through Virginia, and on to the Carolinas and Georgia.

Here at Fort Chiswell, there began what was, arguably, an even more important trail: the Wilderness Road.  Like the Great Wagon Road, it runs south-west along the grain of the Appalachians, but near the modern border with Tennessee it cuts due west, directly across them, breaching the mountains through a single, critical pass called Cumberland Gap.

Fort Chiswell, as its name suggests, began life as a fort, built in 1758 to see off both French and Indian attacks (unlike most towns in the area, it hasn’t since changed its name to Chiswellsville or Chiswellsburg).  We’ve passed through a lot of towns like this, which spent a decade or so as ragged forts at the sharp end of the frontier, before the frontier was pushed westward and they could settle down to ordinary town life.  It’s testament to how harsh the environment was and how formidable a foe the Indian tribes were that it’s taken us barely three weeks to walk the same distance inland from the coast that it took the English colonies roughly 150 years to reach.

It was here in Fort Chiswell that Daniel Boone set out into the wilderness to construct a road through the mountains into Kentucky that could be followed by ordinary settlers.  Boone was a ‘long-hunter’, who would go off into the Appalachian forests on hunting expeditions that could last for months, if not years – a sort of 18th-century Bear Grylls (though without the moisturiser and camera crew).  He seems to have been a rough character – he lived for a while in Christiansburg, which we passed through a couple of days ago, where the sole surviving document relating to his time in the town is a warrant for his arrest.

He was working on behalf of the delightfully named Transylvanian Company, which in 1775 had made one of those shady land deals with the Indians that litter the pages of early American history – in this case, exchanging 20 million acres of Appalachian forest for some weapons and tools.  The British government had gone one better a few years before, purchasing most of what is now Kentucky and West Virginia for about £10,000 from the Iroquois – who didn’t even own it.  In any case, the only thing delaying what became an epic land grab by European colonists was a viable road to reach these new territories, which Boone and a team of 200 lumberjacks duly hacked out of the hillsides in 1775.

Lovers Lane on I-81

The most romantic spot in south-western Virginia

 America’s modern highway planners must have retained some vague ancestral memory of Fort Chiswell’s position at the junction of these two great pioneer routes, because its chief claim to fame now is that it sits at the junction of Interstate 81, which continues into Tennessee, and Interstate 77, which runs from here into North Carolina.  There’s not much to it beyond a cluster of petrol stations and fast-food outlets beside these roaring highways, but in tribute to joining the Wilderness Road that will take us into Kentucky, I went out on a hunting expedition of my own and managed to trap a Filet-o-Fish and a healthy catch of large fries.

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