Day 36/ Apr 3rd – Bean Station, TN to Tazewell, TN: Over the hill

Bean Station is the most southerly point on our entire route, so this morning we set out from it on what will be a couple of weeks of northing until we turn due west again in Kentucky.  It was the first permanent European settlement in Tennessee, founded in 1769 by William Bean, a longhunter, and was famous as the location of the Bean Station Tavern, which for several decades in the early 19th century was the largest inn between Washington DC and New Orleans.  The tavern is long gone; in its place are run-down shops selling bait, tackle, and above all fireworks.  Nearby Virginia and Kentucky ban, somewhat capriciously, the sale of fireworks that travel through the air, while Tennessee does not; the result is a cluster of tacky fireworks emporia in almost every town in this part of the state.

Fireworks shop near Bean Station

Leaving Tennessee? Don't forget your fireworks

I’d imagined before this walk that the Appalachians would be roughly on the scale of the Alps; that at some point on our walk a line of snowy peaks would loom on the horizon and that I would turn to Sally, fling my arm at the view and exclaim, ‘Behold!  Th’mighty Appalachians!’, or some such thing.  But the Appalachians, it transpires, are more on the scale of the Scottish Highlands, which makes sense given that they were part of the same mountain chain half a billion years ago.  We’ve thought of ourselves as being in the foothills for the last couple of weeks, and had resigned ourselves to the fact that foothills were all we’d get – until today.

Today we walked 23 miles over Clinch Mountain, and by the end of the day there was no more talk of foothills.  We bid a fond farewell just after dawn to the Lee Highway (less romantically known as Route 11), which we’ve followed for almost 200 miles through Virginia and Tennessee, and joined the Dixie Highway (aka Route 25), which is going to take us a further 200 miles into Kentucky.  It began in dramatic fashion, a canyon of road between steep hillsides draped with nets to catch falling rocks.  There were very few vehicles, and often the only noise was the cawing of crows echoing off the valley sides.  We slogged up it for more than two hours, big rigs and cement mixers gasping up the hill alongside us, winding steadily upwards until we had a view over a significant slice of Appalachia.

The road – really a narrow, virtually empty motorway – had clearly required the expenditure of large quantities of dynamite and human lives to construct, and the top was high enough that we half expected to find prayer flags and a Tibetan monastery.  Instead, there was one of the ubiquitous historical markers, a sign announcing ‘Easter Sunrise Service Here 6:53AM’ and, best of all, the Clinch Mountain Lookout Restaurant & Gift Shop (‘Famous for Our Vinegar Pie’), where staff with oxygen masks and ice-axes served us up a welcome late breakfast.

Clinch Mountain Lookout Restaurant

The Clinch Mountain Lookout Restaurant

Clinch Mountain isn’t really a mountain, but a high ridge running for 150 miles alongside the Clinch River.  Until we reach Wyoming, it will be the highest point on our walk.  You might well assume that this Clinch fellow must have been a towering figure of early frontier history to have two such major chunks of geography named after him, but his identity is a mystery.  He is mentioned by one early Appalachian explorer as ‘one Clinch, a hunter’, which is the extent of our knowledge of him.  History has swallowed him whole.

We dropped down the other side of the mountain and back into sunlit hills and pastures, following a path through ragged villages where goats and their kids grazed on the litter strewn between trailer homes.  Tennessean road-workers have evidently been taking lessons from their British counterparts; along a six-mile stretch of the highway into Tazewell, fully half of the road had been coned off but absolutely no work was being done, allowing us the rare pleasure of having two entire lanes to ourselves to walk down without fear of instant death.

Bridge over the Clinch River

Sally crosses the Clinch River along a generous highway shoulder

Tennessee is, I think it’s fair to say, rather more red-necked than Virginia.  The petrol stations today were filled with stout, bearded men queueing to buy bait and tackle, almost all dressed in camouflage fatigues, which seemed a perplexing choice of gear for fishing.  Perhaps they aim to lure the fish onto dry land before surprising it with a bootknife.  The serious hunters in eastern Tennessee, though, do not stalk salmon or trifle with trout.  They pit their wits instead against Nature’s most fearsome predator, a creature that strikes fear into the hardest hearts, a terrifying beast more myth than flesh – the turkey.  In Tazewell’s BP station, a large board behind the counter was covered with photographs of grinning young men holding up an armful of bloody feathers.  In an unusual business combination, a taxidermist had set up a booth at the back of the store to allow lucky hunters to immortalise their feats more tangibly.

But then Claiborne County, which we entered today, has always been a little rough.  Its county seat, Tazewell, is a tiny place that began life as a frontier fort and was, briefly, the westernmost English-speaking place in America.  It only became the county town, so the story goes, because on the day of the election in 1804 to determine where it should be located, all of the citizens of the rival candidate town, Springdale, were too blind drunk to vote.

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