Day 37/ Apr 4th – Tazewell, TN to Middlesboro, KY: Three states of matter

“After a long and fatiguing journey through a mountainous wilderness, in a westward direction… [we] saw with pleasure the beautiful level of Kentucke” – The Adventures of Colonel Daniel Boon, Formerly a Hunter

Wilderness Road to Cumberland Gap

Sally climbing the Wilderness Road path to Cumberland Gap

There are certainly more famous mountain passes in the world – the Khyber and Karakoram in Asia, the Brenner and Roncesvalles in Europe – but Cumberland Gap is, arguably, the most famous and important mountain pass in America.  It was used for centuries as a war-path by Cherokee and Shawnee Indians, who would periodically travel through it to give one another a good scalping; in a curious later echo, during the Civil War both sides expected a massive attack from the other through the Gap, and heavily fortified their end of it, thereby ensuring that no such attacks ever came.  After the British bought what is now Kentucky from the Iroquois (a clever piece of business, as they didn’t own it), it was the route chosen by Daniel Boone for his Wilderness Road trail from Virginia to Kentucky in 1775. 

The Gap immediately became an escape valve for a huge pent-up population of potential westward settlers.  By 1792, when Kentucky became a state, 100,000 people had already made the gruelling journey through it to start a new life beyond the mountains, and at least the same number of people again passed through over the next twenty years.  By the 1830s, other routes to the west had opened and the importance of the Gap waned, but by then it had already changed the pattern of settlement in America forever.

The Cumberland Gap today runs from a town called Harrogate in Tennessee to a town called Middlesboro in Kentucky.  There are thousands of these curiously disorienting English names in the eastern US, and we’ve spent the past weeks walking through assorted Richmonds, Somersets, Amershams, Bedfords and Bristols.  It’s always struck me as odd that after America threw off the British colonial yoke that it didn’t systematically rename, Constantinople-to-Istanbul fashion, all these places that were named for British towns, nobility or royalty (there are still seven states named after European monarchs*).  The Gap itself was named after William, Duke of Cumberland, a hero in the mid-eighteenth century for his massacres of Scots at Culloden.  Given that many of the immigrants who passed through it to Kentucky were Scots-Irish, it’s remarkable that the name wasn’t changed.  It’s as though Vietnamese emigrants to America today were to settle without complaint in a town called My Lai.

We were looking forward to crossing the Gap, not least because of the novelty that our route today passed through three separate states: Tennessee in the morning, Virginia briefly as we entered the Gap and then Kentucky for the rest of the day (and, indeed, the month).  The omens this morning were ambiguous: outside the Tazewell Church of God were large white letters erected on the hillside reading ‘Prepare to Meet God’ (“But we smell dreadful,” I said to Sally).  We stopped in at the R. O. Giles Flea Market (‘An East Tennessee Tradition’) on the road into Harrogate, where more than a hundred stall-holders were selling everything from fishing rods, plastic flowers and body jewellery to hens, dogs and goats from cages at the back.

“Don’t take too many photos,” warned Mike, the organiser.  “A lot of the people here… well, let’s say they’re not real good record-keepers, and they might not welcome it.”

R. O. Giles Flea Market Tazewell Tennessee

The R. O. Giles Flea Market in Tazewell, Tennessee

We came into Harrogate through fireworks shops and catfish restaurants, and past the brick Toytown of Lincoln Memorial University (‘No Weapons, No Hunting on the Premises’).  The town is essentially a last rest-stop for drivers before they plunge through the Cumberland Gap Tunnel, an engineering marvel that was built – at a cost of $280 million – as part of a laudable century-long effort to restore the Gap to roughly the appearance it had in its pioneer heyday.

Cumberland Gap Tunnel sign

Fortunately all of our explosives are Class 2

We had lunch in the village of Cumberland Gap, a delightful two-street hamlet underneath a looming bluff that forms one side of the Gap.  It had all the essential trappings of an American Main Street in the 1930s: a busy diner, a venerable motel, a tiny brick post office and a drugstore.  Our meal took longer than expected because of a phenomenon that we’ve been noticing for weeks but which today drove us to distraction: modern American restaurant patrons are unable to order a meal without asking to substitute, like fussy six-year-olds, ingredients and side-dishes for others that they prefer.  The result is that a table of five next to us took fully ten minutes to place their order, while the harassed waitress scurried back and forth to the kitchen to check that hash browns could be served with grits and that a Caesar salad could be substituted as a side order in a steak lunch.  It is, we decided, the final, weakly flickering flame of American liberty, non-conformity and individualism.  The modern American citizen feels himself oppressed on all sides by intrusive government, and while he can no longer stake a claim, pan for gold or shoot an Indian, he can insist on coleslaw instead of mashed potato, goddammit.  It is his last permitted rebellion.

In the afternoon we walked through the Gap.  The government’s lavish spending on the tunnel has restored the Wilderness Road along this stretch to a lovely and peaceful two-mile path through forests of oak, beech, chestnut and maple, being used on this sunny spring Sunday by a total of precisely ten other walkers.  At the very centre of the Gap, where two mountain spurs came together, the Road, this celebrated nation-building highway, was a leafy, stony track perhaps five yards wide.

Cumberland Gap view to Kentucky

Looking into Kentucky from the middle of Cumberland Gap

In the distance ahead there was a curious sight.  A large red bucket was visible, slowly rotating, above the level of the treetops, on the end of a tall pole.  If you squinted, you could just make out a strangely familiar white avuncular face on the bucket.  We were in Kentucky.

*Did you get them all?  Virginia and West Virginia (Elizabeth I); North and South Carolina (Charles I); Maryland (Henrietta Maria); Georgia (George II); Louisiana (Louis XIV)

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2 Responses to “Day 37/ Apr 4th – Tazewell, TN to Middlesboro, KY: Three states of matter”

  1. kathie hicks Says:

    ya’all come back reel soon, ye here.

  2. Kathie Beth Hicks Says:

    ya’ all come back reel soon, ye hear

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