Cumberland Gap, Kentucky

July 12, 2005
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Most of us call American bison “buffalo” even though we know that they are similar, but different animals. “Buffalo” has a romantic, Wild West ring to it that “bison” will never have. Do you think “Buffalo Bill” would have made it as “Bison Bill”? I certainly don’t. Buffalo roamed most of North America at one time. They would leave whole sectors of the continent, only to return hundreds of years later. In the 17th century they moved into the Southeast — what we now know as Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Unlike the open prairies of the West, where they roamed unimpeded, here they had dense forests and rolling mountains to contend with. For an animal that weighs between 1,800 and 2,400 pounds, these were not real obstacles to movement — they just took the path of least resistance and followed the leader when migrating.

Assisted by other animals, buffalo were the original road makers of our country. Primary among these animal trails was one known to the Indians as the Warrior’s Path in the Southeast. It looped south and west through the Cumberland Gap,connecting the Ohio River Valley and the Shenandoah and Potomac valleys in Virginia. Colonists along the Atlantic seaboard quickly saw this path — as you and I see the open road today — as a new quest. Their exploration, of course, moved America to the Mississippi and on westward. Among the first white men to pass through the Cumberland Gap, from Tennessee into Kentucky, were the Long Hunters — so named because they followed long trails for a long time. They would hunt in the wilderness for months, returning — if they did return — with huge packs of furs and tales of untamed and fine-looking country.

Strangely, the Long Hunters found no Indian villages, and seldom even the remnants of a campfire. The Cherokee and Shawnee hunted the area, and why they had not settled there remains a mystery. Perhaps they had at one time. This is the area known as Daniel Boone country. The first of Boone’s many solo treks through the Cumberland Gap was in 1769.Still, for all that the great hunter accomplished — he is credited with the settling of Kentucky — he was a latecomer here by maybe 100 years. White men wandered the Kentucky-Tennessee region years before Boone. Some are named in history books — i.e. the Long Hunters — but of many others we know nothing. These were men not inclined to keep records; indeed, few could write. In 1775, Boone was hired by a North Carolina trading company to establish a road by which settlers could reach Kentucky.

It became the principal route for westward migration in the United States from 1790 to 1840. Known as the Wilderness Road, it eventually stretched from Virginia across the Appalachian Mountains, at the Cumberland Gap, to the Ohio River. For 50 years the Wilderness Road was the migration route for settlers of Tennessee and Kentucky, some 200,000 of them. The road was improved for wagons in 1795 and again when our 20th century highway builders took it over. Today, U.S. 25E and State Highway 229 run from the Cumberland Gap to London, Kentucky, tracking the route of the Wilderness Road. A cold drizzle fell as I wound around the slopes of the Cumberland Mountains, my headlights reflecting off the wetness. Clouds like smudged charcoal had turned the afternoon to dusk.

The Cumberland Gap National Historic Park stretches out here along 20,000 acres of mountaintops. The Kentucky-Virginia line runs through the middle of it, except for its western tip in Tennessee. What I was looking for was the park’s visitor center — preferably open and well-heated. A sign pointed to a 160-site campground. Another told of 50 miles of hiking trails, some in wild areas where snakes and poison ivy “should be avoided.” Park hours were posted: 8 a.m. to dusk, year-round. I trusted that dusk meant the end of the day and not twilight. Were it not for the clock — which said 1:30 p.m. — this could be twilight. Dark clouds hung in the trees surrounding the visitor center. It was just a drizzle, the kind that makes everything wet without washing anything clean.

Inside, the visitor center was bright and welcoming. Carol Borneman, an interpretive park ranger, was telling some visitors that Kentucky is our 15th state, and the first state west of the Allegheny Mountains. Later, I asked her if she wasfrom Minnesota, explaining that she has an accent that my Minnesota ear is attuned to. She said that she was from Wisconsin — close enough — but her job before this one was in International Falls, Minnesota. I told her if she survived a winter there, she qualifies as a Minnesotan. She agreed. And demonstrating Minnesota generosity, she invited me to join a group that she was taking up to Pinnacle Overlook, which has a view of the Gap and three states. The weather had cleared significantly by the time we got there.

We could see into Virginia and Tennessee and into Kentucky to the north. U.S. 25E, Carol told us, passed through the Gap until it was rerouted through a tunnel in 1996. Now the whole area is restored close to how the Indians and early settlers saw it. “The Cumberland Gap that not too long ago was defined by pavement and rumbling 18-wheelers is once again a quiet wonder of nature,” Carol said. “In the evening here, the screech of an owl is about as noisy as it gets.”

Bill’s e-mail address: roadscribe@aol.com

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