Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Cumberland Gap

I'm going to ask you to go on a little time travel with me. We're not going too far back, just five years. Five years ago, K and I owned a house in Concord, NH. We were in the process of selling it. It was empty of nearly everything but the essentials. Most of our stuff had gone to yard salers, friends, family and our storage unit. Picture us sitting on the floor of our empty living room with its ugly mauve carpeting, poring over maps, state guide books and copious hand written lists of places we had heard of and wanted to go. On nearly every list is the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. Daniel Boone; the gateway to the West (back when the West was Kentucky); courageous pioneers braving the threat of attack, starvation and bankruptcy. I was fascinated by this low section of the Appalachians. I'm not a huge history geek, but for some reason, the Cumberland Gap held some mystique for me, and I was sure we were going to get there on this 5 month tour of the country.

Then, life interfered somehow. I don't even remember the details. We just never got there that year. Or the next. Or the next. We got close, we made tentative plans. But it never happened. Until this year. This year, we wintered in Florida (never again, never) and worked our way up to Louisville for the KY Derby Marathon and the Derby itself. We planned to stop at the Cumberland Gap on our way up, but the cold weather kept us trapped in the South longer than we expected and we had to get to Louisville more quickly. But Cumberland Gap is only 3 hours or so from Louisville. It would be a weekend trip.

It was this past weekend's trip. Finally, we got to Cumberland Gap. We planned to camp both nights at the NP campground, but thunderstorms on Friday made a hotel seem like a better option. Early Saturday, we got to the overlook - there was nothing to see but fog. Undeterred, we pressed on to the campground, picked a spot, set up our tent and then set off for a loop hike that left from and returned to the campground. We climbed to a ridge and crossed it to the Pinnacle Overlook. Below us, cleared of fog, was the Cumberland Gap saddle. It's an obvious break in the mountains, and by the time white folks discovered it, it had been a buffalo (technically Bison, but I like the word buffalo) trace and a route used by Native Americans for trade. (Buffalo, in Virginia. Seems odd now.)

In the late 18th and early 19th century, it was used by almost 300,000 people to gain access to the fertile land of the Midwest. They walked mostly in the winter, so they would be able to plant spring crops at their new farms. They walked barefoot. In the snow. At some point, the road was improved to become a wagon route. Now it's a hiking trail for those who want to walk on historic ground, which of course, we do. Cars use a tunnel that gets you from one side to the other in minutes.

After we left the overlook, we walked down the ridge and to the saddle of the Gap. I spent a lot of time being a big history geek and exclaiming about how cool it was to walk in the same spot and get the same view of a promised land that previous generations had. I did the same thing when we walked on part of the Oregon Trail. I guess I'm more of a history geek than I let on.

Of course, there's a dark side to the expansion of the US, and this was the beginning of some pretty terrible things, as well as a beginning of a larger nation. Bloody battles between Native Americans and the pioneers, the eventual marginilization of those tribes, the slaughter of the buffalo herds that once lived this far East. It's not all pretty. Most history isn't, though.

One more place crossed off my list. Off to the next!