Originally published in Garbanzo Literary Journal (print) and TWJMagazing (digital), 2014.
Home to many a muskrat and handfuls of holler-dwellers, the Smoky Mountains have a way of charming themselves into the hearts and minds of those who visit them. The place to start is always one of the surrounding National Parks, which are part of the government program that historian Wallace Stegner called “the best idea America ever had” for good reason. Providing nature, recreation, and history all in one place, the mountains make sure that both natives and visitors have little excuse to be bored.
The mountains nearly thwarted our plans by realizing in March that they forgot to have winter and dropping even the warmest local temperatures down into the thirties – chilly weather for hiking and mountain-top sight-seeing. We bundled up to brave the elements at Cumberland Gap National Park. Flurries drifted in the air along a windy Kentucky thoroughfare, but never more than an inch collected on the ground. We munched on trail mix and Fig Newtons, catching up and swapping stories.
“Have you guys ever seen any cool wildlife down here?” Micah asked, going off of his assumption that living in a small Kentucky town where everything is at least an hour’s drive away is the real wilderness.
“It’s really the same as Michigan, there’s just more of it,” Caleb replied with a smile in the rearview mirror.
“Really? You haven’t seen any, like, buffalo or anything?”
“No Micah.” Caleb was patient despite the laughter that filled the car. “There are no buffalo here. But I did see a beaver once.”
Micah wasn’t quite impressed with this, so Caleb searched his memory, taking one hand off the steering wheel to scratch his head. “Oh, I saw a mountain lion once.” This got a much better reaction until he had to answer questions like where and what happened.
“It was dead on the side of the road.”
As we neared the park, the welcome scenery of trees dusted with snow and ice – interrupted only by one still logging machine, unmanned and left with a pyramid of uniform trees on the ground beside it – was a change that encouraged our building excitement.
Upon reaching the visitor’s center, a knowledgeable volunteer stepped away from her job trimming the twigs off a shrub to inform us that the road we intended to take up to the Gap overlook known as the Pinnacle was closed to traffic due to ice. She gave us directions to a much lower parking lot and began to tell us about the Gap’s more recent history.
“When you get to the saddle of the Gap, just remember that if you’d been standing there seventeen years ago, you’d have been road kill. Before the tunnel opened up, the only way through these mountains was a two lane highway that went right through there.” The wind picked up a bit and blew the hood of her parka back from her head as she repeated her directions. “And today is a great day for that hike,” she concluded.
The Cumberland Gap is a low place where two mountains meet in the tri-state border area of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. As they had found the easiest way to cross over the range, the migrating buffalo that first made the path were soon followed by the Cherokee and Shawnee. In the mid eighteenth century, the trail became known to white settlers as the Warrior’s Path. It became a part of the Wilderness Road blazed by Daniel Boone in 1775, which stretched from northern Virginia to present day Louisville, Kentucky.
Nearby, the tri-state peak draws out not only the border lines of modern states but the Royal Colonial Boundary established in 1665, keeping colonists east of the line and preserving Kentucky and Tennessee’s wilderness.
We crossed the switchbacks four times on our way to the Pinnacle. Climbing warmed us up, but knowing that any other day we could have driven to the same place was just as upsetting as the temperature itself.
“This road is so slick.” Alex mocked the closing of the road, which was bone dry. The trail from the upper parking lot to the overlook, however, was covered by an inch of snow.
“I guess they just don’t want to encourage people to come up here.” Micah struggled a little bit opening the bear-safe trash can for his granola bar wrapper.
“They must have figured that if you were crazy enough to hike up here from where we parked, you’d probably be okay,” Caleb replied, rubbing his hands together and breathing into them for warmth.
We spent the obligatory amount of time at the top, observing frigid Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee before we took a side trail that directed us toward the Iron Furnace. Operational for nearly sixty years during the 1800s, the Iron Furnace belonged to a citizen of the Virginia town of Cumberland Gap. During those years, ten square miles of trees were cleared to fuel its flames. Alex climbed up the stone remains of the furnace’s one-time thirty foot tall chimney. From the top, he leaned over the edge of it to look down at us as we stood inside. His body blocked some of the daylight that had been coming in and dimmed the small room. I imagined the friendly park volunteer informing me that “If you had been standing here two-hundred years ago, you would have been burned to a crisp!”
During the Civil War, both armies took advantage of the many strategic elements provided by the Gap area. Because it was the only way from north to south or vice versa in this part of the country, it would have been an enormous asset to whichever side could hold it. The gap remained a point of contention throughout the war.
Many decades later, when America had become obsessed with automobiles and interstates were popping up left and right, it was only natural that one of these highways would connect north and south through the Cumberland Gap.
On the drive back, we rested tired legs in a toasty car, watching progress and civilization out our windows. We passed, very quickly, a model modern log cabin complete with banners that read NOW OPEN and COME SEE OUR HOMES. The owner’s hope to divert as many people as possible from the highway, giving him a chance to convince them to fork over their fortunes in order for someone else to settle a wilderness for them in the mountains they had been captivated by, was evident. Ten minutes later, I turned around to look out the rear window as Caleb said, “Micah, look! Buffalo!”
Micah looked and turned back into the car. “Those aren’t buffalo. Stop teasing me.”
But they had been buffalo, on a chain-link fenced farm hidden by the folds of the mountains. Stegner said the National Parks are “absolutely American… reflecting us at our best rather than our worst.” I wonder if the buffalo agree.