Our Vantage Points
Our Appalachian Trek
Part 2

Coal Country
The next day, we woke up under the I-64 freeway at White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia.   It was a small campground behind a motel and the freeway was elevated about 100 feet above us.   For our restroom, we were issued a key to room #3.   Camping situations can sometimes be bizarre!

This day gave us much better weather than the day before with only occasional light rain all day, not enough to keep us from enjoying the ruggedness of West Virginia, with it's rivers and its deep, narrow valleys.

The purple line shows our path, a total of 160 miles through southern West Virginia.

From White Sulphur Springs, we headed westward on I-64 then southward on highway 20, a back road following the New River.   It's impossible to explore the countryside from an interstate highway.

Along the New River, just north of Hinton, we stopped at the town site of Sandstone Falls, West Virginia for a peek at the falls 600 feet below.   The town does not exist now, but in the early 1900's this town on the New River was merrily producing lumber and putting farm produce on the train bound for the markets.

Sandstone Falls

The New River treated us to pleasing samples of rural West Virginia and it's piece of the Appalachian Mountains.

These farms beside the river may lack an abundance of flat crop land, but they are set in a beautiful paradise.

After threading our way through the streets of Princeton, we continued on road 20 for a while, then turned northwest on US-52.   This indeed is coal mining country.   Coal mines and towns dot the narrow valleys along US-52.   Some towns were pretty much out of business, others were active.

Coal trucks with those huge open boxes were seen frequently.   The legal weight limit in West Virginia for these trucks is 80,000 pounds.   But apparently some are exceeding that by as much as 50,000 pounds or more.   It's for good reason that these guys are moving very carefully over these narrow winding roads.   A hotly debated bill in the West Virginia legislature is seeking to increase weight limits to 120,000 pounds.

Coal as an energy source is a real "hot potato."   With the need to reduce dependency on foreign oil, coal with it's estimated 250 year supply in the ground, is an attractive option.   But methods to achieve cleaner burning of coal will have to become economically practical.   Coal mining pride was clearly evident in "coal country" bumper stickers and elsewhere.

For the entire day we followed the narrow, curvy highways from West Virginia and well into Kentucky.   Black seams of coal streaked almost every highway cut.   But nowhere did we see the "ugly" strip mines that have been so widely publicized. This is beautiful country, and much of it looks prosperous.   As far as we could see, Appalachia does not deserve the severe impression of poverty and backwoods that we had before we came to see it.   This confirms to me that we in America know very little about real poverty.

Moving westward on US-119, we climbed to the top of Pine Mountain and traveled along it's ridge for about 75 miles into Pineville, Kentucky.   Then it was a short distance to Cumberland Gap National Historic Park where we set up camp in the dark.

Cumberland Gap

It's Saturday morning, September 28, 2002.   Though we did little more than sleep here, Wilderness Road Campground was very pleasant and spacious enough.   Leaving our trailer here, we drove first to the visitor's center for orientation, then to The Pinnacle, an overlook on Cumberland Mountain next to Cumberland Gap.

Standing here we look almost straight down onto a small town.   It's difficult to realize that we are standing on a north border of Virginia and that town at our feet is beyond another border in Tennessee. This is where Virginia narrows down to it's most westerly point.   It was here, beginning in the 1760's, that hundreds, then thousands of brave souls trudged, step by step, into the wilderness of Kentucky to carve out their new homes.   They were full of hope and resolve.   But many of them would suffer dearly, losing their lives to indescribable hardship and torture.   We can smugly decry their trespass into areas populated by others.   . . . But can we really?   The area was so vast and available!   And we are descendents of these simple but stalwart people.   We are partakers of their venture.   Where would we be, had they not passed by here?

This little town, Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, was not here then.   But perhaps it's ground served as a camping spot to refresh those early travelers before they marched through this opening into Kentucky.   Indeed our own trailer is parked scarcely 2 miles east, down that road now remembered as "The Wilderness Road."

In the mid 1700's the British, the French and the American Colonists began competing with each other to make deals with the Indians for control of the land in the area just west of the Appalachians.   But getting settlers there would be a big problem. The mountains in some areas, such as today's West Virginia, seemed to offer no routing prospects.   Other areas had long mountain ridges with some gaps, but these were like a huge maze with more dead ends than passages.

In 1750 a surveyor and physician, Dr. Thomas Walker, was commissioned along with five others by the Loyal Land Company of Virginia, to find a route usable by settlers who might later be escorted to the Kentucky region.   He was also to survey the land for homesteads, and to record his findings.

Walker methodically made his way to Cumberland Gap, which he called "Cave Gap."   His journal reveals his fascination for the large cave at the north end of the gap from which a spring flows.   But he also noted quite a lot of evidence, particularly tree markings, indicating that Europeans had been there as well as Indians.   By careful scouting, he also determined that the Cumberland River, just a few miles north, could be forded to make easy passage through Pine Mountain, the second important gap on this "Wilderness Road" leading to the Kentucky interior.

It turned out that Dr. Walker's land surveying in Kentucky was of little value.   But although many others preceded him through the great gap, his record keeping was the treasure that defined this usable trail through Cumberland Gap (near Middlesboro) and Pine Mountain Gap (near Pineville) into the heart of Kentucky.   It prepared the way for thousands of settlers to follow.

Cumberland Gap was not a perfectly flat passage, but it was passable with little effort.   It now has one tunnel for a railroad and another for a highway.   The highway tunnel goes beneath Tri-State Peak, which defines where the borders of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee meet.   The peak is at the west edge of the gap.

So here we are, just 252 years later, standing atop Cumberland Mountain, that 120-mile long barrier that still defines the border between Virginia and Kentucky.   We're looking southward from our pinnacle; Cumberland Gap is below and on our right.  

Graceful paved highways stretch out below us.   US-25E comes in from the south over the Tennessee horizon.   US-58 comes in from the Virginia valleys on the left to pass to our right and merge with US-25E as it disappears into the gap.   Without the modern highways and tunnels, this is where Dr. Walker entered the gap and trudged northward and westward.

A few years later, the adventurous Daniel Boone, colorfully represented in fiction, came upon the scene.   Several times he followed this path of Thomas Walker's.   He and his compadres tried to make Kentucky a home, but despite fortified frontier settlements, it was a bloody and extremely desperate existence.   Boone's own son was tortured to death by Indians in Virginia on one of his trips even before reaching the gap.   Tens of thousands of pounds were paid to Indian authorities for land rights that apparently didn't hold up.   Settlers were mortally harassed by Indians.   Much of the harassment was supported by the British at Detroit who were trying to keep American settlers out.   Most of the trouble subsided after February 1779, near the end of the Revolutionary War, when Colonel George Rogers Clark waded his troops through the midwinter flood of the Wabash to retake, by surprise, Vincennes, Indiana from British Governor Henry Hamilton.   Hamilton was dubbed "the hair buyer" for buying American scalps from the Indians.

Before leaving this place that epitomizes so much in the development of this country, we take one last look from our perch.   Except for manmade Fern Lake, this view is very much like it would have been when Dr. Walker passed by.   As it did in 1750, Cumberland Mountain extends southwesterly across "the gap."

The Great Smoky Mountains

Heading south over that inviting highway, US-25E, into Eastern Tennessee, we stopped at an overlook at Bean Station.   Cherokee Lake, formed by the damming of the Holston River was sprawled out over the old warpath used by the Cherokees as they engaged with other tribes long before Europeans arrived.   A sign provided this description:


One of Tennessee's earliest settle-ments.   The valley you see was a warpath for the Cherokees, led Daniel Boone to the Cumberland Gap and was traveled by Davy Crockett.   Across Highway 11W to the right stood Bean Fort, built by William Bean, first permanent white settler in Tennessee.   In front of the fort stood Bean Station Tavern, the largest tavern between Washington, D.C. and New Orleans.   It housed Presidents Polk, Johnson and Jackson.   During the Civil War, the Battle of Bean Station was fought around the tavern.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is only 90 miles from Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, just a short afternoon drive.   Our expectation was to proceed easily to the park, set up camp, then maybe after a short drive or a tour of the Sugarlands Visitors Center, turn in for the night.   However, we did not anticipate the popularity of Gatlinburg on the weekend.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee, it turns out, is a defacto extension of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.   I guess pristine mountain scenery, backpacking, fishing, and skiing is not exciting enough.   Gatlinburg offers an awesome smorgasbord of supplemental entertainment, mostly family oriented.   In addition to mountain tramways, there are ghost and terror shows, movies with motion simulators, theme museums, art galleries, theaters and live shows with musicians and celebrities, mountain miniature golf, illusion shows ... much more than I can enumerate.   If you are interested in learning more, you can avoid the traffic by simply going to:

But the thing that impressed me most was the stop-and-go, bumper-to-bumper traffic and the thought that perhaps we had missed a turn.   So, we departed from the main drag to follow a delightful, curvy mountain road for 20 minutes.   Guess who persuaded me that we were lost.   We turned back.   The "main drag" of Gatlinburg was indeed the right road.   As we proceeded , the city excitement eventually faded behind us, but the traffic didn't.

The teeming "Sugarlands Visitor's Center" was very nice compared to certain other National Parks.   Lines were short, not like those we found in Denali National Park, Alaska.   That visitor's center was more like a bus depot for mass transit to the "unspoiled" areas of the park.   Here we could have a conversation with the receptionist at the information desk. I was advised that the Elkmont Campground might have a place for us... if we hurry.

The registration desk at Elkmont was indeed very busy.   After enduring the suspense as my patience was eked out, we were finally assigned a site.   Yippee!   We're in!  

Everyone in the camp-city seemed to be happy and oblivious of goings on outside their own small campsite.   Although we couldn't have had less privacy in a Walmart parking lot, this was perceptibly better than camping under a freeway!   It was under a forest canopy and it wasn't even raining!

Just 100 yards from our campsite, the bustle of Elkmont Campground is quickly left behind in exchange for the roaring solitude of "Little River."

There are campers just inside the trees on the right bank. Here we see how thickly the forests can grow in parts of the Appalachians.

If we ever return to Smokies, we'd probably want to take the time to explore some of the more remote corners of the park such as Cades Cove, Forge Creek, Cosby Creek, Big Creek or Palmer Creek.   But today we chose to drive the main road, US-441 that bisects the park.   it was a beautiful day to climax our visit to the great mountains of the east.   It would be good for all Americans to know more about these Mountains that figure so importantly in the early days of our country.

The state line between Tennessee and North Carolina runs northeast by southwest through the middle of the park.   Right about here is the spur road to Clingman's Dome, the highest mountain in the park at 6636 feet above sea level. The highest peak of the Appalachians is 70 miles east in North Carolina, but it's not quite 50 feet higher.

At any rate there is a nice parking lot, rest area and trail head to the dome at the end of the spur.   Here we finally see some real fall color to spruce up our trip.   These are not leaves, but bright red berries, probably poison.   I didn't check.   I do know they made my eyes feel very good.

A few more twists in the road and we leave Great Smoky Mountains National Park.   The south exit drops us into the Cherokee Indian Reservation where many Indian cultural exhibits and activities are offered.   It is a fitting way to leave these mountains by remembering the race that made them home long long before even our ancestors did.

These mountains have a warmth and homeyness not approached by the larger, more magnificent ranges of the West.   Mary and I are walking into our 70's, but I would hate to think we'd never return, to this place again.

Regardless, it's for certain that the warm images of the great, long and wide Appalachian Mountains have been indelibly burned into our minds.

The Great Smoky Mountains

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