Filling a gap in our history

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Steps into Cumberland Gap brings images of Kentucky's origin.

By Steve Doyle

When you visit historic sites – particularly those that dealt with the founding and discovery of our great nation – do you conjure what that place must have been like for the persons who first trod in your footprints? Have you wondered about the hardships they experienced, how they first encountered the vistas you so simply accessed?

Those awesome wonders wash over me every time I stand among history. The bravery and persistence of really a few thousand people placed indelible footprints along the paths that millions of us have followed. We often don’t like to step foot off the pavement, but hundreds of years ago animals led humans to discoveries of the grandest magnitude.

I’ve imagined that first Native American who happened up the Grand Canyon and realized he couldn’t go across it and had to ride days to get around it. Do you think he might have reconsidered his daily commute in pursuit of buffalo – or even other tribes?

I’ve stood on Plymouth Rock and recognized that when the Mayflower hit the shore, there was no dock by the rock and certainly no nearby town or welcoming committee.

I once cast my eyes on the inlet where Christopher Columbus landed his 3-ship parlay and mused how he might have liked the condos and airstrip that adorned that part of Cat Island in the Bahamas.

To drive across Rocky Mountain National Park between Grand Lake and Estes Park, Colo., is a fearsome trek on paved road. How many must have died in giving reason even to consider building the highest continuous road in the U.S.?

Such imaginings have accompanied me this year on a few weekend trips: last winter to Natural Bridge, down below in the summer at Mammoth Cave and this past weekend to Cumberland Gap.

Unlike the bridge – can you imagine hiking those trails with no idea where they would lead, if they would be safe, if you might fall off a precipice? – which I have visited dozens of times or the caves – going deep into the dark had to be the scariest of all, right? – a field trip from eighth grade, this was my first opportunity to lay eyes on the passageway that Daniel Boone made famous in finding his way into our great state and bringing along his extended family and friends and all of our futures.

Historical photographs and accounts long have piqued my curiosity about Cumberland Gap, but never had I seized the opportunity to drive the 3 hours to Middlesboro – Pine Mountain is a nice stopover, too – and investigate one of our older and more special national parks.

I label it as “special” not because it approaches the divine majesty of the Grand Canyon or the Rockies but because its place in history was profound in the evolution of the families of Kentucky kids such as I.

We value this gap because of Daniel Boone, who always has been sort of a mythic hero to me, although I’m sure his legend far outweighs reality and that perhaps I was influenced by the escapades on TV as depicted by Fess Parker. There was a lot of fiction, I’m sure. (Ed Ames’ Mingo did speak pretty Queenish English.)

I’ve seen George Caleb Bingham’s historic conception of Boone’s family leading a pack of others through the gap, and I wondered how that trail played out, how the terrain actually looked. I learned, like you, that it was a thoroughfare made passable by the Cherokee and bison, that Thomas Walker mapped it out and that it didn’t include scaling the pinnacle that is the famous vista in the park.

Do you think Daniel and the others would be overwhelmed to learn that the land on the Kentucky side, what is now Middlesboro, was really a crater dug by the impact of asteroid? Do you think they could have profited from knowing that the hills were filled with a valuable combustible called coal?

Because both those things I learned and saw on my visit. I also walked some of the trail blazed along that mountainside and thought that long before I placed my Skechers upon those leaves and hardened soil that someone much less adequately shod tried to find purchase while under constant alert for bears, snakes and a fast-flying arrow or hatchet. Many didn’t survive such attacks.

That we now are privileged to have portions of the trail made “safer,” with signs to mark our way rather than our leaving signs to mark the trail for others seems wholly humbling. If necessity is the mother of invention, as Plato surmised, then surely trail blazing was its father.

Seen through the lens of yesteryear, the wonders of today to me are of a value we can’t translate with digits and decimals. They present sort of a geographic bible of our history, outlining our lessons and the tenets that should guide us all, yet too often that seems to fail because of the obtuse nature of those who now lead us. Can you imagine a leader of today being so daring and heroic to blaze a trail to such great discovery as a pass through mountains to open a land?

There no doubt were dozens of personal and confounding boners visited upon you by the recent partial shutdown of our federal government, Most of us tend to question what the government actually does except on pay days, April 15 and anytime someone attacks places where we buy oil or because we buy our oil there.

But to me a great travesty is this: We allowed our debated debacle to place “closed” signs on the pathways to our history, to Cumberland Gap and Mammoth Cave, to our greatest discoveries of the places and processes that began our very lives.

We allowed government to shut down the places where its forefathers were born and from which its very principles grew.

Which leaves me with one last question: What would Daniel Boone have said to that?