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Contributed Photo by Patti Smith / The town of Cumberland Gap, Tenn., as seen from "The Pinnacle," a rock outcropping high above. Note the Airstream trailers arrayed along the main street.

Our Eastern Tennessee Airstream Club recently rallied in the little town of Cumberland Gap, Tennessee — where Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia converge. A volunteer community booster group called Guardians of the Gap coordinated "Streamin' the Gap," and it was spectacular. Mary Mars, Tony Maxwell and all the Guardians could not have been better hosts.

They arranged electrical hookups and parking for 20 Airstream trailers right in the middle of town, a hundred yards from the venerable Wilderness Road. Restaurants, shopping, parks and beautiful mountains surrounded us. Our hosts served a great dinner in a nearby park and arranged speakers, movies, games, live music and several tours during our three-day stay.

Their hospitality was only exceeded by the beauty and history of the area itself. The formidable ridge extending from Kentucky into Alabama and the narrow gap through it was named in 1750 by Dr. Thomas Walker. The gap, traversed for centuries by migrating buffalo and then by Indian hunting and war parties, was called Ouasiota by the local Indians; however, Walker named it after the British Army commander-in-chief, the Duke of Cumberland.

A member of Walker's exploration group, John Findlay, relayed details of the area to a Quaker blacksmith and teamster (wagon driver) named Daniel Boone. The strapping young man ventured into the mountains of western Virginia and North Carolina and soon discovered the critical gap offering access to the beautiful lands of Kentucky. He brought back tales of fertile river valleys, bountiful game and accessible timber available to anyone willing to work hard and brave the wilderness. Boone joined with several wealthy men, who sponsored his endeavor, to attract new settlers. Soon, he and his men hacked a rough road through the gap from Virginia into Kentucky. Although it could not accommodate wagons, people and pack animals could negotiate the route variously called Boone's Trace, the Transylvania Trail and, eventually, the Wilderness Road.

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Chattanooga-based travelers explore Cumberland Gap

The road was more than a path from civilization to wilderness. Since Roman times, those who built roads into an isolated area claimed access, if not ownership, of that area. Hence, Daniel Boone's Road, which initially attracted a few hardy souls, eventually opened the region we now know as Kentucky and Tennessee. Although there were treaties and laws meant to limit expansion, the flow of land-hungry settlers continued. The Indian chiefs had no legal authority to sell their people's land, and the settlers, most of whom were British subjects, didn't have the legal right to buy it. It made little difference. After the Revolutionary War, the trickle of immigrants turned into a flood. Historians estimate at least 250,000 European immigrants and perhaps as many as 300,000 made their way west through the Cumberland Gap.

Inns cropped up to provide accommodations along the route. Dry-goods establishments sold the settlers provisions. Towns developed to provide security, to register legal records and to meet commercial needs. Churches and schools evolved within a short time, and suddenly Kentucky was no longer a wilderness. In 1792, only 15 years after Boone carved his road and two years after George Washington became president, Kentucky became a state — the first state not from the Colonial settlements on the eastern seaboard. Four years later, Tennessee followed.

That same spirit moved like a prairie fire across the west. Daniel Boone biographer Robert Morgan wrote, "In Boone's time, it was understood to be a man's duty to clear land and open roads, to let the light of civilization and churches into the threatening wilderness." Morgan points out that anything less would be shirking one's duty to his fellow men.

When Thomas Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, he estimated it would take a thousand years to settle the area. However, Jefferson viewed life from the perspective of an American aristocrat, not from the masses who Teddy Roosevelt, a hundred years later, would proudly describe as "rugged individuals." Had he appreciated the tenacity, courage, creativity and initiative of those Americans, Jefferson may have thought differently.

Today, the spirit of their forefathers is captured by the community surrounding the Cumberland Gap. There are multiple state and national parks and museums honoring those pioneers who ventured across the Great Wagon Road.

At the Virginia Wilderness Road State Park, a short, well-documented movie tells the story of the area and a re-created fort with re-enactors explain what life was like on the frontier in the late 1700s. A blacksmith works a bellows to turn iron red hot so it can be shaped into handles, hinges and nails. A gunsmith bores rifling into the smooth barrel of what will become a Kentucky long rifle. A soldier explains the construction and utility of an 18th-century fort.

A short drive across the state line to the national park in Middlesboro, Kentucky, brings another delight. A museum with hundreds of artifacts describes the difficult and dangerous life along the Wilderness Road for early pioneers. There are also campgrounds and trails galore throughout the park.

One of the joys of travel is discovering a gem one never expects. Such a gem is Lincoln Memorial University in nearby Harrogate, Tennessee. During the War Between the States, President Lincoln told Union Gen. Oliver Howard how much he respected the isolated citizens of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. Although they had strong roots within the Confederacy, most of them remained loyal to the Union throughout the war. He hoped he could repay those citizens in some way after the war.

Howard never forgot that conversation. Years later, he delivered a lecture at a Harrogate elementary school established by the Rev. A.A Myers near Cumberland Gap to educate mountain children. Afterward, Myers and Howard discussed the possibility of a college in the area. Howard used his influence, made contacts, and Lincoln Memorial University was born on Feb. 12, 1897, the great president's 88th birthday.

For many years, Lincoln Memorial focused on education and agriculture, the two greatest needs of the area. However, the university has evolved magnificently. It not only has schools of education, science and math, and business, but also includes graduate schools of osteopathic medicine, veterinary medicine, law and nursing. The school of arts and humanities is renowned for literary excellence. The "Rail-splitters" (how is that for a noncontroversial college mascot?) boast 21 NCAA men's and women's sports teams. The campus buildings are bold, beautiful and new and are set within perfectly manicured grounds. It is one of the most promising universities in the nation.

However, the crown jewel of the campus is the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum. Director Michael Lynch led us on a group tour. The museum recently received a multimillion-dollar rehabilitation and houses an incredible number of rare manuscripts, photographs, paintings, weapons, books and sculptures relating to Lincoln's life. It's a fascinating glimpse into Lincoln's life and times.

It is said that along the road of life, it isn't about the destination so much as the journey. I'm happy my journey included a few days exploring the Wilderness Road. I shall always feel a kinship with those hearty men and women who travel it, both then and now.

Roger Smith, a local author, is a frequent contributor to the Times Free Press.

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