How to Fulfill a Boyhood Dream in Cumberland Gap, TN

Routinely in the sixties and early seventies my parents would load me up with my kid brother in a borrowed station wagon and buzz down from Chicago to Asheville, NC as fast as centrifugal force and the likelihood of sliding sideways over the edge of a mountainous road would allow.

Dad always drove and he always seemed to be in a hurry, my guess, now with the benefit of hindsight, is that vacation didn’t quite begin for him until he had dumped his offspring off with his parents-in-law so that he might slake his thirst for alone time with his young and pretty bride.

He was not a hover parent. Hover parents had not yet been invented. Nor for that matter was there such a phrase as free-range parents though that expression retroactively comes much closer to describing our parents’ parenting style. Nor were they overconcerned with the quality of the quality time we might be having with the grandparents in their absence.

I don’t recall mom and dad dallying long enough to take the grandparents out to supper. They didn’t linger, not even briefly to pause on the front porch. It was magnanimous of them really to slow down and stop the car long enough for us to step out onto the curb with our belongings.

Canonical Stuckey’s Billboard

The trip down in consequence was a blur. Dad didn’t believe in stopping anywhere. Certainly not at Stuckey’s to get one of their pecan logs made famous to my brother and me by their billboards which popped up every fifty feet or so along the side of the road for the whole trip south.

A Brick of Black Cat Firecrackers

He didn’t believe in stopping at trading posts either where one could purchase a leather jacket with fringe just like the one Tonto wore, sparklers, black cat firecrackers, cherry bombs and M-80s, in case you had an urge to see if they were as potent as your cousins had bragged about and you really could blow up a porcelain toilet. We didn’t stop for arrowheads, rubber tomahawks, bow and arrows, postcards of virgin Indian maidens, beads, moccasins, bears in cages, any of that cool stuff.

These roadside attractions were “tourist traps” according to our father. We always passed by the Gap and only heard of a mythical location where three states converged to a point. Even as young children, we understood that a point was a mathematical concept, an abstraction more than a location, but we wanted to see it anyway.

So, the myth of the three states converging to a point survived those many trips down south. Survived my childhood, survived my grandparents.

As an adult, while on my own pilgrimages to Western North Carolina, I sometimes took a side excursion to Cumberland Gap just because I could, to enjoy the cozy nestled-in feel of the place, a tiny hollow snug with the mountains with a population that dares not exceed 500 persons and a tiny white clapboard chapel which for decades has wed elopers darting in from neighboring states.

This year I was zooming past on my return from the 2021 edition of the Wildacres Writer’s retreat, it was a fabulous and productive time (if you’re a writer you need to check it out), when my eye caught a sign for the Gap, I gave a whimsical flick of the wheel and steered my van in the indicated direction. Only I forgot that it begins with the apprehension that you are traversing the parking lot of a coin-operated laundromat before the road starts looking like a proper road with a lane in each direction for traffic.

Once the road starts looking like a road, it is a charming little descent into town. I had a sandwich at a pub before driving to a trailhead, remembering that while I had been to that spot before I had no recollection of hiking the trails. The only way to remedy that was to hike up one and settle it for all time.

Cap Creek Coffeehouse

I left the lot briefly to tank up on coffee at the Gap Creek Coffeehouse, two blocks into town before returning, parking again, and starting my ascent.

If you travel the U.S. a lot on roads, you will pass by dozens and dozens of small towns with “historical” downtowns and districts. You will rapidly conclude that we, as a nation, are historically addled. I wonder how Europeans might take it if they ever toured the states by motorcar. Three burgs into it and they would be convulsing with laughter if not peeing in their pants.

It would be ironic enough for a person coming from Paris or Prague, imagine instead a resident of Athens who can look out a window to see soaring above the fence in his backyard, the Parthenon. Yet, despite the relative youth of our nation, we have our sites that can inspire awe. (If you have any doubts, plan your next trip to the civil-war battlefield of Antietam in Maryland.

A historic marker with a AAA rating

On the trail, I quickly came to a sign explaining that Daniel Boone and some others had pioneered the gap as a passageway that broke through the Appalachian Mountain range permitting settlers to reach deeper into the interior of a vast, untamed wilderness in search of a new life. Their feet tread where might feet tread. They brought their families, the more privileged of them might have a horse to share. They came over in the gap in the winter DELIBERATELY so they could be ready to plant at the first sign of spring. You quickly formed the idea that these people were desperate in a way we’ve lost a knack for grasping, who must have had stories of hardship like the people who brave the Rio Grande and at great risk come over the border from Mexico.

 When it staked the all-too-familiar “historical” claim, I was all in. The legend had already convinced me that I was on hallowed ground.

I turned to the fork that put me on the trail to the three-states peak, which immediately took me past the ruins of an early iron foundry that looked more like a grain than a steel mill. The remaining structure could have been part of a Mayan ruin.

The trail turned sharply up hill. A signed promised me it was 1.2 miles to the peak. Peak makes me think of a bald surface with a crown of snow around it like the head of a monk. It also makes me think that there was a bit of a climb in store.

I greeted a young couple coming down the path toward me with the question, “was it worth it?” only aiming to tease out a little encouragement, an old, usually reliable trick. The girl assured me it was a challenge and gave me a winded look to back it up. This put her guy friend in a quandary. How could he encourage me but not encourage me at the same time? What if I had a heart attack half-way to the top—in part due to his dubious advice—that would saddle his conscience for the rest of his breathing days? I could see the gears turning inside of his skull. Then, he said if I was in good hiking shape it shouldn’t be too much of a struggle.

It made me wonder, did I look that old and fragile? And then I thought that I had just come from a few moderately strenuous hikes in North Carolina, a pair of them along the length of the Deer Lick Trail, all uphill up until the turning point, a scenic overlook by the side of the Blue Ridge Parkway, with friends Art, Tucker, and Jane, and that people tended to underrate me anyway. I left them feeling freshly emboldened.

The next couple was more encouraging but left me with the ominous warning, “when you see a bench along the side of the trail, use it.”

It took me what seemed like a long time to reach the bench and when I did, I didn’t feel like stopping. I pressed on with the immediate effect of wondering what level of bone headedness caused me to ignore well-meaning advice and pass up on a chance to collect myself.

For most of the climb, I enjoyed the foreboding rumble of thunder from distant mountains. Now somewhere past the half-way mark, it started to drizzle. The trees on the side of the mountain mostly protected me from the rain even as it picked up tempo. Instead of moisture, doubt started to seep in. I had visions of breaking out into the clearing of the mountain peak in time to get skewered by a bolt of lightning.

Triumph!

I pressed on. My interior monologue of braggadocio alone would not permit me to slink down the mountain now. The rain picked up, turned into a downpour. I didn’t exactly see the point of running out to expose myself. I could see light from a break in the trees ahead indicating I might be coming toward the peak. Then I saw a gazebo roof! What was a gazebo doing way up here? I broke for it. If need be, I could weather the storm under cover. Then, I realized the gazebo crowned the peak. I had made it.

Looking down at my feet, there was a marker put there by the United States Geographical Service marking the exact spot where the three states came together, a casual affirmation of a boyhood fantasy. Woohoo! Sometimes dumb luck is the cleverest thing going.

U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey Triangulation Station, the (formerly) mythical point where Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee converge

Ode to the Adventure Prone

Atma in the Desert

Inaugural East Coast Cascade Campers Owners Convention

I was among the privileged few, there were ten of us in all, to bring my Cascade Camper campervan to Western Virginia to convene for a few days of birds-of-a-feather style camaraderie combined with interludes of revelry. It was—to be precise—a “hoot”.

The Cascade Camper van is a modernized reimagining of a Westfalia camper, sporting damn near identical features—birchwood paneling, a stove, a sink with running water, and on-board “house” power—combined with features VW microbus owners could only dream of—passing power, anti-lock brakes, A/C, seat belts with shoulder straps!, .etc.

In the last few miles before reaching the meeting place for our shindig just outside of Glenville, WV., I got lost. It wasn’t the first time I had invested too much trust in my GPS in a rural setting. In fact on both occasions, the GPS tried to guide me down roads which narrowed to a point so fine it would make a tight squeeze for a salamander. Only this time I came upon a private property / no trespassing sign. I stopped immediately, taking it as an omen. I was starting to turn back when two men in a short bed pickup truck with a lift kit pulled up in front of me. I put down my window to exchange a friendly greeting. Instead the driver, whom in retrospect, I think, either suffers from paranoid delusions or was trying to hide a meth lab, or both, told me I was on a private road. I explained that I was lost and apologized. When I attempted to drive off, he feigned to back up his truck to block me and barked thunderously, “No!”. My friend forced me to explain every detail of how I got lost, frequently stopping to editorialize and let me know how stupid I sounded. For example, I told him my destination was Little Bull Run Road. He asked me if I saw the sign at the start of the road we were on. I said, “Yes”. He said, “Did the sign say Little Bull Run Road?” I acknowledged it did not. It was a hollow or a holler, depending on your pronunciation, something like Bloody Possum Holler, though I forget now. This pattern of interrogation dragged on for quite a while. If it was only intended to make me feel like a jackass, I’d deem it a wild success.

I’d also deem it a nasty way for one fellow to treat another fellow.

I yearned to say to him that, if he was Christian, this must be an off-day. Instead, with the tiny bit of good sense God blessed me with, I reeled it in. I simply repeated that I was lost and told him he wasn’t being nice. He took down my name, my number, the name of my host, and his number too. He claimed to know everyone in the region but didn’t recognize the name of my host, the the family has been there for generations. It was every kind of awful. He was so angry and pissed off, I felt he could turn to violence. When he threatened to call the police, I said I told him everything there was to know and he would be just wasting his time. He said he had all the time in the world.

He seemed so intent on detaining me I was surprised when he let me pass. Even now, I get a pretty big shot of adrenaline describing this.

Free, I shot off in a new direction and prayed that the GPS would find a different way this time. It did. I met the host coming out to look for me just short of the camp site. Seeing friendly faces around a bonfire under the stars with a bottle of bourbon to pass around was such a relief and blessing, it made my moment of terror, believe it or not, seem worth my while.

From that point onward, I met scads of West Virginians who met my expectation for Southern manners and hospitality, and confirmed what I wanted to believe that my first acquaintance was an anomaly, a sad person who did not represent much if anything of the Mountaineer state.

This is not to say that my encounter didn’t continue to disturb me. It still does. Not for how he behaved but because I didn’t want to pin it all on him. I don’t want to judge him. I don’t want others to judge him because I tell this story. I have Scotch-Irish blood. I’m part hillbilly, descendants of a clan loyal to William of Orange (where the “billy” comes from). I don’t want this to go down as a story about stereotypes.

Today I read this quote from the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus.

A man’s character is his fate.

Now there’s something. A man’s character determines what will happen to him next and where it all leads to. The Greeks were all amped up on this idea. Sophocle’s Oedipus Rex is a story about a king who has a premonition that he’s going to sleep with his mother. He goes way the heck out of his way to avoid his fate, but winds up sleeping with her anyway. Only that SO never happened. It’s a myth after all, a fiction, and more powerful for it. But, brother, does it drive home the idea that our character is our fate.

It’s a deliriously curious thought. Normally, we’re used to assuming that “[certain] things happen to us”. Yet Heraclitus is saying that certain things happen to us because of who we are. That’s a very different idea. We attract events that match our personalities. That’s just wild.

As I drove home from the Inaugural East Coast Cascade Camper Owners convention, it struck me clearly: I’m adventure prone. Yes, it’s punning on the phrase “accident prone” but it really is it’s own thing.

I started looking back on it and it is something I simply “do”.

It is part of the reason I own a van. I don’t like threats but I’m okay with challenging circumstances. I think they breathe life into me. I guarantee just anybody who owns a Cascade Camper is adventure prone. Bully for them. It’s a marvelous thing.

Below are a few typical adventures that came while traveling in my van, Atma, excerpted from the current draft of the The Unofficial Cascade Camper Campers Owner’s Manual, which add credence, I feel, to the adventure-prone hypothesis.

The Sunbather (an Atma adventure)

The quad on the college campus where my friend teaches English literature was eerily pristine. The grass was uniformly clipped, uniformly green, uniformly void of thatch, dandelions, brown patches, or weeds of any kind. It was kempt. Nobody walked across it. Nobody played Frisbee or Hacky Sack upon it. Its prissiness was a warning sign like the skull and crossbones on a jar of arsenic.

I took my hat and shirt off discreetly at the foot of an array of pillars, tall, fluted marble columns rescued from a failed regional bank, repurposed to symbolize the schools ten most cherished principals. Pillars as “pillars”, get it?

The concrete stairs at the base of the pillars dropped down onto the grassy edge of the quad. I slunk down toward the grass and rested my head—with my book bag for a pillow—on the bottommost stair. Short of freckles and a straw of grass to suck on, I was Huck Finn.

I had barely relaxed when a menacing shadow passed over me, my own personal eclipse of the sun, provided by the burliest of three, armed campus security officers. Uncomfortably supine and vulnerable, I scrambled to get on my feet.

Scene of the “Incident”

Text Box: Figure 6 - Scene of the "Incident"Scene of the “Incident”

The burly officer with practiced calm ordered me to move slowly and keep my hands fully in view. The officers had snapped into positions relative to each other at odd distances from my body: the burly one, closest to me, another a short distance behind his back while the third, a female cop, hovered a longer distance away from me, perhaps ten feet on the opposite side.

Somewhere there was a chart in cadet school that defined this formation, its exact angles and officer-to-perp distances.

I was aware at a level just beneath articulate thought that they were enacting a protocol for handling armed and dangerous individuals and obligated to treat me as an agent of death. The officers all packed heat on their hips whereas I did not possess anything capable of generating deadly force, not even a peashooter. I was the only person in this ad-hoc congregation who had a statistically significant chance of getting shot, tazered, or thrown to the ground with my chin grinding in the dirt. It seemed like an extreme response for a guy whose most egregious act on that day was pulling off his shirt.

The female cop in the backup position explained that, once somebody on campus had “phoned me in”, regulations required them to investigate and file a report. She asked me if I could understand how a person might be alarmed to see a half-naked man on the campus.

I sympathized. It sounded bad to me too until I realized she was lumping me in with all those half-naked people who remove their clothes from the waist down.

Perspective mattered. I was tempted to ask her if I was half-naked or half-clothed. But Wisenheimers are always the first to wind up with their chins in the grass.

They wanted an alibi. I fumbled for a long time with my phone dreading what might happen if I failed to find the number.

When my professor friend picked up, I was relieved to hear her tell the officer, ‘Tell John to put his shirt back on.’ Maybe now they would not handcuff me to a hot water return pipe in the boiler room.

The next day I had a peek at a million-dollar painting in the campus fine arts museum right next to the quad and the scene of the crime.

John the Baptist, more than half-naked

Text Box: Figure 7 - John the Baptist, more than half-nakedJohn the Baptist, more than half-naked

It is a rare painting, I am told, of John the Baptist, a fantastic prize for a Christian university. Only this John is buff, slender but ripped, looking like a New Testament Adonis in a robe that is teasingly about to slide off his hips. He is not half-naked, more like three-quarters going on full. If there’s a parable there, I’ll be damned if I know what it is.

The Painter (an Atma adventure)

On Atma’s maiden voyage, after stops in the Sonoran Desert and the painted rock national monument and the Carlsbad Caverns in southern New Mexico, I took a short detour outside of Austin, Tx to visit the Longhorn Cavern State Park on my way to my destination in Houston.

On the approach, I made note of a turn-out to a scenic view, vowing to investigate it out on the way back. The entrance to the cave itself was shrine like and spectacular, a nature-made atrium of boulders weathered smooth over millennia, some vast period of time. I shrank from the opportunity to go into the cave. I wanted an excuse to come back and bring a friend.

I drove back to the turn-out that had promised a scenic view. The best spot to access the view was in the fat center of an elliptical loop at the end of a short drive, past a stand of brush and trees. It was desolate with an air of abandonment and neglect. On the return side of the loop was a car pulled completely off the road into rough grass. I thought whoever came along with that car was up to no good. The view stretched out over a valley to distant hills with an easy, self-satisfied bucolic splendor. Hill country.

I spent some time getting Atma parked off of the road so the passenger side sliding door would open up over the vista. As I circled around the van to get to a steel garbage can and its chained lid, a disembodied voice rose out from the vicinity of that car. It was a man’s voice and he was saying that he couldn’t move and needed help.

I decided immediately that there was a fifty percent chance that this guy really needed help and the other fifty percent was that this was a setup and the guy or a few of his buddies lurking nearby were armed with guns.

Still, it seemed like bad form to refuse a person help when he asked for it so plainly.

I decided to circle around his car so I would come up on him from behind and get a look inside the car on my approach.

“I’ve got a bad back and I need my paints from the back seat,” he said, flicking his head towards the back. It was a four door. I was going to have to open the rear driver’s side door to fetch him his paints.

“I’m Tommy. I come up here every day. I drove all the way out here from Myrtle Beach, Florida to be with my husband. He’s the only man I trust. It’s a long way to go in a condition like this. See that tree over there. I come up here every day to paint that tree. I talk to that tree. And you know what? The tree talks back. I know I’m crazy. Don’t let me scare you because I’m crazy. I’m a painter. I paint signs and sometimes take along a helper to carry my supplies. One time a man come up to me outside a little place I had where I kept my supplies and hit me over the head with a pipe. That’s the reason I’m all bent up like this. He destroyed the nerves. It’s why I can barely walk. It took a lot of surgeries to put me back together. And you know what? I knew that man. A long time after I got out of the hospital, I remembered his face and knew who he was.”

“Did you confront your attacker?” I asked him. I felt like I already knew Tommy well enough to guess the answer.

“Yes, I did. I asked him why he did it. And you know what he told me? He said he needed $500 to pay a gambling date. And I said, ’man, you should have told me. You know, I would have given you the $500. You didn’t have to do that. He said he was sorry.”

Then, I asked him if he forgave him. I felt like I knew the answer to that too.

“Yes, I did.”

Tommy (Atma in the background)

I marveled at Tommy for having no hint of resentment in his story, neither in the words he chose or the timbre of his voice, even though the guy who attacked him had left him unconscious and crippled for life. Tommy could still walk but just barely. It was a courageous feat for him to stand-up just so he could take a few paces to keep from getting stiff.

I still didn’t know what he meant when he declared himself a painter. I knew he came out to paint this one particular tree and the result was a bit like a Van Gogh with the shape of the tree described in vertical lines made luminescent and wavy by a mysterious internal source of electricity. It wasn’t a mighty oak or a redwood. Its trunk was no bigger than a man’s thigh. It stood in among a stand of others. Yet, it was the tree that spoke to Tommy.

I guessed Tommy painted houses in his spare time to fund his artistic study of this tree. Then, he got me to pull out a portfolio of his paintings from the passenger footwell in the back of his car. They were amazing.

Tommy’s Tree