In the fall of 2000, I got a phone call from a ranger at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, inviting me to participate in a ceremony to formally close the section of US Highway 25E that passed through the Gap. This passageway through the Cumberland Mountains had been used by Indian tribes for centuries before Daniel Boone led a group of axmen (and two unsung women) through the Gap in 1775, blazing a trace into Kentucky. Over the years the Gap was part of the Warrior’s Path, Boone’s Trace, The Wilderness Road, and eventually, US Highway 25E.
By the middle of the 20th century, the curving two-lane roadway had grown increasingly dangerous, with thousands of vehicles funneling through the Gap on a daily basis. Accidents were so frequent that locals began referring to that two-and-half-mile stretch of road as “Massacre Mountain.”
In 1996, a four-lane tunnel was completed to carry traffic through the mountain, rather than over it, and the Park Service began making plans to return the land around the Gap to its eighteenth century contours, enabling the Park to better interpret the frontier story for visitors. Just before the reclamation work began, the Park Service held a ceremony to mark the closing of the road.
That was how, in late September of 2000, I found myself at the base of the historic ridgeline in the midst of several dozen historic reenactors dressed in 18th-century garb. We’d gathered at the foot of the mountain on the Tennessee side to hike up a steep trail through the woods to the midpoint, or saddle of the Gap, where the ceremony would be held. The sun had fallen behind the ridgeline that loomed above us as we set out, and soon dusk closed in.
I felt out of place in my blue jeans and hiking boots, a journalist in the midst of folks from another century. Some were barefoot, others in moccasins. The men carried flintlocks and had tomahawks tucked into their belts. The women wore long gowns, their heads covered in white linen caps or straw hats. Some carried lanterns to light the way along the narrow trail that cut steeply up the mountain, forcing us to walk single file. I quickly learned not to walk too close to the buckskin-clad man in front of me, having nearly suffered a blow to the head from the barrel of his rifle when he'd swung around to holler at someone back down the trail. It occurred to me that, unlike me, a woman in the eighteenth century would have been on the lookout for that particular danger.
Halfway up the mountain we heard shouts coming from behind us. By the time I made out the word — “HORSE!” — I had only seconds to jump out of the path of a runaway packhorse that charged up the trail, swept past me, and disappeared from view. The rhythmic sound of hoofbeats brought the eighteenth century alive in a visceral way.
When we reached the top of the trail we stepped from the woods onto pavement, and back into the 20th century, forming a ragged circle in the middle of the road. There was an air of solemnity — an almost church-like feeling to the gathering — with the trees standing tall on either side, like shadowy sentinels.
Several people spoke, including Mark Wood, the Park Superintendent at the time, each of them emphasizing the historic importance of the Gap. “It’s hallowed ground everywhere you step,” one of them said. “Just think of all the souls who are looking down on us tonight.” Towards the end of the ceremony, two special lanterns were lit — one for the native people who had honored this landscape for centuries, and another for the immigrants who had passed this way in search of a better life.
As the brief ceremony concluded, Superintendent Wood said: “Let’s see this road out in style.” Holding his lantern aloft, he started down the road and we fell in behind, walking slowly, savoring the night air and the stars that had begun to appear above us. Off to one side a circle of men in Native American dress knelt and passed around a ceremonial pipe, honoring the Gap in their own way. At the rear of the group, two bagpipers began to play, and the haunting sound seemed to swirl around us.
As I walked down the road’s centerline, I recalled that when I was a child, my father had driven us through the Gap and though I'd glimpsed an historic marker alongside the road, our car had zipped past too fast for me to read what it said. It made me happy to know that when the reclamation was complete, people would once again move through the Gap at human-speed, just as we were now, allowing time for pausing and reflection.
There's one final memory from that night that I'll carry with me forever. As I neared the base of the mountain, almost at the end of the road, from behind me came the stirring sound of the bagpipes playing Amazing Grace. A fitting farewell, indeed.