Throwback Thursday part 1: Crossing the gap

English teacher Patrick Clements was granted a sabbatical leave in the Spring of 2005 for a self-designed project: a four month solo bicycle trip across America, following historical trails Americans used over the last four centuries to head to new homes and to new dreams. His goal was twofold: To follow the paths of these earlier Americans, and also to meet and talk with "modern folks along the way, inquiring always about their 'Dream of America.'"  

"As a teacher of literature, especially English 11 (American Literature) and Literature of Travel and Adventure," Clements explained, "as a proponent of the value of primary experience as a critical part of all our learning, and as a member of the community who wants to live the same values we profess, I [sought] to combine scholarship, personal challenge, experiential learning, and a little practice in courage and humility."

Following is an excerpt from the journal Clements kept during the course of his journey. Read more journal entries here.

 Thursday April 14 , Day 16 
Cumberland Gap TN -> Middlesboro KY (15 mi / 800 total)

Today turned out to be an extraordinary day, ridiculously full of happy and unexpected turns, all improbable because it began so lousy.

I pulled myself from a warm and dry cocoon into the wet chill of 40 degrees on the mountaintop campsite, stowed a soaked tent, put on soggy shoes, and began the day to cross the Cumberland Gap. After a chilling downhill to the highway, and then a busting climb out of the fog into the sun of a warming mountain day, I headed vaguely toward the tunnel. However, I veered back down and into the village of Cumberland Gap to dry out, find a place to do laundry, and see if there was some way to pedal over the gap and avoid the tunnel. And I was hungry.

In Sue Webb's Country Kitchen I found more than what I sought. I had a long talk about the region, town, and hopes with Joe Webb (long time resident of Cumberland Gap) and waitresses Patsy Johnson (originally from Kentucky) and Lorraine Nieto (14 years here since California). They filled orders, wrote up tickets, and talked with everyone on the run while I sat at the counter resuming the conversations when they returned. Fearful of a growing police state ("Did you know that right here in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia, the police can run roadblocks and searches, for no reason? Six dollar an hour police troopers with no insurance and guns. I've been all over the world in the service, and there's less freedom here sometimes."), they nonetheless love their land and their freedoms. They want less stupid interference. They want jobs that include health insurance. They hope gas prices come down. They wish, or rather Joe wishes, that the state hadn't ruined the local fishing by adding Rockfish to the reservoir. "Rockfish, they're terrible fish, schooling and eating all the good fish you fish for in the first place. Rockfish. Argh. They're terrorist fish." Lorraine disagreed on loss of freedom: "We have more freedom here than anywhere. I love America, but everyone needs to get along."

A half hour later, while I was outside on a bench warming in the sun like some cycling reptile, Patsy ran out to find me and say that "We all thought you could use the laundry in the back of the building, since you're still here. You'll save seventy-five cents too." She led me to the back steps that led to apartments upstairs, opened the washroom, offered up a Styrofoam cup full of Tide, and apologized that she didn't have didn't have any softener to share.

Warm, fed, clean, and gratified by unexpected kindness, I headed up to the trailhead where hikers can take the Wilderness Trail over the mountain. There I met Park Ranger Scott Teodorski. I told him my story of my trip and its focus on traveling the roads that people took to new lives in America, and asked if I could cross over the Gap. He said I could, but not with the bike. I was crushed. However, after talking a bit longer, he offered to drive my bike over to the Kentucky side, provided I hike myself over alone. "I see that crossing the Gap is important to you. Will this help you do what you want? If that's ok, I'll hold your bike for you at the Visitor Center on the other side, which you might enjoy with its interpretive center, and a collection of maps that might be helpful." Twice of a morning, people are inventing ways to be helpful.

The climb over the Gap snuck up on me emotionally. The trail begins with good NPS details: footprints and hoof prints embedded in the walkway at the entrance, signage with images of pioneers with wagons, babies, and that faithful hound. Not one easily taken by data, I was stunned by the note that between 1775 and 1810, between 200 and 300,000 pioneers passed over this Gap into Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, a staggering number. This was a just a wide footpath, gentle here, much steeper just ahead, streams popping out of the rocks on my right every fifty feet, each crossing the trail and then falling into the valley on my left. For a mile and a half I wound upward, leaning into my steps, startled at the rising grade. How to do this with everything I owned, unsure of what lay ahead? And a quarter of a million people, in a small, new country!

The last few hundred yards must have been rough for the draft animals, for the pitch rose quickly in the last two twists up to the saddle of the gap, but I grew excited as the breeze changed its sound as I neared the top. I then stepped up into the gap and into the sharp wind from the west and looked across a new valley to distance equal ridges, and I stopped to rest. The air was sharp, the wind steady, and I felt like I'd accomplished something, climbing to and through this narrow pass, just as had hundreds of thousands heading off to homes and lives unknown. Feeling rather Frederick Jackson Turner-ish and seeing the continent unfold before me, I then had a second, equally powerful reaction: fine, fine, fine, big deal, but move on, boy, you've got a long ways yet to go. You think you’ve accomplished something. You have: You have arrived at the beginning. Shut up. And so I headed down into the wilderness of Kain-Tuck.

An hour after I began to hike down, I met Ranger Scott down at the Visitor Center. After checking out books, maps, and a film on Daniel Boone, I headed to Middlesboro. There my good fortune continued. Midway down the Gap on the Kentucky side I had met an afternoon walker headed up, Rob Arch, who directed me to the only wireless spot in town he was sure of, the offices of World Wide Gap, the local telecomm provider. I pedaled to their offices, walked in, met owner Larry Grandey and his son, was warmly greeted, and immediately provided a room to work in, wireless internet access for my Pocket PC, a killer laptop too in case I needed more juice, and an invitation to stay as long as I needed. A reporter from the Middlesboro Daily News, Natasha Douglas, showed up to write about my story. People were pausing in their work, doing everything imaginable, effortlessly, to make me feel welcome, comfortable, and provided for.
On my way to a cheap hotel, I stopped for a while and watched little kids playing T-ball in bright shirts and matching ball caps, just to top off my tank with a little more goodness in America.