Thursday, August 2, 2012

Heading west from the Cumberland Gap

The recent Illinois-to-North Carolina trip we made to return our youngest grandsons to their mom and dad would not have been complete without some sort of rudderless jaunt through uncharted territory. It is, after all, what I do, just as some men are compelled to murder fish or hit small white balls into deep underbrush with the aid of overpriced sticks.  I can sense my spouse's trepidation when she watches me gleefully pouring over my tattered set of gazetteers and other highway maps as a journey approaches.
"How were you planning on getting there?"
She has learned to ask this question both casually and carefully, hoping, I think, to detect and defuse the worst of my misguided dreams before I plan something both stupid and dangerous. Actually, I think she's come to like some of my scenic detours nearly as much as I do. Or at least, she's gotten better at hiding her real feelings about the fact that I'd rather drive aimlessly down a dusty path towards parts unknown than almost anything else in the world. But, we've made the Illinois-Carolina trip so many times that it's a bit of a challenge to find a new, interesting route without going even further out of the way than even I am willing to go.
I usually find my information and inspiration about the places I want to see and the roads I want to take from fellow travelers, either in person or in the books and articles I read. But this time was different. This time it was a song that provided the idea for the most interesting part of our cross-country route.
The tune is called "Wagon Wheel," a popular folk song that I've been playing for a few years now, and have always liked, due mostly, I think, to its references to places where I've enjoyed spending time.  The song has an interesting backstory, in that the chorus was written by Bob Dylan back in 1973 when he was recording the soundtrack album for the movie "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid." The verses were penned in 1995 by folk-rocker Ketch Secor, of the group Old Crow Medicine Show, who heard the unofficially released Dylan material on a bootleg album when he was just 18. Dylan's unfinished song is generally called "Rock Me, Mama," based on a chorus that goes like this:

Rock me mama like a wagon wheel
Rock me mama anyway you feel
Hey mama rock me
Rock me mama like the wind and the rain
Rock me mama like a south-bound train
Hey mama rock me

Secor expanded it to tell the story of a hitchhiking trip south along the east coast from New England, through Philadelphia, and on to Raleigh, North Carolina, where the singer hopes to "see my baby tonight."  But it's the next-to-last verse of his version that really influenced me to choose the route we took last week.

Walkin' to the south out of Roanoke
I caught a trucker out of Philly
Had a nice long toke
But he's a headed west from the Cumberland Gap
To Johnson City, Tennessee

Now, you might think a straight-laced family man like me could be a bit put off by the reference to smoking marijuana in that stanza. But I strummed and sang my way through a period of time known as the sixties, when it seemed like every other song title and/or band name contained some reference to an illicit substance or its effects. So the idea of a few tokes didn't scare me off, though the thought of a stoned trucker on a winding mountain road continues to be a little alarming.
The big deal for me was the idea of crossing via the Cumberland Gap, a pass through the Cumberland Mountains region of the Appalachian Mountains at the juncture of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia. It's famous in American history for its role as a vital passageway through the mountain range that divides much of the eastern United States from the rest of the country.  It was long used by Native Americans of the region, then identified in 1750 by Dr. Thomas Walker, a Virginia physician and explorer. The path was widened by a team of loggers led by Daniel Boone, making it accessible to pioneers who used it to journey into the western frontiers of Kentucky and Tennessee. It was an important part of the Wilderness Road that was the principal route used by settlers for more than fifty years to reach the West from the East, and is now part of the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.
In other words, it's my kind of place.
The park includes an informative visitors' center, an historic, well-preserved Kentucky mountain settlement, cave tours, hiking, camping and a winding drive to a majestic mountain overlook called the Pinnacle that had my co-pilot fervently hoping no one was toking or otherwise impaired while making the often harrowing car trek at the same time as us.
It was, I thought, kind of like Great Smoky Mountains National Park without the people, as the magnificent place was nearly deserted on the warm, sunny July day we discovered it.  Getting there was easy, too, as U.S. Route 25E is now a mostly four-lane highway through the foothills and mountains. A portion of the route has even been restored to an early 19th century wagon path since the 1996 completion of the Cumberland Gap Tunnel, which replaced a 2.3-mile stretch of U.S. 25E between Middlesboro, Kentucky and Cumberland Gap, Tennessee that was once  known as "Massacre Mountain" due to the large number of travelers killed on the twisting mountain road--a fact I wisely kept from my traveling companion until we were safely on the straight and level.
After leaving the park, we headed for Johnson City, just like the song says. And it was then I realized something was a trifle amiss.
"Hey," I said. "According to the song, we're supposed to be heading west."
But we weren't. We were, in fact, going almost directly east, with a little southeastern portion right at the end that rolled us into Johnson City. This didn't really trouble me much. But I did have to convince my adult passenger that the song was wrong and we were, indeed, headed in the right direction. Later on, I read an article that discussed the song and addressed the whole east/west mixup.
“I got some geography wrong, but I still sing it that way,” Secor said. “I just wanted the word ‘west’ in there. ‘West’ has got more power than ‘east.’ ”
I guess I never considered the relative power of those two words. But right or wrong, it's a nifty little song, all the same. A great little drive, too.
And anyway, we got where we were going. And I'm pretty sure that's all that counts.


  1. If he'd simply exchanged his "to" and "from" then the song would be just fine, even using the powerful directional word he wanted:

    "But he's a-headin' west to the Cumberland Gap from Johnson City, TN"


  2. Google these directions... Cumberland Gap State Park, VA to Johnson City, TN. Makes perfect sense when you look at the map a bit. Walking to the south out of Roanoke = Interstate 81 S. I81 southbound takes you to the Tri Cities, where it meets I26...which takes you right into............ Johnson City, TN. :)

  3. The song lyric is referencing the fact that the Cumberland Gap was a gateway to the west. Thinking in a deeper perspective, the west being a new beginning.

  4. There is another possibility, because Cumberland, MD is also located in a gap that led to it's choice as a route for I-68, and it is east of Johnson City. It also makes sense, since a truck going from Cumberland, MD to Johnson City, TN, would take I-81S.

  5. Thank you. I live near JC, and although I love Darius Rucker's new version of the song that part ALWAYS bothered me. The toke---not so much.


  6. I live in JC TN and have had several discussions on this directional confusion in the song. Thanks for some real info.

  7. Yay! I tell Darius every time I hear/sing along to Wagon Wheel that you can't get here from there! (I am a long-time Johnson City Tennessee resident native).
    The other one that I can't let go is , "We met at a truck stop in Johnson City, Tennessee..." (Travis Tritt). We have never had a truck stop here (& I hope we never do!) I love to tell him even though he can't hear me, lol!
    Donna Williams