So, as I was saying, I was driving around in Cumberland Gap National Historical Park the other day when I spotted a wayside marker I’d never seen before.
I’ve driven by this spot several times, so I think this sign is a recent addition, but maybe I just need to be paying closer attention. Anyway, this marker is worth a closer look, because it scratches an itch that I noted earlier this year.
Back in March I was griping about our tendency to get so caught up in the dramatic and exceptional events that happened in historic areas that we ignore what happened in between them. The Gap is notable mainly for those people who were (often quite literally) just passing through. Its story is one of long hunters, pioneers, Civil War garrisons, and industrialists who came and went. The people who lived in the area had their own history—a long and interesting one—but it’s a history that’s invisible to many observers. Their story forms a hazy and indistinct background to the procession of pioneers, soldiers, and boosters that passed by on their way to whatever it is they were after.
In some cases, the local story vanishes altogether. CGNHP isn’t a battlefield or a building; it’s acres and acres of beautiful green space. A lot of visitors come for the views and the hiking trails instead of the history. It’s so easy to find the “wilderness” along this famous segment of the Wilderness Road that you can forget about the people who once lived nearby. Who were these folks, and how did they live?
These are the questions I was asking back in March, and they’re exactly the questions the NPS answers in this wayside exhibit. It affixes an actual, flesh-and-blood past to the rural Appalachian communities that so many Americans misunderstand or ignore. Here’s a close-up of the text: