BEREA — Summer is just beginning, but Jim Dahlman has already had his grand adventure. The 54-year-old college professor traced Daniel Boone's steps along the Wilderness Road, the path that brought settlers from points farther east to Kentucky and beyond.
"I was curious to see how it had grown up and how it's developed, and if that might tell us something about the region as a whole and also how the United States has grown up over the last 240 years," Dahlman said.
The Milligan College journalism professor left Elizabethton, Tenn., on May 22. After leaving eastern Tennessee, he walked through southern Virginia, trekked through the Cumberland Gap near Middlesboro, and headed north past Barbourville, Corbin, London, Berea and Richmond. He finished the 275-mile-long walk Friday afternoon at Fort Boonesborough State Park in Madison County, where relatives presented him with a coonskin cap and toy long rifle.
Along the way, he interviewed people about the land and what it means to them.
"In some cases, people have just unpacked their entire life stories," he said. "I think they're eager to tell their stories. They don't get many chances to do that."
For example, in Virginia he met a 33-year-old man who is on disability because he has had seizures since age 17 when he was kicked in the head by a horse. The seizures mean he can't have a driver's license, and therefore he has no job. But his full-blooded Cherokee grandmother taught him the medicinal value of wild plants, and he learned how to plow with a mule. He makes jewelry out of cedar wood and crafts elaborate walking sticks.
"It occurred to me," Dahlman said, "here's a guy who's smart, talented, and curious, and there's no place in our economy for him, which is kind of sad.
"He has so much folk knowledge that I asked if he ever thought about going to a community college to teach a course, but he said, 'No, no, they wouldn't have anybody like me.'"
Serendipity struck in Mount Vernon, where Dahlman came upon a group of 21 Japanese tourists at an Arby's restaurant.
"And it was fun just watching them and the Arby's staff figure each other out," Dahlman said. "But I get to talking to these guys, and they were the original members of this bluegrass group back in the '60s and '70s called Bluegrass 45. I went online and Googled these guys, and they were really good. They played at the Grand Ole Opry."
The group was eventually headed to the 47th annual Bill Monroe Bluegrass Festival in Bean Blossom, Ind. "So that was kind of unexpected," Dahlman said.
The Wilderness Road is the name for several pioneer routes that overlap each other for great distances, Dahlman said. When possible, he tried to follow a route that Boone and 30 ax men blazed in 1775. That was the year that Boone and Richard Henderson negotiated the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals, in which Henderson's Transylvania Company bought a large part of Kentucky and a part of Tennessee from the Cherokee.
So Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, 5 miles from Dahlman's Johnson City, Tenn., home, is where he began his walk. He thought that a fitting place to start, since Henderson hired Boone to improve the existing path used by bison and Native Americans to make it easier for settlers to make their way into the wilderness and the West.
"Boone had wanted to move there for a long time, so this was on his agenda anyway," Dahlman said. "So he and these 30 ax men took off in March 1775 ... and followed this trail, widened it, improved it, marked it better. It was still very rough. It was, at best, a bridle path. From that point up through the Cumberland Gap, and then up into Boonesborough is where they ended up."
For 20 years, the path became the major way into the West. "Literally hundreds of thousands of people made their way from Virginia and North Carolina up through this way and began to settle," Dahlman said.
In 1795, the Kentucky legislature allocated money to make the Wilderness Road suitable for wagons from Cumberland Gap to Crab Orchard in what is now Lincoln County. From there the road split west to Harrodsburg and north to Louisville.
Today, modern roads such as U.S. 25E between Middlesboro and Barbourville follow nearly the same route as the Wilderness Road.
The walk gave Dahlman a renewed respect for the people who followed the original Wilderness Road.
"Right now we cruise over these mountains and we cruise over these rivers, and we don't give them a second thought," he said. "But to these early settlers and travelers, the mountains and rivers were major obstacles.
"And when it's one man going over a mountain, that's one thing. But trying to take a family and all your earthly goods with you, and trying to get over a high ridge of mountains, that's impossible."
Dahlman, who grew up in New York City and Tampa, Fla., said he was impressed by the importance of the land to the people he interviewed, not just in terms of economics and livelihood, but in terms of identity.
"I get this from people who are gladly working in the coal-mining industry and mountaintop removal," he said. "They see the land as important, but, 'The land is ours and therefore we need to use it.' ... They see the value of the land and the need to take care of it, but they also see the need to make a living."
Dahlman took the walk to help him complete his master's of fine arts in creative nonfiction degree through Goucher College in Baltimore. To complete the program, he must write 150 pages of publishable material. So describing the Wilderness Road and its people as they exist today, and reflecting on the issues that face the region, seemed like a worthwhile project. He hopes the experience will lead to a book.
Dahlman was a long-distance runner for several years, and he believes that conditioning helped his preparation. He typically walked between 10 and 15 miles a day, although he did 22 miles one day.
Each step meant carrying a 40-pound pack with three changes of clothes, a camp stove, freeze-dried food, instant oatmeal, flat bagels, peanut butter, trail mix, notebooks, a camera, and a voice recorder. A GPS tracker and cellphone kept him in touch with his daughters, Sarah Dahlman of Johnson City, Tenn., and Rachael Warf and her husband, Corey, of Lexington.
Dahlman had scouted the exact route he wanted to take by car in October. As he walked along U.S. 25 north of Berea on Thursday, he wore a floppy hat, shorts and T-shirt. Two metal walking sticks helped him with his balance on uneven terrain.
Aside from learning how civilization has developed along the Wilderness Road, Dahlman learned new things about himself.
"I guess the first thing I realized is how much in a hurry I want to be," he said. "I don't think of myself as a speed demon or any kind of high-tech, let's go, gung-ho kind of person.
"But when I go, I find myself wanting to go fast. So this has revealed that in me, and the need to figuratively and literally take my foot off the accelerator, and to try and enjoy and appreciate and notice things while I'm on the road."
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Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @heraldleader