RACCOON SPRINGS — As dawn broke, backpackers Curtis Penix and Givan Fox emerged from their shelter, rubbed their eyes and filled their water bottles from natural springs that trickled out of a hillside.
Daniel Boone camped here many times and drank from the same springs, which he supposedly named after being startled by a thirsty raccoon.
This became a busy way station along Boone Trace, the 200-mile trail that Boone and his crew blazed for the Transylvania Company from Cumberland Gap to Central Kentucky in March 1775. Raccoon Springs is now in Laurel County, a few miles southeast of London.
Penix, a steel mill worker from Michigan, was here because his fifth-great grandfather, Joshua Penix, walked Boone Trace in 1779 on his way to Fort Boonesborough, where he was listed among the settlers.
Fox was here because his father, retired Lexington physician John Fox, is president of Friends of Boone Trace, a non-profit group that hopes to preserve the historic route as a hiking trail, walking paths and a memorial to the pioneers.
Penix, 46, and Fox, 42, think they may be the first people in two centuries to walk all of Boone Trace.
"There's so much history here," Penix said. "Millions of Americans today, just like me, have ancestors who came through Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. "
While many of the well-worn buffalo and Native American paths Boone incorporated into his trail are now country roads, railroad tracks and even major highways, other sections of Boone Trace all but disappeared.
Penix started his journey March 10 near Kingsport, Tenn. He hiked through Virginia to Martin's Station near Cumberland Gap, where on March 15 he was joined by Fox, a medic in the Colorado National Guard.
The men carry a satellite communicator that transmits their position every 20 minutes to Penix's website, Lostinthewander.com, where they blog daily about their experiences.
"The first four days were rough, nothing but rain and highway," Penix said when I met them at Raccoon Springs Thursday. "No Indians, but a lot of semi-trucks, a lot of spray in the face."
After several days of walking 20 miles or more, the two planned a slightly easier schedule. They were to stop at the sites of other Boone Trace landmarks, such as Twetty's Fort and Woods Blockhouse, before completing their journey Thursday at Fort Boonesborough State Park on the Madison-Clark county line. After a ceremony there, they plan a big steak dinner and a lot of rest.
Boone Trace is often confused with the Wilderness Road, which was built later and became more popular, especially after Kentucky achieved statehood in 1792 and state government funded improvements.
The two roads ran together through Cumberland Gap, but split below London. Boone Trace went to the Kentucky River at Fort Boonesborough, while the Wilderness Road went to Harrodsburg and on to what is now Louisville.
"Everybody talks about the Wilderness Road and forgets about Boone Trace," John Fox said. "Once Daniel Boone opened the trail, people just flooded in. About 100,000 people may have traveled it before Kentucky became a state."
The Daughters of the American Revolution placed stone markers at several key points along the route in 1915. Other groups added markers in 1942, the 150th anniversary of Kentucky statehood.
But, over the years, the markers became overgrown and were forgotten as highways were improved. Many sections of Boone Trace were lost until Louisville architect Neal Hammon began researching it in the 1960s. He and others remapped the trail by using computer technology to piece together old records.
Penix familiarized himself with the route by studying maps and satellite images. He worked with John Fox to get permission to cross private land. Fox is providing occasional support from his pickup truck, but his son and Penix are carrying all of their camping gear and food.
"It was suggested by some people that we do it in buckskins and linen shirts," Penix said. "There's just no way we would have survived."
Penix got into trouble early in his walk, when he was forced to spend a night in a motel after days of cold rain left him soaked and in danger of hypothermia. "I had the idea of doing this kind of independent," he said. "I was going to carry my own food, sleep under the stars the way Joshua did, cross rivers the way Joshua did."
Penix said he learned a lesson in Rose Hill, Va., when he couldn't find his planned campsite and a store owner offered him shelter in a storage unit. As he was about to go to sleep on its concrete floor, Pam Eddy, a ranger from nearby Cumberland Gap National Park, came by.
Eddy persuaded him to stay the night at her cabin. And she explained that pioneer culture was as much about helping one another as being self-reliant.
"This was a community," Penix said. "There were people all along the way with forts and blockhouses and stations where people could stop and rest and get a meal, get resupplied."
Throughout their journey, Penix said, they have been met by town mayors, local historians and a lot of friendly, helpful people.
"We've been fed along the way, offered roofs along the way, just like the pioneers," he said. "So when I wanted to do it just like Grandpa Joshua, I had it all wrong. I learned how to do it right."