(Quotations are from an 1864 version of the song "Cumberland Gap")

Part 1 - The Quest

"Settle down boys, take a little nap, 16 miles to the Cumberland Gap."

In 1903 Sherman and Nicey Ann Hensley packed their belongings and moved their family up Brush Mountain to settle on a plateau near the main ridge of the Cumberlands. Sherman Hensley Misty Cabinwas prolific in two important things, fathering children and distilling corn liquor. The mountain-top settlement was a great place to do both. Hensley settlement quickly grew from a one-room log cabin to a small, self-sufficient, and almost totally isolated community which supported nearly 100 people. The settlement was preserved in 1960 and is now a part of the Cumberland Gap National Park on the border of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia.

Curt and I had read of the settlement, and we remembered hearing somewhere that there are only two ways to get there. One is an unmaintained four-wheel drive trail and the other is a hike of three miles or so. Driving is way too easy so we decided to strap on our daypacks and strike out for the trailzzone. The only problem was, neither of us could come up with a map of the Cumberland Gap area. But knowing how the Park Service loves visitors, we assumed the trailhead would be well marked.

It wasn't.

After we crossed Clinch Mountain on US 25E, we turned right on Virginia Route 58 and looked for signs. No signs. I swallowed my pride and stopped at a little gas station to ask directions. The folks inside were nice enough but when they seemed a little confused at the word "trailhead," I changed it to "path" and they provided a rough guestimate of where they thought it should be. It wasn't. We continued up 58 and I noticed a little 1940esque country store on the right. "They'll know," I remarked to Curt, knowing that there would probably be some older folks tending the store who knew the area well.

They did.

But there was a problem. The couple in the store couldn't agree on the directions. Since the lady was in the back ladeling gravy from a crock-pot onto a plate of biscuits, I walked up to the older gentleman rocking beside the electric heater. I said "path" the first time. He perfectly centered a JFG coffee can with a long brown stream of tobacco spit, then motioned with his cane back the way we'd come. I was impressed but still unconvinced. The lady overheard my question, wiped her hands on her apron, and shouted from the back, "That ain't right. Y'all got ta go on up 'ar ta Ewing and tarn leff." The man stomped his cane down on the hardwood floor and yelled back, "Naw, all they got ta do is walk across the mountain."  "They don't know that way," she shouted, stepping closer, "Now you lissen ta me, honey. Y'all go on up here to Ewing an tarn leff." I walked out of the store chuckling and told Curt we needed to go to Ewing and turn left. But danged if that ol' man didn't sound sure of himself.

The Ewing route looked promising. We slowed and asked a fellow at some horse stables if we were near the trailhead to Hensley Settlement, and he motioned us on up the little gravel road to the Ewing Civitan Park. Sure enough there was a path there. We loaded on our gear and set off into the trailzzone.

"Cumberland Gap it ain't too far, it's just three miles from Middlesboro."

Now I don't know what Curt was expecting, but I imagined the trail to Hensley Settlement to be a level three-mile stroll through old corn-fields and scrub brush. This wasn't. We were in thick woods, and hiking up a steep narrow trail toward the most daunting cliffs I've ever seen--the legendary White Rocks of the Cumberland to be exact, the same fabled by Daniel Boone in his narratives of Kaintuck. These sheer sandstone outcroppings are visible on a clear day from atop Mt Cammerer, over 100 miles away. It's always amazed me that I could see completely across the state of Tennessee; from the southernmost border with North Carolina, across a section of Virginia, and into Kentucky.

The trail was steep and rocky. I was nursing a knee due to a recent injury and my lack of confidence in it resulted in me tripping over rocks several times.  Curt kept saying that I was stumbling around like a cow in a post pile. I made a mental note to ask Curt to write down all those sayings he knows. He learned them from his grandparents, and you just don't hear talk like that anymore. I was fantasizing about a writing a book about mountain sayings, and smiling like a mule eatin' sawbriars when I stumbled over some unusual rock piles on the left of the trail.

"I got a house in Cumberland Gap, a wife, and a baby that calls me pap."

We soon discovered the remains of a one-room cabin on a small plateau. Although the sandstone chimney had fallen, there were still some timbers remaining and the outline of the house was clearly visible. I first thought it might have been a moonshiner's hideout but then noticed some day lilies and daffodils just peeking through the frozen ground. It must have been a homestead, but in what a God-forsaken place! It would have been difficult even for a mule to pack furniture and groceries up to this isolated spot. We estimated the size of the house to be about 15' X 25'. I wondered what life must have been like for the folks who'd lived here. I was imagining spinning wheels, butter churns, and willow baskets when Curt motioned me on ahead.

He'd found a spring with a rusty iron pipe, and we filled our canteens with the cold clear water. A little ways up past the spring the steep little trail met a wider one that could have once been a wagon road. "Ah, now we're on the right track to Hensley Settlement," I thought. The grade was easier, but we were quickly gaining elevation through a series of broad switch-backs. We could walk side by side and the easy grade allowed conversation. Curt explained to me the process for pickling green beans and corn in earthen-ware crocks. The discussion centered around pioneer life for a while but gave way to planning a much anticipated hike along Hadrian's Wall in Scotland. The sandstone cliffs loomed ominously overhead as we terraced our way up Cumberland Mountain.

"Daniel Boone on Pinnacle Rock, kilt a bear with a flintlock."


As we continued up the trail it became apparent that there was no gap in this section of the ridge and that we were bound for the highest point on Cumberland Mountain. Curt and I joked about finding the spot where old Dan'l had turned around, and I now understood just why he was so proud to have found the Gap. We were nearing the three-mile point, and I was getting worried about just where this trail was leading. Just as we reached the summit we saw a sign which read "<--- Ewing-Sand Cave --->." Hmmm, still no evidence we were on the right course for Hensley Settlement. There was also an unmarked trail leading off to the right, so we didn't know which way to proceed. I flipped a coin, cursed Curt roundly for not bringing his map, and headed down to the left toward Sand Cave.

We were now on the north side of the mountain and hiking in deep snow. Some drifts were several feet deep, but it was very pleasant to now be going down. After another half mile we came up on another sign. This one read "<--- Hensley 4.5 - Sand Cave ---->."  "Hey, Curt," I called out disappointedly.  "I've always wanted to go to Sand Cave." I knew then that the old man had been right; this was not the trail we'd wanted to take. It was way too late in the day to attempt the remaining distance to Hensley Settlement.

Part II - It's all in how you get there, or how you don't?

"Cumberland Gap is a wonderful place, three kinds of water to wash your face."

We had read of Sand Cave but didn't know much about it. Curt was concerned that it might be as far away as the settlement since there was no mileage listed. We chanced it anyway, and after going down another half-mile, we came up on a campsite with some hitching rails so we guessed the cave was nearby. I don't know what I expected it to look like, but I was very surprised when we rounded a sharp bend and saw the huge mouth of the cave.

Sand Cave is astonishing. The entrance is wider than any cave I've ever seen, at least fifty yards across and five stories high in places. The upwardly sloping floor is covered with deep, bright, fine sand. The sand was so deep that it covered the top of my boots. And the texture was as smooth as that on any ocean beach in the South Pacific. I got down on my hands and knees and scooped up great handfuls, enjoying the sensations as it flowed like liquid through my fingers. I played in the sand a while then decided to explore further.

The walls of the cave are made of a sort of conglomerate sandstone. Small white and yellow quartz pebbles peek out like thousands of glistening cats-eye marbles. I ran my hands along the stone. It was coarse and bumpy and absolutely beautiful. Toward the lower end of the cave's entrance, a waterfall plummeted freely to a clear icy pool and frozen water droplets splashed out to frost deep-green galax. Thousands of drips formed long pointed icicles all along the cave's opening.


What a wonderful surprise after the disappointment of finding ourselves so far from our original destination. We took a roll of film at the cave then headed back up toward Cumberland's summit. Once arriving back at the Ewing sign, we decided to investigate the unmarked trail we'd noticed earlier. We followed it up to a grassy meadow. We thought the clearing looked unusual so we began an investigation. Curt soon found the remains of four pylons so we guessed this must have been the site of a fire tower. It was a great place for one because this was the highest point around.

"September mornin' in '62, Morgan's Yankees all withdrew."

We walked on a little ways and discovered a U.S. Geological Survey marker set in a large chunk of sandstone. It marked the highest point on the mountain and also the border between Kentucky and Virginia. The earliest date I could make out was eighteen-ninety something but it could have been older. Deeply engraved into the sandstone was a time-worn cross separating the letters U.S. on the North side, and C.S. on the South. We were thrilled with the find and vowed further research as to its origin (if anyone has any ideas, please let us know.)

"Cumberland Gap with its cliffs and rocks, home to the panther, bear, and fox."

We headed on out the ridge and after a series of ups and downs soon arrived at the base of the White Cliffs. A small trail led around the back side of the ridge and up to the top. We hiked through a steeply ascending mountain laurel and sandstone tunnel and soon arrived at the smooth white cliff tops. Centuries of rain and wind had left flow marks on the sandstone and it was pocked with small clear pools. We were hungry so I sat down far enough away from the edge to feel safe and began whittling a spoon out of a pine branch. I'd forgotten to bring one for my beenie-weenies.

"They stabbed ol' Tom on the mountain top, an' over the cliff they let him drop."

I was pretty tired from the climb, and the knife slipped in my unsteady hands slicing off a substantial chunk of my thumb. It wasn't deep but it was wide, and Curt remarked I was bleeding like a stuck hawg. Another saying for my book, I thought, as I washed my thumb with water from my canteen. I watched as the blood and water pooled up on the white sandstone. When the bleeding subsided, I opened a can of vieeney sausages and, for the sheer sake of grossity, poured the gel-juice into the red pool. Yummie! We'd been alone all day on the trail, but wouldn't you know it, just at that moment someone walked up. They were excited about the view at first and didn't see my little mess, but I moved away and they noticed it. What a disgusted look they gave me! Curt grunted an appropriate response, and we moved off to look for a more secluded section of the clifftop.

"Cumberland Gap is a heck of a place, from Pinnacle rock you can see three states."

The view was great. It was a little hazy, but we could still make out the distant outline of the Smokies. The busy little valley beneath us was all laid out like a living relief map, complete with ringing church bells, moving cars, and tiny ant-specks that could only be cattle and horses. We nearly took another roll of pictures and headed back down the trail. We skipped the switch-back sections preferring to off-trail it down a creek bed and quickly arrived back to the car. Curt had one picture remaining, so he got a shot of the ancient daunting cliffs from Hwy 58.

"Me and my wife and my wife's gran-pap, all raise hell in Cumberland Gap."

I wanted a Coke or something, so we stopped back by the little country store where I'd asked directions. The old man was still in the rocker and the lady was in the back working busily on what could have been potato salad. "Did you'ns find that path?" she cheerfully called out. "Yes, ma'am!" I shouted back, handing a dollar to the young girl at the register. "We didn't find Hensley Settlement, but we found just the path we were looking for!" The old man looked at me a little sideways, grunted gruffly under his breath, and perfectly centered his coffee can with a long, brown stream of tobacco juice..

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