KNOXVILLE, Tenn.—Americans, mostly European immigrants, settled east Tennessee in the 1760s and 70s. But when the Revolutionary War came along, they wanted to do their part, forming a group we now call the Overmountain Men. They gathered in Abingdon, Va., and crossed the mountains—this time going south and east, not west—to participate in an important battle near Charlotte, N.C., where I started my journey: the Battle of King’s Mountain. One of those who made the trek over the mountains was John Crockett, father of Davey Crockett.
It took the Overmountain Men two weeks to cross the Appalachian Mountains. Driving west on Interstate 40, we made the trip through the mountains in two hours. Our route was not the same as that taken by the Overmountain Men. But our paths did cross at least once and were parallel for a number of stretches. Even today, the route is not without drama. Asheville, N.C., and Knoxville, Tenn., residents know that from time to time rockslides close the interstate altogether, and sometimes for months at a time. The speed limit slows from 70 to 55 to 45 mph in places. In the rain, the drive can be a white-knuckle experience.
That’s not to say that driving from Asheville to Knoxville is in any way comparable to the experience of the Overmountain Men, who fought battles and lost friends at the end of their trans-mountain trip. For us—my wife Missy and 14-year-old daughter Morgan accompany me on this trip—we had just the opposite experience: We made friends. We arrived in Knoxville just in time for a lunch with 20 WORLD Magazine readers. Stopping along the way to hold these lunches, which we also will do in Memphis, Tenn., and Oklahoma City as we make our way west, is one of the great pleasures of this road trip.
The Overmountain Men did not enjoy such pleasures, and I’m sure those men who braved hardship to help America win its independence would not recognize West Tennessee today. The mountains and valleys—from a distance—might still look the same, but what was once a frontier is now the home of Dollywood and the Aquarium of the Smokies. The route the Overmountain Men took, some of them to their deaths, passed not far from the Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park and the Wheels Through Time Museum, a collection of 325 vintage motorcycles that says it is “preserving and presenting the … cultural history that motorcycles played in the grand story of America’s love affair with transportation.”
It is true, of course: America really does have a love affair with transportation. That’s ironic. When God punished Cain after he murdered his brother Abel, Cain’s curse was to travel: “You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth,” God told him (Genesis 4:12). When I ask college students what they want to do when they graduate, they often tell me they want jobs that allow them to travel.
Of course, those who travel for a living are not as infatuated. The 2009 Jason Reitman movie Up In The Air, starring George Clooney, is perhaps the best recent assessment of our mobile culture. Clooney’s job is to travel from place to place to fire people. When he finally reaches the long-sought 10 Million Mile status, the airline’s chief pilot presents him with a special card to mark the achievement. Clooney takes the card with the blank look of a man who realizes he has spent his life pursuing the wrong goals.
The Overmountain Men pursued worthier goals, and their travel was just a means, not an end. And they were inspired on their way by the Rev. Samuel Doak, who founded some of the earliest Presbyterian churches in East Tennessee. Early in his life he was a slaveholder, but in 1818 he freed his slaves and spent the last decade of his life preaching on the wickedness of slavery. But he is perhaps best known for a sermon he delivered to the Overmountain Men on Sept. 26, 1780, as they prepared to fight. Here is an excerpt:
My countrymen, you are about to set out on an expedition which is full of hardships and dangers, but one in which the Almighty will attend you. The Mother Country has her hand upon you, these American colonies, and takes that for which our fathers planted their homes in the wilderness—OUR LIBERTY. Your brethren across the mountains are crying like Macedonia unto your help. God forbid that you should refuse to hear and answer their call. But the call of your brethren is not all. The enemy is marching hither to destroy your homes. Will you tarry now until the enemy carries fire and sword to your very doors? No, it shall not be. Go forth then in the strength of your manhood to the aid of your brethren, the defense of your liberty and the protection of your homes. And may the God of Justice be with you and give you victory.
As I said, our journey over the mountains has less hardship, of course. As we make our way west on Interstate 40, my cup holder almost perpetually runneth over, either with hot coffee, or a cold soft drink. I wonder if Rev. Doak and the Overmountain Men would say blazing a path for Dollywood or the Wheels Through Time Museum was why they fought. When Doak was riding a lonely circuit between the churches he planted—so many Presbyterian churches in east Tennessee that he earned the nickname “The Presbyterian Bishop”—could he have imagined the cars blazing along Interstates 40 or 75 or 81, superhighways that now follow the horse paths he blazed?
I doubt it, and if he could ride with me, he would no doubt be outraged by some of the billboards I see along my route today, for casinos and so-called “adult video” stores, ironically titled because they pander not to our adult, but to our juvenile, appetites. The list goes on.
But I think he and the Overmountain Men might also be amazed. They fought, after all, for freedom. And it is freedom, I am very aware as I travel on this Memorial Day week, that we mostly still have, 240 years after Rev. Doak’s sermon.
Not a bad legacy, that.