I am in the Cumberland Gap, which means waking up in a part of the world where three states touch toes. I drive to Kentucky for coffee, cross back to Tennessee for a lemon-filled glazed from Sweet as Honey Donuts, head to Virginia and the Wilderness Road where Daniel Boone forged a trail through the Appalachians more than two centuries ago. Exploration we called it back then. Progress. Destiny. Funny how the words we use to describe wandering onto new lands change depending on who does the wandering and where and when.
For the past week, I start up my car and just like that I’m in Kentucky. Just like that I’m in Virginia. Just like that I’m back in Tennessee.
Tennessee, the welcome sign says, the Volunteer State.
Virginia is for Lovers.
Kentucky: Unbridled Spirit.
Apart from slogans, nothing seems different but license plates, laws governing cell phone use in moving vehicles, and the ability to buy liquor locally. If not for signs informing you of your whereabouts, you would not know the exact state you’re in. The mimosas bloom their otherworldly silken blossoms without deference to zip code. Catalpa leaves cascade like oversized green hearts from massive branches. Steeples rise from Baptist churches alongside Dollar Generals and barbecue places named for the folksy characteristics of those who ostensibly manage the pits. Heavy’s. Bubby’s. Grateful Ed’s. All of these things, the sweet smoky same, regardless of state line.
I grab a coffee to go, drive a mile east, and stand in the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park reading an informational sign.
You are here, the sign says, the dark block of text hovering over Virginia.
An image of Meriwether Lewis with his surveying equipment is featured beside a map of the Cumberland Gap, and an excerpt of a letter sent a few months after Lewis and his friend Clark pushed west exploring and cataloging the land beyond the Mississippi River.
This day, Lewis writes in November 1806, I undertook to settle the latitude of … Walker’s Line, formerly dividing the States of Virginia and North Carolina.
Lewis goes on, talking distances, divisions, and state lines. For 27 years, the sign explains, no one agreed on the border between Kentucky and Tennessee.
I look again at the map. You are here. What a tempting a triad of words. What solidity they seem to offer; the key to sorting yourself out within the larger landscape. Even the sketch of Lewis has a sepia-tinged post-colonial pioneer charm. Still, I can only look into the sign for so long before I’m distracted by the land itself.
Coffee in hand, I consider the mountains and the trees and the kudzu creeping whichever way it pleases. I stretch out from Virginia, push a hand into Kentucky, breathe the cool clean morning air from Tennessee while considering the chicory raging in powder blue stands. They die nearly as soon as you pick them, those roadside flowers — try to grab hold of certain shades of blue and just like that, they’re gone.
And on this day when the light begins its slow crawl back toward darkness, the impermanence of those soft blue petals and the changeability of state lines makes me lean against my car and wonder about the edges of things. I think of the images in the morning’s news. Men and women pounding at our southern border. Children detained behind barbed wire. Families captured, turned away, sent back. The lengths we will go to keep them from crossing lines made by men who roamed the land centuries before — men with ambition and mapmaking skills; men who looked at the curve of the river, the rise of mountain and said to themselves, here.You are here.
That the land belonged to others was a minor inconvenience. That the land is not made for human holding did not enter their acquisitive mechanical heads. That states and countries and all manner of borders are arbitrary, imagined, and all too often cruel, we can still hardly face. Instead, we give in to the overwhelming desire to box ourselves in, insisting on walls and lines and various points of demarcation. This is understandable, I suppose, we are so small in the face of the world — what can we do but grab sticks and scratch lines into the dirt around ourselves like children playing with crayons?
This is Kentucky, we say. This is Tennessee.
This is my side of the river. That is yours.
You are here, we say, and let ourselves believe it stands for more than it ever can.