The Great Wagon Road, or How History Knocked the Professor Cold, or A Storyteller’s Story, or Why Appalachians Are Mountains and a People

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The Great Wagon Road, or How History Knocked the Professor Cold, or A Storyteller’s Story, or Why Appalachians Are Mountains and a People

by Michael Chitwood
Southern Cultures, Vol. 4, No. 2: Summer 1998

A boy of four, he killed one of the King's overlords for casting a desirous eye on his mother, and stowed away to sail the whale road.

In “The Great Wagon Road,” published in the Spring 1997 issue of Southern Cultures, historian T.H. Breen told of his encounters and adventures while attempting to trace the route of the great migration of German and Scots–Irish settlers from lands north into the Carolinas. Breen’s essay set Michael Chitwood thinking…

 

Scottish, by way of Ulster, Philadelphia,

The Valley of the Shenandoah,

 

generous, clannish, violent, kind-hearted,

they walked in (the Germans rode)

and stayed mostly out of county records
and the backs of Bibles, unlettered.

 

Their only correspondence with me,

son of their children’s children’s great grandchildren,

 

is this ditch, these nearly healed wheel cuts,

the line they traced in the earth.

 

*********************

 

Locally, it took its name from where it was going,

the potent away-from-here, the better place,

 

the how-it-came-to-be, not wintering on beans,

the infant not dead with the flux,

 

the ground not snagged with roots

that sang from the plow’s cut and welted the shins.

 

Yonder. Chewed with scratch biscuits,

smoked in the porch shade.

 

Something to be believed

when believing was the only solace.

 

*********************

 

“Fortunately, only Single Brothers

made this trip. This trail

 

at times is impassable and these folk

are wild, unpredictable.

 

Unlike our brethren,

they came not seeking but fleeing,

 

the almshouse, the sheriff,

a shamed woman or her brothers.

 

We sought the freedom to worship.

They worshipped freedom from seeking.”

 

*********************

 

“I don’t know now, though I knew. . . .”

Her palsied hand goes to her forehead

 

as if to draw memory with a touch.

My past grows dim,

 

Illiterate, abandoned,

free for the taking.

 

*********************

 

A boy of four, he killed

one of the King’s overlords

 

for casting a desirous eye on his mother

and stowed away to sail the whale road.

 

Saving the crew and cargo from storm,

he was rewarded in Philadelphia

 

with a seventeen-hand stallion

and rode out of the city stench

 

to the Blue Ridge which reminded him of home.

There he killed and married Cherokee,

 

fathered seven sons and seven daughters,

coaxed Highland pipes from fiddle’s catgut,

 

distilled moonlight, slaughtered hogs,

lost fingers in sawmills,

 

hoed, suckered, topped and primed tobacco

discarded washing machines in creekbeds,

 

learned to read the Bible, believe obituaries

and recite where he was and what he was doing

 

when the first Ford, radio, television

and news of JFK’s death arrived.

 

He put on a tie, conditioned the air

and forgot the song of the whippoorwill.

 

*********************

 

“There is not history, but histories.”

His shoes aren’t right for the rough ground.

 

The sapling branches whip his back

as he backs into where we’re going.

 

Educated, tenured, he hopes to publish

a study of The Great Wagon Road.

 

“Until documented the facts are in flux.”

He is lecturing backward into the understory

 

where a honeysuckle vine catches his heel.

He barks his bald spot on a sweet gum

 

and is silenced into the fact of himself.

Out cold, he’s received his dissertation’s introduction.

 

*********************

 

Count Casimir Pulaski, Bishop

Francis Asbury, Lorenzo Dow,

 

the Moravian Single Brother who wrote

“We had to watch our horses closely. . . .”

 

They crossed the Maggodee, Blackwater,

and Pigg, scribbled down some thoughts

 

that I’m stealing outright,

keeping an eye on their horses, too.

 

Warrior’s Truce, gospel road, going now

into sumac, scrub pine and books,

 

somewhere along the way I got your dirt

in my shoes, and that will do.

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