I love history - especially American history. As a kid growing up in the fifties, I stumbled upon my first favorite book, Stephen Meader's "T Model Tommy." I read with wonder as Tommy's Model T truck hauled him and his cargo up and down narrow bands of asphalt and gravel through New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. I can still picture the truck's round headlights illuminating the darkened threadlike road as he sluggishly descended a steep incline. I can hear raindrops pelting the truck's tin roof as Tommy approached a washed out bridge. Such were the challenges of an independent trucker in the 1930's.
When I was a boy, black and white televisions brought "The Lone Ranger," "Sky King," and "Leave it to Beaver" into our living room. It was a time when World War II veterans purchased cookie-cutter homes in suburban communities then piled their baby boomer children into station wagons and hit the open road on newly built four lanes. While I enjoyed the advantages of modern travel, T Model Tommy was awakening me to the motoring wonders of an earlier day.
Meader's classic inspired me to explore the pre-Interstate world of dirt roads, makeshift road signs, garish service stations and quaint roadside eateries. When I discovered maps and contemplated their twisting, curving lines, I imagined myself on the road, driving, looking, and beholding the multitude of wonders all around me. I pictured mountains and rivers. I dreamed of bridges and conjured up river ferries. I envisioned old farmhouses and towns. I plotted trips and imagined myself traveling across the country. From my home in Ohio, west on US 50, following the road signs through Indiana, Illinois, across the Mississippi, into Missouri and Kansas where I picked up the now famous Route 66 and then on to the West Coast, my fertile imagination carried me on a cross-country tour.
As the years went by, my early interest developed into a love affair with maps. I like road maps, topographical maps, battle maps, even schematic maps. It all started with the book called "T Model Tommy." I learned more from that book and the activities it spawned than I did from a year of classroom learning.
A little over a decade ago I fell into a string of good books that opened up more of this world of history to me. In "Follow the River," James Alexander Thom weaves a story around a real-life event which began when Shawnee Indians captured twenty-three year-old, pregnant Mary Draper Ingles, a pioneer woman who lived in southwestern Virginia in 1755. As the Shawnee carried her further and further from home, Mary painstakingly memorized every landmark, every bend and curve in the river, every bluff, every twisted tree, hoping that these geographic features would one day become her road signs home. After many months of plotting and scheming, never letting the spark of hope fade, she found the right opportunity and escaped her captors. Calling up her memory of the route her kidnapers had carried her, Mary followed the same rivers over 800 miles back home to Draper Meadows, near present-day Roanoke, Virginia.
Thom's descriptive writing style drew me into Mary's story. I shared her intense longing for home and family - for the familiar. I cringed every time she came to a new tributary. Because she couldn't swim, she had to trudge upstream until she could wade across. Sometimes it took her several days just to reach a point 15 yards from where she had started. I could almost feel the briers cutting her legs and the blisters on her bare feet as she trod ever onward through the dark, dense, undeveloped wilderness. I sensed her hunger pangs as she rooted through the brush for a few berries to keep her going. I shivered with her as the cold October evenings gave way to frigid nights. And I felt her excitement as she recognized those long remembered landmarks - the signs that led her home - those rocky bluffs, those river bends, those twisted trees. Mary Draper Ingles became a true heroine to me, a standard of faith and courage in the face of great odds.
I pulled out my maps again, this time to plot her route. Then it dawned on me. My aunt and uncle owned a riverfront home on the Kentucky side of the Ohio. Mary had walked right over the ground that now belonged to them. My feet had actually traversed the same ground as hers!
Two years later, on a trip to visit my family in Cincinnati, I altered my normal route to see the Kanawha River for the first time. Mary had walked the full length of that river! I contemplated Mary's bravery once again.
Then I read two more of Thom's books. In "From Sea to Shining Sea," Thom's epic fictionalized account of the real-life Clark family of Virginia, I met George Rogers Clark and William Clark. Both grew to become legendary heroes in American history. Thom's story concludes with William Clark's expedition to the Pacific with Meriwether Lewis. When I checked my maps, I realized for the first time that the Missouri begins its meandering in western Montana! What a long river!
And in another of Thom's books, "Long Knife," I discovered an entire piece of history from the American Revolution that I never even knew existed - the war west of the Alleghenies. My maps unfolded once more as I traveled with William Clark's brother - George Rogers - and his rag-tag band of soldiers up and down the Ohio, in and out of Kentucky and across Indiana through the raging waters of the Wabash and north on the Mississippi to Spanish outposts. I didn't know the Spanish had come that far north!
Another writer, Alan Eckert, introduced me to Simon Kenton, the infamous frontiersman and explorer. He founded several towns in Kentucky and Ohio in the late 1700's. But why did Kenton come to the frontier? Did he come because he wanted to become a legendary pioneer?
Reading Eckert's "The Frontiersman," I learned that Kenton actually came to the frontier fleeing for his life. Seventeen-year-old Kenton thought that he had murdered a man in his small village in Fauquier County, Virginia. Kenton had become infatuated with a young woman. But his unrequited love morphed into jealousy when a schoolteacher began to court her. Enraged, Kenton attacked the man, beating him senseless against a tree. Believing the man to be dead, Kenton took out on foot heading west. He didn't stop until he reached Kentucky.
Eight years ago, while out driving in Fauquier County, Virginia, I did a double take as I read the road sign - Old Bust Head Road. I went home and pulled out my maps once more. Then I grabbed The Frontiersman and re-read the part about Kenton's birth and the spot where he nearly killed the schoolteacher. Sure enough, it all happened very near the country road I had been traveling on. Two hundred years later, Kenton's story still lives on in a county road sign!
Later that year on another visit to Cincinnati, I explored some of the tributaries where Kenton once roamed in nearby Kentucky. I even saw a statue of Kenton in a Covington, Kentucky park across the river from Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium.
Eckert's book, laden with maps, inspired me to pull out even more maps, learn geography, and do more research on other characters from his story. I taught myself about the Shawnee leader, Tecumseh, General Anthony Wayne, Daniel Boone, Simon Girty, and many others. Over the years I have been learning without even trying. Learning is such fun when it is effortless. These particular books made history come alive for me because their characters all lived and traveled near my two homes in Ohio and Virginia. I have stepped across some of the same ground where they tread more than two hundred years ago. My eyes have viewed the same rivers and streams, the same valleys and hills and the same rock outcroppings on the same bluffs. These geographical features, the people that lived among them, and the maps that bear record of them, are the road signs of history, still marking the trail for us today.
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