Traveling minister James Smith’s journal, 1792: “We started just as the sun began to gild the tops of the high mountains. We ascended Cumberland Mountain, from the top of which the bright luminary of day appeared to our view in all his rising glory; the mists dispersed and the floating clouds hasted away at his appearing. This is the famous Cumberland Gap.” Gap appears in the literature as a synonym for pass, and it is often used interchangeably with gorge. In Pennsylvania, a gap is a “deep sharp notch” in a mountain ridge. Water gaps are gaps near a mountain’s base through which water passes. And here we get close to what a gap actually is: the course of a stream, one that cut down into the land as the land rose or one that’s still a waterway, still cutting down through an older land feature. The Cumberland Gap is an old streambed, “discovered” by Dr. Thomas Walker in 1750. It can be assumed that deer, bears, lions, and coyotes discovered it long before Dr. Walker, and the Cherokee used it for centuries before Daniel Boone promoted it as a pathway through the Appalachians, into Kentucky. Boones Trace, as it was originally known, was widened to allow Conestoga wagons to navigate it. Today, if you drive U.S. Highway 25E through the gap, you drive among a parade of ghosts. It may seem reasonable to assert that gap is, then, a regional colloquialism for pass; however, a gap is clearly narrower than most passes and related to water—closer in nature to (but not as daunting as) a gorge. Note: if a watercourse does not complete its cut, or the land rises and the water diverts, the subsequent opening in the hills is known as a wind gap.

Luis Alberto Urrea

Outside Weber City my pace picked up. And now on my left, for the first time, was a mountain range. Its presence and proximity gave a whole different feel to my drive. The mountain was an even ridge that had few peaks; it stretched into the distance, parallel to the highway. This was the Cumberland chain. I was passing through Cumberland Gap. The side of the road here was sheer rock-face.

— Abraham Verghese, My Own Country

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