Retracing the Route of the
Among the most important achievements of 20th-century science was the revolution in geology in the mid-1960s. According to the new view, the earth's crust consists of several vast plates that ride convection currents in the earth's mantle. Today, for example, the Atlantic Ocean is slowly widening as the plates of the Americas separate from the plates of Europe and Africa. But millions of years ago these plates smashed into each other, producing along their joint a mountain range whose eroded stumps constitute the Appalachians.
Also according to the new view, the North American continent began as a core of ancient rock called the Canadian Shield. Over time, sediments accumulated along the margin—so that whenever the plate carrying the Canadian Shield collided with other plates, the offshore sediments were folded and thrust skyward. As the new mountains wore down, sediments again accumulated. Further collisions repeated the cycle, so that North America grew outward from its original core.
In driving from Rochester across New York and Pennsylvania, Terry and I had traversed geological time from older to younger accretions to the continent. By contrast, those same miles had taken us deeper and deeper into the historical past. The earliest British settlers had established their farms and villages along the Atlantic coast. Subsequent waves of immigrants had then pushed the line of settlement further and further inland: from the coast to the fall line, from the fall line to the eastern foothills, and from the eastern foothills to the transappalachian West.
In reaching Sunbury, we had actually overshot somewhat the frontier of the American Revolution. Although Fort Augusta served as a collection point for Sullivan's supplies, it had originated two decades earlier as a frontier outpost during the French and Indian War. My plan for Day Two of our trip was to reach back to the colonial past by exploring this earlier frontier—which I had taken to calling "Franklin's frontier."
The French and Indian War had begun in 1754 when troops led by a young George Washington (then only 22) were defeated by the French near modern-day Pittsburgh. In their effort to retake the site the following year, British troops under the command of General Edward Braddock suffered an embarrassing defeat. Braddock himself was mortally wounded, and the panicked retreat of his men left the colonists temporarily responsible for their own defense.
By then Benjamin Franklin had retired from the daily demands of his printing business. He had completed the electrical experiments for which he is still famous, and he had immersed himself in public affairs. Although he didn't really fancy himself a soldier, in 1756 he accepted command of a work party to rebuild the fort at Gnadenhutten that hostile Indians had recently destroyed.
I had long admired Franklin as a person who succeeded in becoming fully himself. From discussions of his autobiography with my students at RIT I had learned that "fully himself" often struck them as "full of himself." But as full of himself as Franklin at times appears, I still feel that he managed to do in his life pretty much everything he wanted to do—an achievement I'd wish for anybody.
My main hope for the day was to locate the ground on which Franklin had developed the "warrior" aspect of his public identity, and success wasn't long in coming. Within a couple hours after leaving Pottsville—where we had spent the night with Terry's cousin—we located on the outskirts of Lehighton the historical marker for the fort at Gnadenhutten. Then at nearby Weissport we found the site of Franklin's replacement fort, which was commemorated by a statue in the town square.
In his autobiography Franklin made it clear that during the French and Indian War he had performed what he believed to be his duty as an Englishman. But he made it equally clear that the war had changed his opinion regarding the competence of non-colonial Englishmen to conduct colonial affairs.
When Braddock began assembling his army's supply train, for example, Franklin had helped hire the necessary wagons. At the same time, he politely shared with the general his concerns for the upcoming expedition. "The only Danger I apprehend of Obstruction to your March," he commented one day, "is from Ambuscades of Indians, who by constant Practice are dextrous in laying and executing them." 11 But Braddock couldn't be swayed. "He smil'd at my Ignorance," Franklin wrote in his autobiography:
and reply'd, 'These Savages may indeed be a formidable Enemy to your raw American Militia; but upon the Kings regular and disciplin'd Troops, Sir, it is impossible they should make any Impression.' 12
Two decades later, when the colonists signed their declaration of independence, Frankin was 70, making him an elderly man throughout the American Revolution. But during the French and Indian War he had been young enough to serve in the field. He had shared with his men "hard Lodging on the Floor of our Hut at Gnadden, wrapt only in a Blanket or two," 13 and he had (quite characteristically) stolen a moment from the rigors of fort building to admire the ax-wielding skill of his men:
Seeing the Trees fall so fast, I had the Curiosity to look at my Watch when two Men began to cut at a Pine. In 6 Minutes they had it upon the Ground; and I found it of 14 Inches Diameter. 14
In locating the site of the fort, I had succeeded in reaching back to events that helped set the stage for the American Revolution. Now with my own strides I was gauging that terrain, taking its measure. Yet I wasn’t able to give my imagination full rein—for by then I was also awash in a past quite different from the one I had expected to find.
Our first stop of the day had actually been the historical marker for Fort Franklin, another in the series of frontier forts built by Franklin’s men (though led by someone other than Franklin, who had been called back to Philadelphia in connection with his duties as a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly). The surrounding woods looked inviting, so at Terry’s request we did some exploring.
Back in the car, we hadn’t driven more than a few miles further along PA-309 when we crossed the Appalachian Trail. Again Terry requested a walk—which didn’t surprise me. After all, she’s an AT veteran. In 1982 she hiked its entire length: from Springer Mountain, Georgia (in April), to Mount Katahdin, Maine (in October).
In June 1982—not long after I had been offered the RIT job—I met her at Harpers Ferry, where the AT crosses the Potomac, and we spent a couple days visiting one of our college friends at Shepherdstown, just upriver. This particular section in Pennsylvania would have come shortly afterward.
The grassy jeep path climbed gradually, and from time to time we passed trees freshly marked with white blazes. As the trail crested, the highway noises dropped away, and in that moment I found myself immersed not in the past of the French and Indian War—the past of Franklin’s frontier—but in the past of Terry’s AT hike.
Along this route in 1982, she had put in her ten to twenty miles each day, occasionally stopping at places like Harpers Ferry to resupply. Meanwhile, she had gotten to know other "through hikers." Since then I’ve met some of them and heard them talk about their hiking experiences. But in such conversations, I’m always the outsider. Their willingness to suspend for three seasons their usual routines gives them membership in a special fraternity.
In driving to the Franklin sites near Lehighton, we continued traversing terrain that was familiar to Terry from her AT hike. Thus the same general area was filled with pasts of two very different types, and I could never be sure which one we would come across next.
As we approached Easton, late in the day, the changing topography should have felt soothing. We were still above the fall line, but we had crossed the mountains. In the level, straight roads I could read the approaching coastal plain. Our original goal had been Easton, and—with the arrival of evening—the time had indeed come to find a motel. But the unfamiliar cityscape made me feel uncomfortable.
Fortunately, not far from Easton was the town of Wind Gap, where we spotted a motel that was listed in our AAA guidebook. That still left the hurdle of interacting with the desk clerk—one of those protocols of travel like hailing a taxi that I find awkward. But the arrangements were quickly made, and sooner than I expected we were unloading the car and unpacking our gear.
© 2000, Thomas D. Cornell
Notes to Essay III