In 2013, Jim Dahlman, a journalist and professor of communications at Milligan College in Tennessee, set out to learn more about Appalachia by walking Daniel Boone’s Wilderness Road from Tennessee into Kentucky.
The walk inspired the recently published book “A Familiar Wilderness: Searching for Home on Daniel Boone’s Road.” It is a collection of history, modern observations and interviews with people Dahlman met along the way.
In March of 1775, trapper and explorer Daniel Boone set off from what is now Kingsport, Tennessee to blaze a trail through the recently purchased Transylvania Land Company tract. At the time, Kentucky was regarded as the wilderness. It was up to Boone to mark a trail for settlers to travel through the Cumberland Gap.
Dahlman explained he walked between 275 and 300 miles. He started at Sycamore Shoals State Park just outside of Elizabethtown, Tennessee and ended at Fort Boonesborough, Kentucky. He said his journey was very different than hiking the Appalachian Trail.
“About 90 percent of my mileage was along the sides of highways. I walked a lot of asphalt because this road that Boone traced back in 1775 became the basis of very popular travel paths,” Dahlman said. “And over time they grew up to be overwritten and became the basis of a lot of our road systems.”
The decision to walk Boone’s “trace,” as it is properly called, came from Dahlman’s journalistic curiosity. He wanted to understand what the 240-year-old path meant to the people living along it today. He added that he had lived in the area 13 years at the time, but still did not feel at home. He grew up in New York City and Tampa, Florida, and as an adult he lived in several states and in England.
“I don't know what home was actually supposed to feel like but it felt like I wasn’t quite there yet,” he said. “And so the trip became, in part, a personal desire to get to know my adopted region better.”
He said he learned several lessons about Appalachia on his trip.
“Appalachia is more diverse than a lot of people give it credit for,” Dahlman said. “There's a lot of diversity in the way people think — attitudes about everything from belief in God, to their attitudes about the land, a lot of diversity in economic situations.”