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A rough-built, 100-year-old table sits among carefully stacked rock walls inside a large rock shelter behind a waterfall in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. Reportedly, the rock shelter was a hideout for two men who had robbed a store at the nearby Zenith mining community in the early 20th century | Ben Garrett/IH

“It’s definitely narrow, that’s for sure.” 

My brother calls those words back to me as he carefully picks his way down a rocky chasm towards the rim of the gorge that encases the Big South Fork River and its main tributaries.

We’re far off-trail, looking for something that the locals once called “Narrow Gap.” Armed with only a topographical map that contains a single hand-drawn line denoting the gap we’re looking for, we don’t know exactly where we’re going to find the passageway from the plateau’s ridgetop to the base of the massive cliff line that cuts the gorge off from the outside world. So we’re following the most obvious terrain feature: a small stream that is cascading towards the rim of the gorge.

As it does so, the stream passes through the chasm, a rock-lined passageway that shelters it and the massive stands of rhododendron that crowd it. Indeed, it’s easy to see why this narrow chasm would’ve been referred to as Narrow Gap — or Nary Gap, as it was once called in the vernacular of those who settled the northern Cumberland Plateau.

Except that it’s not what we’re looking for. Like most of the streams that enter the gorge, this one does so by abruptly tumbling over a rock ledge as a waterfall. But standing at the edge of the rock outcropping and peering at the waterfall’s base, the better part of 100 ft. below, it stands to reason that the falling stream of water is shielding the rock shelter that we’re looking for.

A few minutes later, we’ve discovered the gap, and are working are way through it. In areas where the BSF gorge is at its most unforgiving, the natural passageways are few and far between, which means the four-legged critters that roam this rugged terrain — deer, bear and the occasional wild boar — are funneled to the few places where they can climb up or down. Watching for faint game trails will often lead one to a way to get from the top of the cliff to the bottom, or vice versa.

In this case, we step out onto a tabletop rock exposure that offers an expansive view of the surrounding gorge. But just off to the side, almost hidden, is a rock-lined passage that leads into the gorge. This is the Nary Gap.

A few minutes more, and we’re working our way along the base of the cliff, a rusting 50-gallon drum — maybe used to capture water; maybe used in a moonshining operation — partially hidden in the leaf litter just down the hill and serving as further indication that we’re on the right track. And then it comes into view: a massive rock shelter behind the very waterfall we were standing atop of a short while earlier. Inside the rock shelter, delicately stacked rocks form a sort of miniature fortress, and a crudely-built table is protected from the elements that would’ve long caused it to return to the earth if it had been outside the rock shelter.

Anyone who has spent much time exploring the Big South Fork knows that the countless “rock houses,” as they’re often called, have been used for shelter and security since humans first set foot here. First they were used by the Indians who hunted these lands. Later, they were used by white men first as temporary hunting camps or permanent residences. Still later, some of them were used to shelter runaway slaves and, eventually, by moonshiners who were hiding from the long arm of the law.

Lathern Hull, a lifelong resident of the Honey Creek area of Fentress County, tells the story of the men who once used this particular rock shelter. Hull has spent many years roaming the forests on the southern end of the Big South Fork NRRA; he knows the south end of the national park like Oneida’s Donny Kidd knows the north end. But he’s familiar with the Nary Gap and the rock shelter that awaits at the bottom of it for a reason other than having explored it for himself. If these rock walls could talk, they could tell some of his family’s history.

Hull recounts the stories that have been handed down, word-of-mouth, through the generations. He tells of a great-great-uncle who once sought refuge here after robbing a store at Zenith, the old mining camp not too far away. As Hull tells it, the man accidentally shot and killed his companion — who had robbed the store with him — as his friend made his way back to the shelter. He mistook him for the law.

After that, the man simply vanished, never to be heard from again. He told his mother, who lived less than a mile away, as the crow flies, that he was going to gather pine kindling. And no one ever saw him after that. 

No one knows all the details of the story, because the rock walls can’t talk. And that’s a shame, in some ways, because they would certainly have intriguing stories to tell. But maybe it’s for the best. Trained archaeologists can make them talk, of course, but the rest of us are free to let our imaginations roam wild, conjuring our own stories of what must’ve taken place in these carefully hidden rock shelters.

These days, Hull reckons that he’s the last person alive who remembers to get into the rock shelter at the base of Nary Gap. That’s for good reason: it’s not easy to find, and no easier to get into. Hull worries that hikers will eventually stumble into the rock shelter and destroy the secrets it holds. That’s probably not an unfounded fear. The nearest hiking trail isn’t too far away. And the 100-year-old wooden table inside this hideout, like the carefully stacked stone walls surrounding it, is fragile. It would be easy for a malicious explorer to destroy the signs of past inhabitancy — and just as easy for a well-meaning explorer to do it by accident.

So, Nary Gap will remain unmarked on official maps. And as the last people who know its past fade from this land, it’ll simply be forgotten, the stories it offers left to become true secrets once again. 

That’s the nature of this rugged terrain. From the north end of the Big South Fork NRRA to the south, there are Nary Gaps throughout the national park. You stumble upon them, you find the remnants of the moonshine fireboxes, the old wooden ladders leading to their bases, the iron washtubs and the other remnants of humanity past, and you wonder about their stories — all the while knowing that you’ll never truly convince these rock walls to tell the secrets they harbor.

This article is the March 2020 installment of Our Back Yard, presented by First National Bank on the first week of each month as part of the Independent Herald’s Back Page Features series. A print version of this article can be found on Page B8 of the March 5, 2020 edition of the Independent Herald.