The detachment of 660 Cherokee citizens led by John Adair Bell, Jan’s 2x great uncle, crossed the Tennessee River by ferry three times in the Chattanooga region and another time in central Tennessee at Savannah. When I was first tracing the route that they followed, collecting geographic information for the book that I was writing, it was January of 2008, and the wintry weather put me and my Jeep on icy roads in east Tennessee. I had the roads to myself most of the time, and the slow journey gave me plenty of time to examine the terrain. Much of the route followed U.S. Route 64, although bridges replaced the ferry crossings. Kelly’s Ferry crossed the river about half-way between Chattanooga and Jasper, and the crossing that I intended to use on U.S. Routes 41 and 64 was Marion Memorial Bridge over the east end of Nickajack Lake, a narrow two lane metal truss bridge built in 1929 (and closed in 2012).
The bridge rose in a high arch over the river and extended 1870 feet. As I approached it, I considered the fifty mile detour that I would have to take to get to the other side, in order to resume following the Bell route, if I did not cross the bridge that day. I sat at the café near the end of the bridge and thought about it for a while. No one crossed the bridge while I watched. Probably no one had crossed it that day. I talked to the waitress about alternate routes. She assured me that she would not cross the bridge, but she lived walking distance away from the restaurant, and wouldn’t dream of going out on the roads that day anyway.
I should have taken the detour. I realized that when I was spinning my four-wheel-drive wheels up to the highest point in the arch, and then understood that, no matter whether I slid backwards or down the coming 900 feet incline, maintaining control would require the intervention of angels. I crept down the center of the bridge lanes at slower than a walking pace, praying the whole way, and with that needed intervention I reached the other side.
Driving the route in 2008 was certainly easier than driving a team of oxen and a heavily-laden wagon in a caravan seven hundred miles in the winter of 1838-39, but there were a few elements of the trip that recollected the challenges of the original one.