Lamar Marshall cannot make it over the log. It lays across a small creek somewhere in the Nantahala National Forest outside Cowee, western North Carolina, as a bridge. His problem is a bruised knee, caused by a bang against his home firewood cord. Standing in front of the thick trunk, seeking another way across, he explains that while this particular log was not laid by ancient Cherokees, it does resemble the way they would fell logs to get across creeks like this. "They called 'em raccoon bridges,'" he explains. If anyone would know this, it's Marshall.

The former land surveyor, electrical engineer, and Alabamian anti-logging activist (in that order), is the world's foremost expert on ancient Cherokee trails. At 68, he's stocky, with a soft, even face, like a meatier Billy Bob Thornton, and long eyelashes. He speaks softly, with a southern drawl. In this forest, on a warm late-winter day, he wears spectacles and a hearing aid, but also a camo jacket and pants, a waist-pack stuffed with surveying gear, and a pistol. It is often in this appearance, a hunter's getup, that Marshall has personally mapped well over 1,000 miles of Cherokee trails across Appalachia, compiling the mappings into a vast database, complete with historical annotations and Cherokee place names. And his boots are waterproof, he notes, as he carefully fords the creek.

Lamar Marshall. | (Brent Cane/Courtesy Narratively)

There are certain attributes which are common to Cherokee trails. They tend to follow rivers or ridge-lines. They are often steep. Brett Riggs, an archaeologist at Western Carolina University with a specialty in Cherokee landscapes, equates them with a modern highway system in the way that they linked population centers (some are even replicated in modern roads). Horses, introduced to the tribe in the 18th century, were sometimes used, but mostly Cherokees travelled by foot, in soft-soled moccasins. Inside Marshall's home there are photographs of him as a young man wearing nothing but a loincloth and these moccasins; he used to sometimes explore the woods of his native Alabama dressed this way. "It was just kind of a fun thing to project myself back into time," he explains. "I always admired the native lifestyle. Maybe I played cowboys and Indians too much when I was little. I was always the Indians, I know that."

Marshall's project, a largely independent venture, has taken up nearly a decade of his life. It is no small feat. He has braved wasps, mosquitoes, ticks, chest-high nettles, rainstorms, hypothermia. Much of the routes are so steep that early Europeans avoided them. Though he has no academic credentials, he scours archives across the country for primary source materials that contain mention of the trails. It is an immense labor but he is nonchalant about his motivations. "I love the trails. I love walking on the trails, camping next to the trails. And feeling like right now: What did the first white people see when they came up here?"

Prior to his trails project, Marshall headed a conservation group in Alabama. He is an ardent environmentalist and near militant in his activism. But while his greenie cred would do well by any Greenpeace tree-hugger, Marshall is also a Republican, gun-owning, bear-hunting Creationist. But if the contrast seems odd, in Marshall's mind, protecting God's work from the nefarious designs of the state might constitute the very essence of American patriotism. "Wilderness to me is the ultimate expression of freedom," he says.

Those who benefit most from Marshall's efforts are modern Cherokees. His work is funded by the Eastern Band tribe in western North Carolina, to whom all the mapping data will go. It will be used in schools. Riggs, the WCU archeologist, is helping Marshall make the maps interactive, with historical storylines and photos. "This is much more than just trails: it's the ecology of the trails, the geography of the trails," he says. "They don't have this history. They just don't have it." Indeed, this is the first time that the trails have ever been compiled into a single source. Marshall also hopes to get some of them protected by the United States Forest Service, who he has collaborated with in the past — the North Carolina state is figuring his trail data into their upcoming forest management plan. Marshall plans to be finished with the whole enterprise in September, when he will hand everything over to the Eastern Band tribe. "This will help them maintain their cultural heritage," he says. "They're losing that."

Tom Belt, a Cherokee language expert at WCU who is also Cherokee, describes the project's impacts on the tribe as unprecedented. Like other native peoples, the Cherokees have long struggled to define their own historical identity and nothing is more crucial to that than landscapes. "It may be a town or a gas station to the United States or the state of North Carolina," Belt says, "but at one time underneath it might have existed a very extensive culturally-based community that doesn't exist now. That's the kind of stuff we wanna know. What was the name of that place?"

Marshall consulting a topographic map near the Cowee mound. | (Brent Cane/Courtesy Narratively)

Riggs, too, believes that compiling all of this data into a single source will prove empowering for the tribe, especially its young people. It is one thing to have a vague notion that some land was once yours; it's wholly another to see it clearly laid out, and how ownership has changed over time. "When you take some place and you rename it you've asserted that, 'This now belongs to us,'" he says. "If you can, even on paper, reverse that process so that you make it clear that there was a Cherokee landscape here, it gives Cherokee people a conceptual ownership that in many cases they are currently lacking."

"We didn't come into a blank howling wilderness," he adds. "We took over this place."

Read the rest of this story at Narratively.

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