The roads of eastern Kentucky spiral up and down the mountains, twisting past the small shabby houses, sagging barns, and vintage house trailers that cling to the steep hillsides. Many homesteads have been abandoned; rank weeds, brush and kudzu clamber over skeletons of rusting vehicles and tap at broken windows. There are no gas stations along the roads, no 'mom and pop' stores where one might stop to buy a candy bar, a bottled drink.
When our thoughts turned to Kentucky as a potential retirement location, the eastern counties, poorest in the state, didn't figure in our considerations.
In the late 1970's Jim worked for Lord Construction, delivering and setting up coal crushers. I traveled with him on a number of runs into the coal mining areas of Kentucky and neighboring West Virginia, bracing myself as the truck ground around sharp curves, trying not to think what might happen should a coal truck come barreling at us. There was no escape: sheer mountain wall on one side and on the other the plunge into deep ravine.
Jim announced that we needed a day out on Saturday. He had a mind to drive through the Daniel Boone National Forest and tour Bell and Harlan counties.
There was little traffic on the roads as we neared our destination--with the coal industry languishing-- there were no lumbering coal trucks, few people out and about in the tiny hamlets. Most had a post office, a church or two--Missionary Baptist or Holiness/Pentecostal.
Harlan was busy. We didn't find a proper restaurant, only a selection of 'fast food' venues. There were several 'Dollar Stores.'
We settled for a sandwich at Arbys, before tackling yet another mountain road. I tried to follow our route, peering at signs, comparing them to the road atlas open on my lap.
We suspected that many of the roads we encountered weren't really on the map!
Rain was spattering the windshield when a curve in the road brought us alongside the above-ground workings of the Bledsoe Mining Company.
Jim took several photos through the open car window.
Even on a day of sunshine the looming mountains block the light.
Turning, we caught up a wrecker grinding its slow way up the mountain, a disabled truck in tow. There are no opportunities to 'pass' so we trundled along behind, relieved that at the next junction the wrecker took the opposite turning from the one we needed.
Last year when we traded cars, we took our business to a Honda dealership in Somerset, a small city on the edge of the eastern Kentucky coalfields.
The two young men who saw us through the transaction had moved to the city from coal counties. As we waited for paperwork to be processed, one of them shared something of his family background--several generations of coal miners, struggling to make a living. Pulling out his phone, he showed us photos of the tidy house he and his wife had just purchased in an area sub-division. He marveled that he was the first in his family to own a 'real house--not a trailer house!'
It is too easy perhaps to think of the Appalachians in cliches--the songs and stories abound of mountain tragedies: coal mining disasters, moonshine stills, family feuds carried on through generations, general poverty, a lack of good schools, available medical services.
Since our road trip a ballad poignantly sung by Patty Loveless has echoed in my head. There are several you tube presentations, including a live performance with Patty speaking of her father's death from 'black lung,' the great killer of coal miners.
I've chosen to share the ballad accompanied by a collection of vintage photos that someone thoughtfully arranged.
There is one photo of a 'snake handling' ritual at a Pentecostal church--I quickly averted my gaze from that one!
Snake handlers and moonshiners make the news just often enough in Kentucky to suggest that the old ways are still with us.