Tuesday, July 11, 2017

"In the Deep Dark Hills of Eastern Kentucky"

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.


  1. Wow! A place really imbued with history. It sounds like a different day out, that's for sure. I was fascinated by the words of the song (her family history) and the accompanying photographs - each one having such a story imbued in the image. The Val McDermid book I ama reading at the moment deals with the Scottish coalfields, miners' strikes and scabbing too. Synchronicity.

    1. Jennie; We spoke recently with a young man who grew up in Hazard, KY--one of the better known coal-mining areas and one where Jim made frequent machinery deliveries back when coal was a booming industry. He--with a Scottish surname--reminded us that many of the original Appalachian settlers were displaced Highland Scots. As he put it: 'they weren't dismayed by the terrain, the darkness, the poverty--it was they had come from.'

  2. This post was fascinating reading. I've never been to Kentucky but I love trees and mountains. It reminds me of a popular book, Hillbilly Elegy, which is a memoir of the author growing up in Kentucky and Ohio. I haven't read the book. I always learn something when I read your blog. Pat xx

  3. Pat; I found this review of 'Hillbilly Elegy' https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/11/books/review-in-hillbilly-elegy-a-compassionate-analysis-of-the-poor-who-love-trump.html--I suspect it would make for realistic--and depressing--assessment of conditions in Eastern Kentucky. The fact that the book is authored by an 'insider' is significant. At one point in our drive--we had rounded a sharp curve with an old house trailer perched at the edge of the road--Jim mentioned that in spite of coming from working-class backgrounds we can't imagine staying in a situation such as families endure in the poor counties.

  4. I read this post with great interest like I do all your posts. As a school teacher, now retired, several decades back we studied Kentucky and the massive efforts underway there to improve the schools and boost the children's educational outcomes. Hopefully it has had some success. Beautiful country, isn't it though.

  5. Jocelyn; The area has its natural beauties, albeit in the way of a majestically forbidding landscape. There has been some effort in places to reclaim land where strip-mining was practiced.
    The young man from Hazard mentioned the lethargy that impacts many there--an unwillingness to avail themselves of the better quality education and health services implemented by both gov't and private agencies. Drug use has added to the traditional problems of alcohol. We drove past a complex called 'Red Bird Mission'--an outreach with a school teaching life-style values--a clinic. Would better paying jobs be the answer? What would those jobs be with the coal industry floundering? How many generations might it take to alter the mindset of discouragement?

  6. You could have been writing about southern West Virginia in this post. Sounds so much like it. It's a hard environment, not for the faint of heart. And yet, there is such a fierce love of home among those raised in the mountains. My husband was raised in a coal camp; his stories are both bleak and colorful, happy and angry. In our area of West Virginia there are no mines and I admit I am thankful for that. These hills hold us in their thrall,and only those who have lived here and loved it will understand.

    1. Sue; I remember the roads of West Virginia and the tiny houses squeezed between a mountain just off the back door and a creek or river roaring past at the edge of the road--mountains looming so steeply that sunlight was almost cut off. I also recall being directed to an eating place in Justice, WV--a railroad station had been converted to serve as a kitchen and dining area--a volunteer group of some sort I think--good home-cooked food, friendly people dishing up--it was the high point of what had been a long day.