My step-dad, Wiley Amburgey Jr., worked for the Whitesburg Post Office, the majority of his tenure being at the downtown location when it was the post office and not the tourism building. When I was little, going to town with Wiley was exciting. Me being a holler girl, the change of scenery was nice. There were a few locally owned shops - Hoover's, Dawhare's, Quillen's, and Craft's. The quaint, happy little restaurant and authentically eastern Kentucky and world-centric gift shop (the Courthouse Cafe and Cozy Corner) that was a creation of one of my first best friends mother finished off the corner with class. There was something to see always. The library was downtown. If nothing else, I could go in there and smell old books. My dad's apartment was at one time downtown. Caroline's Diner was there.
By the time I was in middle and high school, walking to town after basketball practice was a regular thing. The old railroad tracks led from in front of my school to town. I'd walk those, crossing the North Fork of the Kentucky River wide-stepping over cross-ties. I'd walk to Madison Ave. to the Appalshop hoping I'd see a friend hanging out waiting on a parent or a ride home. Town was a reprieve to a teenager.
I'm always thinking about how Whitesburg used to be and I think of the other surrounding small eastern Kentucky towns that are like ghost towns compared to they way they were when I was young - Neon, Hindman, and Jenkins. I wonder how to create a new town in those forgotten buildings and streets. A town that will reprieve my daughters one day. I thought about it again when I took a trip to two rural, small Kentucky towns in the central and western part of the state.
My sister and I went to Dinosaur World in Cave City with our children this passed Sunday. We had a lot of fun and saw other things we would have done had we had the time, but for every neat thing, there were two or three novelty businesses closed down. Cave City is home to Mammoth Cave and you can tell at one time it was bustling with tourist attractions.
Later in the week, we were in Calvert City and Draffensville near Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. Again, I saw the emptiness. Many tourist driven businesses with closed doors. The shops that were open for the community seemed ran down and drab. For every business that appeared as if it were giving its best effort, there were as many more empty and deteriorating.
It brought me back to our little eastern Kentucky towns. A recent headline in our local newspaper The Mountain Eagle was "Coal employment down 70% here: 25 more lose jobs". With our local economy in swift decline and residents scrambling to make a life here or pack up and leave, it isn't a wonder that sometimes it feels like we are existing in the Twilight Zone when we walk down our main streets. Whitesburg can seem like a tiny oasis among the very small towns in the mountains. Adventurous folks are trying out new business. We are getting positive press (though it never seems to go beyond the "hey, look at this neat thing"). Yet, as many businesses on Main Street have closed doors as new doors are opened. The thing that the towns I visited had for them that we do not is they are off of major thoroughfares - easily accessible. Still, they are in major decline from the heyday.
I don't know if it is our collective American culture that is changing so that the interest in natural wonders and small town tourism isn't as wondrous as it was when I was small, or if it is our country's economic decline that is keeping people at home more. I consider that maybe the American spirit of entrepreneurship and pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is becoming lost as we become more technology driven and commerce and communication is changing within that landscape. It's that change that is getting at the heart of our small, rural businesses. I also believe that the desire to appear equal with the outside world drives where our local people shop and seek their entertainment. There's more excitement about a possible Target coming to Pikeville than any of the unique specialty eateries opening in their downtown.
As I begin making changes in my lifestyle toward being a working mother in the mountains, sustainability and happiness are always in the back of my mind. How best can I serve this community whilst I'm in it? What is my place here, and how will my daughters settle into their own? What will spring forth and what will remain as the whole country moves more toward the urban lifestyle? There's so many questions and possibilities. It's a brave new world among ghostly streets, lots of efforting and imagination, and many risks.
"Is where we live a kind of lost place, Mama?" my Ivy Pearl asked.
Without thinking, I answered, "Yes, it is, Ivy."
In the few days since she asked, I've been thinking of all the ways that we do very much live in a kind of lost place. Beginning with our cabin being located through the creek and in the woods. People don't visit often. It is like a world all to ourselves if we want it to be, until the summer comes and more people come to visit our landlord and our hearts race when we see someone walking up the road and are unsure where they came from. We can do yoga on the porch in our jammies. We can run and scream like wild banshees. We can fall asleep in the grass and feel safe. We can hear the birds chirping, the creek running, the frogs singing, and the coyotes dueling it out for the alpha factor. It is easy to feel alone and lonesome.
Southeastern, Kentucky is that kind of place the rest of the country/world only hear about in terms of coal, poverty, drug addiction, or bluegrass music. It is still perfectly acceptable to publicly make fun of the "hillbilly". Tolerance and equality preaching folks have done it to my face on numerous occasions and I'm supposed to laugh as if it is a funny joke. Many times I haven't the energy to explain to them what they have just done to me and mine. It isn't worth the conversation. Other times, I'm too angry to speak. It seems to the rest of the country that we are good for entertainment, slave labor, and self perpetuated stagnation.
Nevermind our beauty, kindness, deeply meaningful art, old and rich culture, and the way we insert complexities into the English language that are older than the country itself. We are a kind of lost place. Only known to ourselves. Visited mostly by ourselves. Praised as home by many and few. The world knows us not.
I read an article not too long ago that talked about a study which found that there is a human gene that induces the need to explore. I sit here in this lost place with my children and ache to explore the world with them. These hills are in my blood, in the dust that made my being, in the air I breathe, and they inform every cell of my body. The Kentucky mountains will always be home. Maybe because of that I long to understand the places that aren't lost. I long to understand the other lost places as well. I want to share this world with my girls. It is thought that those people whose ancestors traveled the farthest to inhabit the world have the largest presence of this wanderlust gene. Our ancestors were the Native Americans, Scots-Irish, and early eastern European paid explorers. They came here to find home. They explored the known world before settling here. We have the wanderlust gene.
This winter was a rough one for most of the families in the mountains. It kept us home for weeks on end and behind closed doors. Spring is the busiest time for my husband's tattoo shop, and it will be awhile before we can travel as a whole family. The girls and I ventured out on our own to visit my grandparents in South Carolina. With our modern day compass plugged in, we set out like a burden had been relieved of us. My Papaw has been diagnosed with bone cancer. It won't be long for him. He made ready awhile ago. Love and the wanderlust gene made this mother brave enough to travel alone with three small children. A drop in the bucket to some, and yet to those who reside in a lost place it can seem the pinnacle of excitement.
I even took the girls to a Cultural and Kite Festival in a city unknown to me. That is something I can't remember ever doing before.
We'll travel and know the world as home. Starting out small for now, as finances allow for small, we will go. The limit is through all space and time. We'll come back to our little lost place when we want to feel grounded again and know what's familiar and as connected as our soul. We will be free.
Kelli B. Haywood is the mother of three daughters living in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. She is a writer, spiritual explorer, and avid yogini. Haywood is the Public Affairs Director for WMMT-Real People Radio in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Connect with her on Facebook @ Confluence Mama.
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