After spending part of the weekend at the Breaks Interstate Park for the “Tales of the Cumberlands” event, I came away with an even greater love for my roots in Appalachia.
I got to spend Friday with my wife for nearly the entire day and then on Saturday, I made the return trip to the Breaks by myself but taking a different route than the traditional Wise to Clintwood to Haysi to the Breaks route. I decided to take the Kentucky route this time.
The Kentucky route is scenic, eye opening, depressing and forces you to be reflective, all in the same journey.
As I began traveling through Jenkins, KY, you begin to see the wonders you took for granted growing up, the Beth-Elkhorn/Consolidated Coal Company shops and buildings, abandoned and decaying, the former Jenkins High School and other sights along the way. I used to see these quite often on trips to see my uncle who lived in Shelbiana and my great grandmother who lived in Pikeville. I never thought twice about them then. Now on this journey, I look at them, the old company houses, the abandoned businesses on old US 23 with sadness and thinking about the good old days in Appalachia.
As I make my right hand turn to go to Elkhorn City off old US 23, I start to look at old houses, old communities that dotted the road between the turn off and Elkhorn City. Small communities like Ashcamp and the turn off to Hellier, both places where my Mullins and Ratliff families hail from and where some relatives like the Sanders still live or are buried today. The abandoned buildings and houses begin to grow.
As I finally reach Elkhorn City before I get set to make a right hand turn toward the Breaks, I see something that forces me to pull off the road and marvel; the renovation of the old Elkhorn City High School building. Instead of being repurposed for education purposes, the school is beginning the transformation into apartments to serve residents in the town. A project that has been years in the making.
As I get back in my SUV, I travel less than a mile and see a building on the left, across the river that stands like a monument, the new Elkhorn City elementary school building and it is huge. While not quite as big as the Ridgeview Middle and High School complex in Dickenson County, it would cast a shadow over newly built high schools Central and Union in Wise County.
As I come through Elkhorn City, something grabs my attention; the painted elk statues on the streets. It reminds me of seeing the Hokie Bird and its many different versions on the streets in Blacksburg, VA. It lends a little flair and uniqueness to a small town which like Haysi, VA is a gateway to the Breaks. As I made my way up the mountain, stopping a few times along the route to grab pictures of the river that carved the Breaks Park into the “Grand Canyon of the South”, I pull into my destination at the Rhododendron Lodge and Conference Center.
I have to admit, the “Tales of the Cumberlands” event of the weekend did a number of things for me.
I got to meet a lot of different people who hold tradition as though it is a flame that should not be ever extinguished. I also met many people from outside of Appalachia who are so impressed with this “hidden land”.
It reinforced my feelings for my home of Appalachia a little more and made me realize that the chains that hold me here are not the kind that have negative connotations or thoughts. I’m a part of of Appalachia like the very coal seams that run beneath my feet, that drove a region for over a century but now sits decaying like the very matter that died and rotted to form the life blood that drove this region.
The trip through Kentucky was like a wake-up call or something spiritual calling me home to see what Appalachia has become or at least has eroded to, much of it through our own doing and also not willing to stand up, take a stand and fight for Appalachia.
We have stories to tell. Stories of legends, legends greater than Billy the Kid, the Gunfight at the OK Corral and more. We can’t depend on the outside world of Appalachia to do the storytelling for us as they are known for stretching the truth, sensationalizing the smallest aspects of life here in Appalachia and then make fun of us for what we are not; civilized people when we possess more civility than many of our larger metropolitan areas like Chicago for instance.
I also compare Appalachia’s plight to the education process in this country. We have taught our people to be the status quo, not to dream or to strive to break the bonds of these chains of our surroundings.
We don’t think for ourselves here in Appalachia. We let others who claim to know what’s best for us, make the decisions and those decisions have slashed our throat wide open to bleed out the lifeblood of our young people and put out their fire and dreams. In addition, we don’t take care of what we have in natural beauty and wonder, our acquired growth and other points along the way.
We don’t encourage individual thinking, we instead downplay it and regard it as “rebellious” if it goes against the flow of natural thinking or evolution here in the mountains.
Which brings me back to stopping and taking pictures of the Russell Fork River as it flows through the Breaks on its way through Elkhorn City. To see what that river has done over the course of centuries and created one of the most beautiful natural wonders of Appalachia and the South, is breathtaking. The river has cut and carved out its course to form one of the most beautiful parks in the region.
Maybe some of us need to have the resolve of the Russell Fork when trying to determine the course of Appalachia for the future. The river was uninhibited in its movement.
We, as Appalachians, don’t need to be chained or forced to do things the way they have always been, but determined like that same river to cut and carve its mark into the mountains for generations to come.