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Travel is not just about going somewhere new, but also coming back to somewhere familiar. I’m an unlikely proponent of visiting Eastern Kentucky as someone who was born and raised in New York City and who had never set foot in Kentucky until I met Jacob. However, Jacob helped me find the charm of this oft-forgotten region of the United States even if he doesn’t always see it himself.
My mother-in-law often mourns the destruction of the mountains to coal (an unpopular opinion in a place with parking lots full of cars with bumper stickers stating that coal keeps the lights on). However, the mountain way of life is still alive in Eastern Kentucky. You feel it especially as you drive down a holler, a narrow road that sits along the side of a creek or along the bottom of a steep hill.
A lot of people still enjoy the quiet that comes with this simpler way of life out here or on top of a mountain. Sure, there are problems and it’s hard to deny the endemic poverty that has been part of the history of Appalachia. However, there’s also another history to be told.
Eastern Kentucky is home to a storytelling traditions that means that each generation passes on the stories of the previous generation; few are forgotten (except those who run to other towns hoping to be forgotten). It’s not unusual to hear stories of a distant relative who inevitably was a troublemaker (or maybe this is just Jacob’s family) who got up to mischief that was remembered too well a hundred or so years later.
One such story includes a mythical figure nicknamed Fat Granny. She would get naked and pretend to be drowning to lure handsome young men into rescuing her from the creek (despite being a great swimmer). Those stories remain strong. Even this past trip resulted us in driving along a distant holler in search of the wooden cabin where Jacob’s grandfather had lived and the stories associated with the house. (Pictured above is another wooden cabin built by Jacob’s grandfather.)
Maybe it’s because my own family has a short history in the United States and our history has been so easily forgotten to time, I’ve embraced this willingness to reminisce and laugh over simple pleasures, like a good story next to a cozy fire. I worry about how we can fully maintain these traditions.
For occasions, including our own wedding, Jacob’s family gathered for the first time in a long time to do shape note singing. Shape note singing originated in the American South as a way of teaching students scales as early of 1801. Instead of words, different notes will be sung, such as do, re, fa, sol, la, mi, si.
With the arrival of the Scottish in Appalachia, the sound of shape notes shifted lightly—and again, after the Civil War, shape note singing took on a life of its own in the African American community. However, there’s still a strong tradition within my husband’s family of continuing this beautiful harmonious singing.
However, places do not remain in a bubble. As you drive along the creeks, apparently there used to be swinging bridges all across the creek. Swinging bridges are wooden bridges made of rope, wood, and wire that people would build as a way of reaching their homes on the other side of the creek (often on the steep side of a mountain).
People often park on one side of the creek, which runs along narrow roads (many were built by the PWA during the Great Depression) and walk over. It certainly sounds romantic, but having a reliable lifeline across the river is key. As the counties build more concrete bridges across the creeks and streams, these bridges are left abandoned and rotting, a hint of the distant past.
One tradition mostly gone is the tradition of leather britches (named for their appearance). This manner of storing green beans used to commonly see them hung along a lot of porches (according to my mother-in-law). The idea is that the beans are hung along a thread prior to drying out. This was an easy way to keep beans for harsh winters and although people certainly still preserve many things, it’s rare to see the beans drying along the porches. (For more information about the food of eastern Kentucky, pick up Victuals.)
As with much of roadside America, you’re likely to find some strange roadside attractions in Eastern Kentucky, like the giant Mother Goose in Hazard that was briefly converted into a bed and breakfast or the Pavilion in Louisa, a gas station full of country music memorabilia.
Regardless of whether the coal companies continue to operate in Eastern Kentucky, this area has so much promise. Maybe it’s the New Yorker in me, but I believe that this area could take on another life on its own as a natural paradise for those seeking a quiet weekend away in the lush green forests and the rolling mountains from the big cities in Kentucky. (After all, it’s only two hours to Eastern Kentucky from Lexington.)
A bit further west of the heart of Eastern Kentucky, you have natural beauty like Natural Bridge State Park and the stunning Red River Gorge area that is full of some of the best climbing in the world. Similarly, you have Cumberland Falls, a stunning waterfall where a moonbow can be seen during the full moon. You’ll also find numerous trails that vary in difficulty through the numerous forests of the region, including Daniel Boone National Forest.
I see a future for this region if it embraced what it has: beautiful mountains, rich cultural traditions, and a way of life that may not be around forever. First, Eastern Kentucky needs to improve its offerings for tourists looking for something different.
There is already a new wave of developments in the region, including two distilleries. (One of them [Dueling Barrels] offers tours of its production facility for craft beer and moonshine.) I look forward to seeing more cultural offerings on my next visit.
I’ve seen a lot of countries, however returning to Eastern Kentucky reminded me how nice it is to disconnect from technology properly (my phone had no service anyways) and connect with people for a change. Its charm is in its history and the people who you meet along the way. Instead of taking a flight to a far-flung country, take a short trip to Eastern Kentucky. You might find what you’re looking for.