Unfolding the Map
"The highway took me through Danville, where I saw a pillared antebellum mansion with a trailer court on the front lawn. Route 127 ran down a long valley of pastures and fields edged by low, rocky bluffs and split by a stream the color of muskmelon. In the distance rose the foothills of the Appalachians, old mountains that once separated the Atlantic from the shallow inland sea now the middle of America. The licks came out of the hills, the fields got smaller, and there were little sawmills cutting hardwood into pallets, crates, fenceposts. The houses shrank, and their colors changed from white to pastels to iridescents to no paint at all. The lawns went from Vertagreen bluegrass to thin fescue to hard-packed dirt glinting with fragments of glass, and the lawn ornaments changed from birdbaths to plastic flamingoes and donkeys to broken-down automobiles with raised hoods like tombstones. On the porches stood long-legged wringer washers and ruined sofas, and, by the front doors, washtubs hung like coats of arms."
Blue Highways: Part 1, Chapter 13
When I was in my early 20s, a young idealistic volunteer in inner-city Milwaukee who had done two years of service and had no idea what he was going to do for a career, I considered doing a third year of service in Appalachia. The program that I volunteered for was going to open a volunteer community in Hazard, Kentucky. Yes, this was the same Hazard, Kentucky that inspired the the TV show The Dukes of Hazzard, and later the movie of the same name. True fact: in Hazard, Kentucky I was told there was even a Hogg family that inspired the infamous Boss Hogg on the TV show.
I went with a director of the program down to Hazard to scope out the possibilities for a volunteer community there. I remember driving south, through Cincinnati, Ohio into Covington, Kentucky and then past Lexington and on down Highway 402 through the mountains and into Hazard. As we got farther from Lexington, the scene fit perfectly with what William Least-Heat Moon (LHM) describes above in his quote. I remember vividly passing seamlessly from bluegrass and nice dwellings into mountains and poverty, but not all at once. It sort of snuck up on you until suddenly, you were in it. The poverty was very apparent: trailer houses and shacks with rusting automobiles or other machinery in the yards. At the same time, modern convenience also sprung out at me, at least at the dwellings along the roads. There were satellite dishes on many of the trailer homes, and the newest model pickup trucks parked alongside rusting heaps on the front lawn. Clearly, like in many of our inner-cities, people picked what to do without and what to do with. I thought it was selective poverty, in the sense that perhaps foregoing the truck or not having satellite TV might make other things possible for these poorer families, but the truck and satellite TV was too important to pass up.
Though I was drawn to the area, I decided not to continue to volunteer. But I got to know some of the people who went to volunteer in that newly opened community, and my girlfriend (now my wife) and another friend and I drove down to Hazard to visit them. What struck me was the disconnect with what people believed and how they acted. I was pretty lefty in my politics at the time (really, I still am), and most people I met were pretty conservative. They were active gun enthusiasts and voted Republican. I was probably treated pretty well by them because I was white, and even my longer hair that I wore at the time fit in with some of the styling and grooming of the people who lived in the hollers. If I had gotten into political discussions or discussions about social mores, I would have probably disagreed with them 99 percent of the time. Yet, they were very nice to us. We stopped at an outdoor flea market where you could buy everything, even guns. I was invited to come hunting and fishing by a guy I didn't know, who told me that "those Northern girls don't treat you good...you come down here and we'll fix you up with a nice Southern girl who'll cook for you and treat you right." My girlfriend was somewhat amused...probably because I didn't take the guy up on his offer. When we were invited to people's houses, even those that were poorer, they never failed to have something for us. As LHM moves later in the book into Tennessee, he marvels that the people who have the least are usually the ones to invite you to dinner. That's my experience of Appalachian Kentucky.
This all hits home to me now in another way, because being adopted, I recently learned that my biological mother came from similar roots in West Virginia. Plain, hardworking, and often exploited people that would still give the shirts off their backs for friends, relatives and even strangers. In the Appalachians, coal was king and people were often in thrall to the coal companies for work and a livelihood, but the dangerous work and the poverty brought them together. In a way, I'm proud that I come from such stock. Certainly with poverty comes pain and suffering, but also a connectedness to community, work and family because they are precious to survival.
What this all has to do with Danville, I'm not sure. Wikipedia says that Danville is known as the "City of Firsts" because of all the things that first happened there. First courthouse in Kentucky, first post office west of the Alleghenies, first state supported school for the deaf, first physician to successfully remove an ovarian tumor, oldest college campus west of the Alleghenies. However, as LHM seems to indicate, Danville and Lexington are gateways to this most rural, most poverty ridden, in some ways most backward part of the country. We tend to forget these areas because white Americans don't like to see poverty, especially white poverty, so the gateways are usually closed, keeping white poor folks back in the shadows of the mountains and the hollers. But if you take the paths that the Danvilles and the Lexingtons open to these areas, you may find amidst the poverty shining moments, adventures and deep discovery and meaning. So visit Danville and think of it as a doorway to the Appalachians. If it is too rural for you, you can always take in a festival and then go back to the cities. But if you want to see a unique slice of America, use Danville as a way point to see rural, Appalachian Kentucky. Perhaps you'll be entranced by its beauty and fascinated by its contradictions, like I was.
If you want to know more about Danville
Next up: Ida and Bug, Kentucky