Yes, people are struggling. But the locals know how to have fun.
Much has been said about poverty-stricken Appalachia, recently hit anew by the coal industry’s decline. Even a quick drive through some towns can be unnerving; eerie abandoned shops and homes, all boarded-up and toothless, stare back at you, urging you to press down the gas just a bit harder. In Cumberland, a town in Kentucky’s southeast, I saw a central building had collapsed in on itself like a jack-o’-lantern left on a porch till Thanksgiving.
But this doesn’t mean life itself has ground to a halt. My local guide there, Kathy Hoiska, and I spent hours in her truck going bear-spotting. Equipped with a giant mango-and-pineapple flavored snow cone she bought from a local stall, Kathy explained that she and her friends would often spend the days like this -- driving through the forests looking for bears.
At about 10pm one evening, when the sun had set and we crossed off any hopes of finding a bear, Kathy invited me to partake in an even more renowned local tradition: moonshining. She got out several mason jars filled with colorful liquid. The most potent of the lot looked as clear and colorless as water. I took a tiny sip that left me sputtering. “Warmed with a bit of honey and lemon, it’s perfect for a cold,” Kathy said. I think it would be better to run a lawnmower on.
So much of my experience here depended on the people I met -- I can only assume your trip would likewise turn on little fated twists, the right conversation at the right moment, a tip from a warm stranger. But I suspect as well you’d leave with some of the impressions about the region as a whole. “The mountain air gets stuck in your bones,” a woman who had recently returned to eastern Kentucky after several years working in Louisville. “After a while, you’ve just got to come back.”
As I’m driving back to Lexington from Whitesburg, I’m met with another downpour -- one that’s so strong that I have to pull over. As I sit in my car waiting at a Family Dollar store parking lot, I look back across the looming Appalachians, now bearded in fog. Eastern Kentucky might be shrouded in myth and stereotypes, but it makes piercing through the veneer all the more satisfying.