March 12, 2008
Originally published July 18, 2003
I last visited Harlan County, Kentucky in 1988. My daughter was three years old. I got a wild hair and decided to make a Kentucky vacation for my ex-Texan wife at the time, who had never seen my roots. We drove a mere eight hours to get there, complete with piss-stops for two wimmen in the car.
I remember when that was a sixteen-hour drive and you pissed in an RC Cola bottle if you had to go, then pitched the piss out the window of the car. My dad was a stop-for-gas-only guy an a road trip. We made that trip a lot in my childhood, and always called it "going back home."
I needed to go back when I did, just to know, once and for all, that Harlan was NOT my "home" anymore. I was a certified Cracker by then. I had a Texican wife and a Jawja daughter. They didn't know crap about that place and they didn't need to. But I remembered.
We stayed at my Aunt Jenetta's house, right on the banks of the Cumberland River. Aunt 'Netta was flooded out of that house four times that I knew about. I could see water-marks 6" below the ceiling in every room. The river was AT LEAST 30' below basement level in her back yard until the river became angry. Then, it became angry very fast. She learned to grab important shit and run when the river started to rise.
She kept her album of family photographs and lost almost everything else during the floods.
She was dying of breast cancer when I went to visit. She was in-between the trip to Nashville every two weeks for chemo treatments, and she was feeling weak, but glad to see me. I had a wonderful visit. We went everywhere I wanted to go.
Aunt 'Netta drove, too, and scared the living shit out of my ex-wife. 'Netta had been driving those mountain roads all of her life and doing 70 on a suicide curve with the tires squealing like tortured cats didn't bother her at all. My ex-wife almost shit her pants riding in 'Netta's car.
I didn't. I trusted Aunt 'Netta.
We went to Lewellen, where I was born. The coal mining camp is gone now, but I stood where my grandparent's house once was and I saw a tendril of smoke curling through the trees and into the sky when I looked down Highway 26.
"Netta, is that damn slate dump still burning?" I asked.
"Honey, you KNOW it is. That thing caught on fire before you were born. It'll still be burning when the lights go out on us all."
It probably will. That's a LOT of slate to feast on.
My daughter ran happy in the streets of Loyal, Kentucky that night and caught fireflies in her hand. We put them in a jar and that night in her room, the jar lit up like a Coleman lantern.
She wanted to take them back to Savannah and turn them loose, and we tried... but the bugs didn't make it.
The next day, we went up on Pine Mountain and explored the limestone caves. We also picked a passel of what I always knew as "Mountain Tea," a wild, low-growing vine with red berries on it. Forget the berries. Grab a handfull of those leaves and chew them. It always tasted like spearmint to me.
We left the next day and drove almost all the way across the state to Owensboro, (home of Jim Beam and Red Man chewing tobacco) which may as well be in Indiana as far as I am concerned. That part of the state ain't Kentucky to me.
I am a child of the hollers and I always will be, deep inside. Aunt 'Netta died about the same time my father did, and that slate dump is STILL burning on the side of the mountain in a place once called Lewellen, which doesn't even exist anymore. I'll go in my sweet time, too, but that lonely slate dump will outlive me. My grandson probably could go see it burn with HIS grandsons, and not a one of them would sense ANYTHING about the lives that once were lived in that place that doesn't exist anymore.
That once was my home, and it's all gone now.
But Earth Abides.
All content © Rob Smith