Day 14: Lookout to Hindman (50 miles)
I woke sore from the day before. I had fallen twice yesterday trying to get used to my new eggbeater pedals. Lila, Siahm, and David were already downstairs getting ready and preparing a breakfast of pancakes.
Spooked about David’s dog talk, Lila, Siahm, and I agreed to join forces for the day. We figured there would be safety in numbers. Siahm’s job would be to yell at them, I would carry the mace, and Lila had her tire pump ready to swing. We set off toward Hindman, Dog Squad in full effect.
David told us there were packs of dogs hiding in the tall grass, in every bush, in every culvert. I was on high alert. The early morning was peppered with the barking of dogs either chained up or behind fences. Then, we had our first attacker.
It was some mutt running out from someone’s yard. I had my mace in hand and Siahm started yelling. I was this close to giving it a face full of chili pepper concentrate (capsaicin) when I noticed it responded to Siahm’s shriek. I yelled too and it retreated. That same course of events happened probably 7 or 8 times that morning. In short, the dogs weren’t nearly as bad as I’d expected.
Even though the dogs weren’t so bad the hills of Kentucky were no joke. Though not as high, some were as steep as the worst of the Virginia Appalachians.
Bicycling through rural eastern Kentucky was a cultural experience for all of us, especially Siahm. If the reader recalls, Siahm is from New York by way of France and the South is totally foreign to her.
For instance, stopped outside a gas station near Bypro she asked us, “have you seen the bottles on the road? They’re full of dark brown and black liquid. What is that?” And that’s when Siahm learned what chewing tobacco, or dip, was.
There were plenty of oddities for me as well. For instance, we came across a gas station that was also a post office. We then came across a gas station that had a tanning bed. We also noticed that every house we passed kept their trash in metal cages. Though I’m not completely positive, I’m fairly certain it was to stop bears from getting into the trash.
Another common sight in the state (and Western Virginia) were Trump/Pence campaign signs. Though I expected it, it really bummed me out that so many people supported this orange biohazard of a man. However, as we came through the area, his appeal to the residents began to make more sense.
What I saw bicycling through Eastern Kentucky and Western Virginia was real poverty. Dickenson county, right by the Kentucky border, had the highest overdose numbers in the state of Virginia. We were locked in the Freeda Baptist center the previous night because of wandering drug addicts. Though the state had plenty of natural beauty, in many parts trash could be seen strewn all about the roadsides. Countless closed-down business and abandoned buildings in disrepair. Some people told us not to drink the water. Sometimes we would travel more than 30 miles to find a place to get food that wasn’t fast food or a gas station.
The poverty in this region, as far as I can tell, seems to be directly linked to a declining coal industry. That’s why, during the 2016 election cycle, when Trump promised to “bring back coal” these people got excited. Bringing back coal meant stimulating the economy, cleaning up the streets, having a grocery store. These people are hurting and Trump promised them a way out. They wanted someone who would pay attention to their problems.
This should not be read as any kind of endorsement of Trump or approval of his support. Nor should it be read as an argument for bringing coal back. Though I do think there should be economic stimulus for the region, due to its environmental cost, coal is not the path forward. Rather, this is an exercise in empathy. Slowly bicycling through this area made their struggle all the more real and tangible to me. While bicycling one is much more aware and present in one’s environment than if one were driving in a car.
I think all of this is why I found David’s dismissive attitude toward the region so disheartening. This is not a dig at David, in fact he seems like a really swell guy. He is certainly not alone in his attitude toward the region. It is sad to me that so many don’t seem to understand the poverty these people were born and raised in. While it’s true that some of Trump’s appeal was likely for more bigoted reasons, I believe bigotry is the result of ignorance and ignorance is often a consequence of poverty. I believe we’d be better off as a nation extending a hand and trying to lift the region out of poverty than chastising them for having rusty cars in their front lawns. Coal can’t be the only way out. I hope that you as a reader can understand what I’m saying. Fortunately, I was able to find something of that sort in the town of Hindman, KY.
We arrived at our destination in Hindman at about 2:30. We made great time because we neglected to stop for a proper lunch or take our siesta. We had contacted a man through WarmShowers by the name of Jacob who said we could sleep at his place nearby the Hindman Settlement School.
The Hindman Settlement School is a school in Central Appalachia that prides itself on preserving Appalachian history and improving the lives of those in the community. From their website:
Hindman Settlement School is a vibrant beacon for progressive learning, community enrichment, and cultural exploration in the Central Appalachian region. We provide practical courses, programs, and services designed to inspire collaboration and improve the lives of the people in our community. We know that through proper education, stewardship, and support, the people of our community can help our region thrive.
We were lucky enough to arrive during their 40th annual Appalachian Family Folk Week. An explanation of the week from their website:
Appalachian Family Folk Week provides an opportunity for members of our community and guests from all around the world to share in a week of traditional Appalachian music, dance, crafts, storytelling, instrument playing, and special children’s activities. Our goal is to promote awareness of the region’s rich cultural heritage and to pass along these treasured, traditional skills to younger generations.
When we arrived we were invited to join this table of over 50 people for a meal of fried chicken, corn bread, mixed vegetables, gravy and more.
After dinner there was a musical play scheduled followed by an evening square dance. Lila and I agreed to go to the play but abstain from the dance due to how tired we were.
The play was a series of monologues punctuated by songs that had to do with the subject of the monologues. All the songs were either folk or gospel song lyrics with new instrumentation in a folk tradition. They were all written originally for the Southern Foodways Alliance. The monologues and songs all focused on the role of corn in Central Appalachian history. The use of corn was able to link the Native Americans, Slavery, Sharecropping, Moon Shining, Corn Queen Balls into a cohesive historical narrative. During one of the monologues it was said, “Food can conjure people up, it can bring back the past.”
Below is an actual recording of one of the songs played.
“Food can conjure people up, it can bring the past back”
In the end, Lila could not resist the call of the dance floor. She did a square dance with our host (bottom left of frame). While this happened I snapped a picture and snuck off to write this blogpost and go to sleep.