Kentucky: Other People’s Stories, My Story

I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell a story about my trip to Kentucky last month. Is it about the sights, smells, vibe, and flavors of the place? Is it about a rebound in the agricultural industry after the collapse of tobacco and coal? Yes. But as compelling as these are, they are only elements of my story.

The story I brought back from Kentucky doesn’t really belong to me, but to others. They are my story. My story’s about their work to weather a cultural upheaval in their lives, to transform themselves, to survive, to feed hungry people, help small cattle producers make ends meet, and educate and shelter disadvantaged children in Appalachia. That’s the story I want to tell. I’m just not sure how yet.

For weeks I’ve struggled to identify what so moved me about my trip. But ironically, I’d already found it before I left Idaho. And last night, the theme of my story was revealed poignantly in less than 10 minutes at the CMA awards as Patty Loveless and Chris Stapleton sang You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive. The story’s about loss and sadness. The Professor and I and millions of others wept.

I think my story is about that, but also about a large measure of hope and ingenuity. My story is their stories.

How do I know?

When our group visited the edge of Appalachia I saw dilapidated shacks on the hillsides in narrow valleys and wondered how people live there. Wondered what moves them. I saw single-wide trailers covered in mold, windows replaced with cardboard. I saw abandoned cars with their hoods left open and thin livestock in closely-grazed pastures. I watched men and women fashion metal into gates, working ten hour shifts, six days a week. I stepped aside for too-young and too-old waitresses removing near-empty food trays on a buffet line, replacing them with full-to-the-brim, heavy trays of fried chicken and mashed potatoes.

Even as we drove across Kentucky, I thought about Patty Loveless’ story and pulled her song up on my phone. Resting my ear against the bus’ cool windows, I listened to Patty and leaned into Kentucky, giving myself over to the melody and the sights outside my window.

You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive is my story’s thread that emerged first in Idaho, ran through Kentucky, and looped back to Idaho. Stories like hers and theirs. These are my story.

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