"Only then did I see the beauty of the countryside ... behind the scenes to tourists just driving through on the highway. The rolling hills covered with the new grass of spring, the many green trees, the new scene just beyond each curve in the creek, the dogwood — some white, some pink — the redbud, the dainty pink blossoms of the laurel." — Elizabeth Walton, on studying with the Kentucky School of Nursing and Midwifery, in and around Hyden
The Kentucky landscape never lets you go, both in its beauty and the poverty. Writers who describe the state have written eloquently about both.
To fly into Blue Grass Airport is to be moved: all those fences, the farms that look like an English shire. The stunning first arrival into some of the flatlands of Western Kentucky makes it seem as it you can see straight into the next county. To see the Eastern Kentucky hills is to know majesty and isolation.
But Mary Breckinridge, who founded the Frontier Nursing Service, wrote that "not even in the war-devastated areas of northern France have I known greater poverty than we had in the Kentucky mountains in our early days."
The problem, she wrote, was the difficulty of subsistence farming in areas where flat land was scarce and precious. The problem persists to this day: In parts of Eastern Kentucky, flat land is so scarce that even cemeteries are built on steeply pitched hills.
Harry Caudill in Night Comes to the Cumberlands: The Biography of a Depressed Area wrote: "It is clear that the people who settled the Kentucky mountains were not inspired Europeans determined to cross the dangerous oceans and found a citadel of religious and economic freedom in the New World. They were native North Americans with deeply engrained mores, habits and social outlook. The Kentucky mountaineer, as a type, was already thoroughly established. He had simply moved over a few hundred miles to find unplowed creek bottoms, a more plentiful supply of game, and to get away from his neighbors.
Published in 1963, the book was initially resented by Eastern Kentuckians. But according to Tom Gish, the late publisher of the Whitesburg Mountain Eagle, "gradually the essential truth of it won out, and he became an object of considerable affection and respect."
The book, which described the ruin that coal companies had forced on the region's delicate ecosystem and the enduring poverty the area suffered, made Appalachia a focus for President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty.
Kentucky's geography, from the mountains to the flatlands, is also more than a backdrop for fiction and poetry:
"Ole Aus has been shot!"
These strange words poured down into Rangey, the hill-town county seat. Old Aus Hanley was dying on the left bank of Troublesome Creek with a load of buckshot in his back. Men shouted the news hurrying to their stables. The courtroom was suddenly empty of tobacco-chewing spectators, jury and judge. The dry creek bed became a stampede of men on mules and horses, some riding bareback, threwing their mounts with heel and spur." — James Still of Knott County, The Hills Remember: The Complete Short Stories of James Still
You see the stables, the dusty county seat backed with hills, the dry creek bed, possibly with a swinging bridge for walking, a stronger bridge for cars. If you've been to Eastern Kentucky, you can walk Rangey in your mind.
There is the failing little ghost town Needmore in Burdock County at the end of Ed McClanahan's The Natural Man, where Harry Eastep revisits the theater where he used to work:
"The falling roof has sheared the floor off clearly all the way across the room; at Harry's feet a chasm yawns, and at the bottom of the chasm is a huge snarl of mangled tin roofing, broken timbers, ruined seats, hanks of savaged velveteen. The wall beyond it, where the stage should be, is festooned with long, pale tatters of the Largest Silver Screen in South-Central Northeastern Kentucky."
And finally, be it the heart-stopping beauty of the descent into Blue Grass Airport or the drive over Jellico Mountain, coming home to Kentucky tugs at the heartstrings.
"One of the best things about living in Kentucky is the coming back after being gone for a while. ... This is homeland — a state of mind — which, of course, is possible in any land at any time. ... We called to mind the first sight of the mountains of Whitley County as we came up I-75 along Hell's Point Ridge past Jellico, then along Clear Fork of Cumberland River, the haze beginning to take on an unmistakable Kentucky hue. Made us want to roll the window down and breathe deeply!" — Kentucky: A State of Mind, by David and Lalie Dick
Cheryl Truman: (859)231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.