Ky. voices: Walking where your ancestors walked

July 20, 2014 

Manchester is the county seat of Clay County. New York Times Magazine designated Clay as the county most difficult to live in, based on a statistical study.

  • Anne Shelby of Clay County is a writer and storyteller.

I first heard about it from my friend Jeanette.

We were driving up Ky. 11 from Clay County into Owsley, on our way to Booneville to see a play. I'd been writing and not keeping up with current events.

That day's online New York Times Magazine, she told me, had reported on a statistical study ranking every county in the United States. Clay County had come in last.

At first I felt sort of proud. I live in what The New York Times calls the hardest place to live in the United States. I've lived here for 20 years. My family has lived here for seven generations. We must be strong, resourceful and resilient. Or at least persistent.

Next morning, I walked with the dogs down to the creek. I sat on a rock, poplar and sycamore branches arcing above me, a cool breeze wafting down out of the holler. If this is the hardest place to live in the United States, I thought, then I feel encouraged about the country as a whole.

I approached the article with caution.

We've grown skittish, here in Eastern Kentucky, about accounts of ourselves in the national media, having seen too many that bore little or no resemblance to our actual lives.

It could have been worse, I thought, after reading Annie Lowery's article, which appeared online June 26 and in print June 29.

Still, reading "What's the Matter with Eastern Kentucky?" was not cringe-free.

I'll let the title go.

I won't comment on the graphic, a Kentucky license plate that reads HELP ME.

I'll ignore the crack about "drawls."

And I shouldn't have to explain what's wrong with referring to Appalachia and the Deep South as "the smudge of the country between New Orleans and Pittsburgh."

Then there was this: "Clay County, in dead last, might as well be in a different country."

Most Clay countians would find this surprising, given our location, our history, our patriotism and our economy, which rises and falls with the vagaries of national corporations.

But what's the matter with "What's the Matter with Eastern Kentucky?" goes beyond hyperbole and urban condescension.

Lowery reports on a study that compiled data by county in six categories: education, median income, life expectancy, unemployment, disability and obesity. When each county's numbers were averaged and the averages ranked, out of 3,135 counties, six in Eastern Kentucky — Lee, Leslie, Breathitt, Magoffin, Jackson and Clay — landed in the bottom 10.

These are hard facts, not to be ignored.

But does the average of these six data points really mean these are, "the hardest places to live in the United States"?

The Times piece uses statistics both to define the problem and to solve it.

The thing for us to do — and the government should help us do this, the story suggests — is to relocate to places with better numbers. We could, for example, head out to Los Alamos County, N.M., and get jobs in the nuclear-weapons industry. Since Los Alamos County boasts the best statistics, it should, by the article's logic, be the easiest place in the country to live.

Moving into a suburb of the nation's capital might be nice. Six of those counties made it into the top 10.

Sen. Rand Paul suggested Williston, N.D.

The play my friend and I went to see was HomeSong 2, produced by local organizations, cast with local actors and musicians, and scripted from interviews with local residents. I helped with the script.

One monologue drew a spontaneous burst of applause that night. Here's an excerpt:

"Maybe we need to come up with a different quality-of-life index for little country places. How many points could we get for each hill? How much is a river worth? Can we add a category for walking on ground your ancestors walked? Or for the percentage of neighbors who'd show up in five minutes if you needed them? How can you measure that? And how can you measure how much you'd miss a place, if you had to leave?"

Anne Shelby of Clay County is a writer and storyteller.

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