Project Dateline is an occasional series we began in 2006 to explore Kentucky towns with fascinating names. It returns today with a back-road adventure to the Rowan County community of Smile.
SMILE — Standing in the middle of the road where the map says this town is supposed to be, there is a dilapidated, but wildly beautiful, structure hung with every imaginable color and length of green vine, a road that leads up and to the right, a road that leads forward and a road that leads back.
The fog is lifting now off the ridges that cloak the wide hollow to fully reveal the tall daisies and fragrant chamomile on the creek that aligns the road, the wild turkeys in the clearing and the darting tanagers.
A goldfinch hardly bends the reed it clings to. A deer is there, then vanishes without whisper. But the toads and the birds are talking to the crickets who are talking to a woodpecker who is at work already.
Nature is loud when you listen.
You do the inevitable thing now. Map or no map, you smile.
And up the road comes a blue pickup with its lights on. The driver stops to see how he can help the smiling idiots standing in the middle of the road.
"Oh, you just need how we got the name of the town? That's an easy one."
Lowell Murray launches in, saying that the guy who ran the town's first post office saw no reason not to be happy on a regular basis. It wasn't the kind of happiness that made you nervous, but the kind secured in the quiet knowledge he knew something lots of folks probably never figure out.
That life was good in his particular patch of earth. Because it was where the deer walked the streets unharmed most days and evenings. And the bottomland was black, the day lilies orange and the turkey vultures were likely at rest on the fence posts at the Pecco farm.
He could hardly have known that in the future it would be where strangers would be asked whether they needed help instead of asked to leave. Where dogs would drive, llamas would be bodyguards, news would travel fast and where when someone sky-dived out of a plane with smoke coming off his boots and a flag attached to his rear, the locals would call to reassure one another that the boy fell out of the plane on purpose.
Smile sits gloriously aligned with Big Brushy Creek, where the Ky. 785 intersects with Farm Road 115. Or, where Lowell's 260 acres abuts Chuck Ferguson's 350 acres, which abuts Dorothy Debord's considerable spread, which is across from the Pecco farm. All that has been true for a long time.
The real name of Farm Road 115 in Smile is, for darn good reason, Murray Road, as in Lowell's last name.
"It's God country when you make that curve," the 80-year-old Official Greeter says.
He's on his way to work. "I work every day. I feel better when I done something than when I done nothing."
Lowell got plenty of rest the night before after watching deer from his porch before he went to bed. The beef cattleman has plenty to do this day but will gladly take a minute to explain that Fryman's Chapel there — he points to the only public building in Smile, a modest white church — used to be the schoolhouse and that he and his mother before him went there. The Frymans used to have huge reunions at the chapel in later years but, well, that dwindled until, he says, he thinks only one or two Frymans are left who even remember Smile.
"That's what happens in 80 years," says Lowell, who is not a man prone to nostalgia, so he continues matter-of-factly explaining that the broken-down, weather-beaten building being held up only by gravity-defying vines used to be Cooper's Chapel, where he used to spend a lot of Sunday mornings.
Behind him on the one-lane road, Lorie Ferguson drives up with her three kids, Zerah, Zoe and Zeke. She stops to ask whether she can help the idiots or, perhaps, Lowell.
By now, all of Smile is on alert. Open your hearts. Tell the story of Smile. After all, Lowell did.
Sure enough, on Dorothy Debord's porch, when asked to remember the highlights, the 86-year-old says, "Everything's exciting here." Why, every woman in town is in the Quilt Club. And, in two weeks, she's getting a brown and yellow bear's paw quilt square on her barn because, she explains, she insisted.
It used to be that every woman in town was in the Homemakers Club, says Dorothy. In the '50s, or maybe the '60s, a group of women went to a big Kentucky Homemakers gathering, and you had to stand up with your group and the leader called out "Smile Homemakers Club."
Dorothy says, "Everybody in the room laughed at the name, and we stood up. We generally smiled, but it was like a command, like being in the Army. 'Smile! Homemakers Club!'"
She never had a desire to move from this house that her husband, Ivan, helped build in the '40s.
"He said we needed to buy a house in town," Dorothy says. "I said, you go ahead on, but I'm staying here. I like to walk to the grocery. He said, 'I can't cook so I guess I'm staying here.'"
That put an end to that. Besides, in town there would be no one to look in on her after Ivan died in 2001. Like the Peccos and the Fergusons, who call every day.
Chuck Ferguson drives up just then in his six-wheeler Polaris Ranger and asks after Mrs. Debord. The ad hoc visitors bureau apparently has been talking, and they want Chuck to show off Smile at 1,046 feet. So Ferguson leaves his alpacas, the llamas who protect the alpacas from coyote harm, the eight dogs and the various cats back at the house, and the tour of the lush Daniel Boone National Forest overlooking Smile begins.
There's an elk and her baby up here, says Chuck as he engages the four back wheels with a flip of a switch. And a koi pond he put in; it didn't last but it was something when it was going. There's a treehouse that has a view of everything on the planet worth seeing.
The former Marine grew up in Morehead and says he could hardly wait to leave it. "I wanted to get as far away from here as I could."
Then he saw the world. Or, more specifically, he saw Beirut and Grenada. He decided somewhere along the line that Rowan County was what he wanted after all.
His friend Wes Meade now parachutes out of planes onto his property on the Fourth of July in honor of Chuck's service. One hundred and twenty of his friends show up to eat whatever he's serving.
They sit around and share their lives on this common patch of wildlife-filled and heaven-graced earth. They tell stories and do more than smile — they laugh. Like about the time last year when a hurried Ferguson left his beloved Polaris six-wheeler in neutral in his driveway. At the same time Boomer, his golden retriever, decided to nap in the floorboards. Before Boomer knew it, he had maneuvered the vehicle through the back door of the house and into the washer and dryer.
Ferguson chose to take the long view.
He called his insurance agent and began, "You know you're a redneck when ... ."
Yup, best to pay the deductible and do as his elders did: smile.