American Impressions, Chapter 25: Kentucky
The Other Route 66
I have never traveled Route 66, but I remember it well. The number alone -- 66 -- is a semiotician’s dream, the Muhammad Ali of signage: Seeing it triggers not just recognition but immersion back into the tail-finned markers of another era—the song or the TV show, “The Grapes of Wrath,” Dorothea Lange’s Dust Bowl photographs, the ding-ding of pulling into full service gas stations. Phillips 66, of course.
A sign that says “HEAVEN IS REAL, SO IS HELL” ends the reverie. It’s hand-painted on a piece of cardboard and tacked to a tree, a rare sign of life, or afterlife, in one of the deadest parts of America. I’m on State Route 66 in Kentucky, which has nothing to do with America’s mythical main street. Dug in 1946, paved in 1975, S.R. 66 is a 36-mile twist that feels 100 miles long through three of the poorest counties in the nation. Like U.S. 66, it takes you back in time. But while the National Historic Route 66 Federation is marketing the poverty of the Depression as kitsch all along the old road, successfully making it the destination of tourists and nostalgia freaks looking for “the real America,” in eastern Kentucky depression is still the thing, and nobody wants to look.
It’s understandable. Poverty sells only in the right context. Route 66 is a throwback (from a safe distance) to that context, to a time when two-thirds of Americans were poor and when those who weren’t knew someone who was. The 2,400 miles of Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica—John Steinbeck’s “mother road, the road of flight”—became the Depression’s longest exit ramp, its destination the unheard-of prosperity of the ‘50s and ‘60s. By the time Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty, the New Deal had already won the battle for most. Only the fresh memories of what had been survived lingered to fund the compassion of save-Appalachia programs, but not for long.
The majority of Americans today don’t know anyone who is poor and so find it easier to judge those who are, and either fault them or forget them. That, too, is understandable. Americans are not an ungenerous people. They proved it in the ‘30s and ‘60s M1 with the largest anti-poverty programs in history. But unless they’re directly implicated in something, they tire of it quickly. Appalachia (or the inner city of your choice) might as well be in Kosovo: it rates the same indifference, because most Americans have absolutely nothing in common with it past the feel-good twinge of remorse at a clip of blight on CNN, and those clips are now as routine as soap ads. Nostalgia for one’s own version of hard times is less demanding, more fun, and it can be packaged as part of a vacation. And so another Route 66 museum opened along the old road last summer, the fourth, with more coming. Route 66 has its own magazine, travel tapes, cookbooks, its own commemorative watch and 10 international associations devoted to preserving it. Kentucky’s 66, needless to say, has nothing of the sort.
It has nothing. It has gone nowhere. That’s why I took it—to see how time stopped in this part of the country, where Christian missions are the local stand-in for museums, and “the real America” is a sneering fiction.
The hell-is-real sign was my welcome, soon after the nowhere town of Pineville, which has three florists, two funeral homes and two video shops around a somnolent courthouse. The road ends at an intersection with S.R. 11, which dumps into Bonneville a few miles further north, where one neighborhood is unaffectionately called Ho Chi Minh City for its third-worldish appearance. Traffic along the way is nil. The road buckles as much as it curves and passes by more closed shops and post offices than open ones. When I stop to photograph the late post office at Field, I soon realize that in all the emptiness a man in his pickup truck has idled by the side of the road some 10 yards behind me and is eyeing me as if I were about to trample his mother’s geraniums.
At the outskirts of the town of Beverly, whose inskirts consisted of a one-room post office and a grocery store, I stop at the Red Bird Cafe, also called Smith’s Grocery, a rectangular block of cinders with two dark windows and a glass door entrance in front of which sat a Styrofoam bowl of cat food. Inside, the cafe part had been turned into a living room, obviously not for customers, its two U-shaped counters covered with bills, paperwork, jugs, jars, and a display of four family portraits. A treadmill stood on end behind one of the counters, its two stubby legs turned into hooks for bulging plastic bags. A television hung on a wall, its satellite signal beaming in a crystal picture of WNBC-TV from New York. A Desert Storm map of the Middle East was tacked to the wall below it. A man who looked a little older than one of the pictures sat at the counter in front of the display, alternately looking at me and at random papers. Two women busied themselves in the kitchen hidden behind a dressing screen. An older man stood at the cash register. I was the only customer, drinking a Coke, commenting about the good smells from the kitchen and wondering why no one except the talking head on WNBC was saying a word, as if I’d stepped into a paralytic moment. “Fried baloney,” the old man finally said.
I drive on. More dead post offices, more rusted-out mail-boxes by the roadside, more permanent garage sales on the front porches of homes, more stray dogs, more of the region’s pitifully stereotypical, pitifully true images of litter trails and cannibalized car heaps, and even a cock-fighting arena that hops with betting fans, local sheriff’s officials included, every Saturday night. And finally, out of the trees like an oasis of the present, the sprawling, bright-roofed Methodist Church’s Red Bird Mission at Queendale.
Sitting on land that had once belonged to Henry Ford (the woods were his source of dash-boards, spokes and steering wheels), the mission opened in 1921 to do what missions do: pull people out of poverty. It’s still here, and growing like no other business for miles around, with a health clinic, a K-12 school, and the work of nearly 3,000 volunteers, most of whom drop in for a week at a time from Midwestern suburbs to help out in the hills. When I meet Fred Haggard, the mission’s executive director, he tells me that I’d been traveling the high-rent section of the area, the jazzy part of 66.
If the region’s atrophy were reduced to pixels, David Long would know every dot. As projects coordinator for the Queendale mission, he reviews the 150 annual applications local residents send in for home improvements, visits every site and cuts down epic wish lists, as lists inevitably are, to a doable job or two. He also is a volunteer fireman. He has traveled every road and every gravel pit that poses as one for 10 counties around. He is an ethnologist of every hollow. He’d be an ideal census agent.
When Haggard introduces us, Long, an affable, soft-spoken man of around 50, is mildly startled. He reminds me that I’d written a couple of stories about him in the early ‘90s, back when he was organizing a Habitat for Humanity chapter in Beckley, W.Va., and I was a reporter there. We reminisce. Riding in his four-wheel drive, we talk of the similarities between the Kentucky and West Virginia landscapes, the swell of hills that ebb down to creeks only to rise again as mountains, their green so thick you’d think even a fox couldn’t smart his way through the trees, let alone human beings. But the mountains are full of deceptive turns. Long takes one off 66, onto a half-lane of holes and gravel that would be invisible to anyone driving by, and he tells me that Southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky aren’t the same. Aside from a county or two, West Virginia was pulling itself out of the sort of poverty condemned to be called abject. Eastern Kentucky wasn’t.
Long was speaking from personal observations, but the Appalachian Regional Commission’s numbers back him up: By 1995, Kentucky’s Appalachian counties were by far the worst-off, economically, among Appalachia’s 406 counties, with a per capita income of $14,361 -- 62 percent of the national average. West Virginia, which falls entirely in Appalachia, had pulled itself up to 76 percent. The area we were about to see, Clay, Bell and Leslie counties, were well below the Kentucky average.
We drive a mile into the woods. The road is locally known as Bear Creek Road, because it parallels a trickle of water by the same name. It belongs to the U.S. Forest Service. You’d never think anyone lives here. But a little further on, Jane Roark and her brother appear, shading themselves on their porch. The Roarks are both in their 80s. When Long first approached them a few years ago, Miss Jane, as she is known locally, greeted him by pointing a rifle in his direction. “Nobody came up and down this road without Jane knowing about it,” he says. Long’s mention of the mission turned her into a welcoming pacifist.
Jane Roark’s property sprawls, by Appalachian standards, but it is sprawl by decay: A half-collapsed barn marks the property at one end. Its many roofs of wood then tin then stone to keep the tin from flying off is a stratified history of a farm’s struggle to sustain itself until its owners’ age or gravity finally did it in. “There’s still hay in that barn. I can see it through the cracks,” Long says. He pictures a mule, a cow, some goats and chickens noisying up the place years ago, with room enough for a large vegetable garden behind the barn. An overgrown pasture and unused sheds and outhouses remain, next to a large house that also has been shuttered. It was making the Roarks ill until someone in the community decided to build them a smaller place adjacent, which now marks the opposite end of the property. They moved in last January, though they’re still without indoor plumbing. Miss Jane won’t accept it. “They’re living very much like their ancestors lived,” Long says. And they want to keep it that way.
Community outreach helps drive the Roarks to the grocery store or for medical visits when necessary, since they don’t have a car. They’re out of reach of mail routes, television signals, cable TV lines, even time. Jane, sitting on the porch in her snow boots and dark-flowered dress, wore a gold wrist-watch that had been eviscerated of its clockwork. She spoke animatedly of the ‘47 flood that had forced her and her family to abandon another property upstream or downstream, it wasn’t clear which, but ‘47 might as well have been yesterday. There wasn’t much point to making a difference.
Over the next four hours, Long drives to a monotony of hollows to show me the local hierarchy. The A-frames and brick homes belonging to those who still have work—as teachers or government employees or coal miners or truck drivers or grocery store owners—rise, manor-like, atop knolls or ridges. The flood-plains below are for the trailers, the shacks, the cinderblock boxes that belong to those who live on government checks or make ends meet by growing marijuana on National Forest land (to avoid confiscation of their own land) or bootlegging booze from wet counties, or simply—like the Roarks—hanging out. Most properties have their own vegetable garden, their own car dump, their own satellite dish, and the occasional brood of children looking like extras in a Sally Struthers commercial. And around it all the Appalachian mountains roll along, their stunning beauty nestling one rural ghetto after another.
A few things have changed in Eastern Kentucky since the days of the War on Poverty. No one is freezing to death in winter. No one is starving to death. The roads are better. The massive migration out of the region ended years ago, mostly because the promise of welfare checks stemmed the flow, although with welfare reform’s impending cut-offs, the migration may start again. Certainly, no one is moving in. The word “despair” was once projected on those who lived in the area. The word now belongs to politicians like Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo, who visited last spring and couldn’t understand why the place hadn’t changed, and Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton, who called for “new ideas” to deal with the region. Inspiration isn’t lining up.
On April 24, 1964, President Johnson came to Inez, a town at the far-eastern end of Kentucky with a population of 800, and declared his war on poverty. “We are going to win this war,” he promised a crowd of 5,000 that had poured in from many counties around. On April 21, 1999, Inez got another federal visit, from Cathi Litcher, an official with the Bureau of Prisons. She stood at a banquet table at Miss Ida’s Tea Room and told a group of 50 local merchants that the federal penitentiary that will open in the county in two years will bring “numerous business opportunities,” along with 960 maximum-security and 512 minimum-security inmates. It was the best news in years.
Sitting behind his desk in casual Saturday clothes, Mark Grayson sounds quite jovial for a man who’s witnessed eastern Kentucky’s arrested development. He is the publisher and editor of one of Inez’s two weekly newspapers. He’s also a middle school civics teacher and owns the pizza joint downstairs from the newspaper office. The pizzas pay the paper’s mortgage. His preacher father was always jovial, Grayson says, which is where he gets his optimism and affecting good nature. He knows by heart all the usual Appalachian facts, and knows how useless it’s been to know them: He can predict which promises will be made next, and how soon they’ll be broken—or, rather, forgotten.
The number of people on some form of public assistance in Johnson’s day—about 3,300 -- hasn’t changed. The symptoms that drew the nation’s compassion haven’t changed. Tom Fletcher, the unemployed father of eight Johnson visited during his Inez trip, stayed unemployed and didn’t heed Johnson’s plea to keep his children in school. The local equivalent of the county commission had just defeated a bill to fund garbage pick-ups. Like corruption, old boys are everywhere, Grayson says. But he concedes it’s more than that, and after so many years—he’s 48 -- his only answer to the region’s immobility is his presence. He won’t leave Inez. He keeps thinking optimistically that something will happen. A big company will move in. A miracle. Something.
Like an echo of the hell-is-real warning so many miles back, I could hear the words bellowing from a huge billboard at the outskirts of Inez, as if to Job (the hamlet two miles up the road): “Don’t make me come down there.—God.”
KENTUCKY IN BRIEF
Total area: 40,411 sq. miles (rank: 37)
Population (1997): 3,908,124 (rank: 28)
State capital: Frankfort
Economy: Mining, public utilities, manufacturing
Nickname & Motto: Bluegrass State; United we stand, divided we fall
Entered union: June 1, 1792 (15 th state to join)
Notable facts: The culture of compassion that colonized Eastern Kentucky and the rest of Appalachia began with the publication of Harry Caudill’s “Night Comes to the Cumberlands” in 1962, an Appalachian version of James Agee’s Depression-era “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” Caudill’s book led to a number of incursions into the area by metropolitan reporters, most notably The New York Times’ Homer Bigart, who published a series on Appalachian poverty in 1963, which was then followed by the publication of Michael Harrington’s “The Other America.” It is from reading either Bigart’s series or Harrington’s book, or maybe both, that John F. Kennedy was compelled to launch a war on poverty. The war on poverty speeches Lyndon Johnson delivered in Appalachia in 1964 were actually written by Kennedy and Theodore Sorensen, one of Kennedy’s speech-writers, shortly before Kennedy’s assassination.
Kentucky in quotes: “How stupid and dirty we must appear to the outside world because a few folks fear a small monthly garbage bill. A visitor to our county right now might get the wrong impression (or maybe it’s the right impression) that we’ll gladly raise hell over $10 a month, but remain indifferent to all the trash that fills our creeks and highways.”—From an editorial in The Mountain Citizen, published in Inez, Martin County, June 9, 1999.
* Harry Caudill’s “Night Comes to the Cumberlands : A Biography of a Depressed Area” is out of print, but is available for $15.95 at the Red Bird Mission, by calling 1-800-898-2709.
* Michael Harrington’s “The Other America” is available for $11 from amazon.com or at local bookstores (by special order if it’s not on the shelves).
Red Bird Mission: HC 69 Box 700, Beverly, KY 40913; 606/598-3155.
* Appalachian Regional Commission: www.arc.gov
* The Appalachian Center, University of Kentucky: www.uky.edu/RGS/AppalCenter/
* Kentucky tourism: www.kentuckytourism.com