BY: PETER CONWAY
In the deep dark hills of eastern Kentucky
That’s the place where I trace my bloodline
And it’s there I read on a hillside gravestone
You will never leave Harlan alive
By Brad Paisley
For the past week, we have ridden the hollers and hills of eastern Kentucky, and somehow emerged alive. Truth be told, eastern Kentucky is beautiful in mid-summer – lush, wildflower bedecked, with babbling brooks and roads shaded by intertwined trees. But even in broad daylight there is a quiet stillness and hauntedness created by the steep ravines through which the roads wind. Paisley sings that, “the sun comes up about ten in the morning, and the sun goes down about three in the day.”
We were glad we were riding in broad daylight. We had little interest in venturing off the main roads onto narrow side lanes with names like Lick Skillet, Straight and Narrow, Booger Branch and Horsefly Hollow.
Of course, most hollers butt up against a hill and the road winds steeply over a ridge and down into the next holler. The downhills are exhilarating, but our mantra has become “What goes down must go up.” The town names prove the point. Leaving Berea, we encountered the town of Big Hill and shortly thereafter rode into Morehill. We were hoping to locate Downhill, but to no avail. Every day this week has seen us climbing over 3000 feet of elevation.
Eastern Kentucky has few towns and few of these provide lodging for passers by. We have had great difficulty finding places to rest our weary legs. On the route from Berea to Hazard, there is only one motel in 100 miles. Located in the hamlet of McKee, we had reservations at the somewhat ominously named Trails End Motel. Arriving there, we found…. nothing. Calling the motel number, a pleasant lady answered the phone, explained that she had just been issued the number and indicated that the motel had been demolished several weeks earlier. I wonder if the last night’s motel guests ever left Harlan alive.
The non-existent motel story has a happy ending, and it is a great example of the bright side to our week’s experiences. The people we have met have been wonderful. So wonderful in fact, that we believe the unseen hand of God steered us to just the right people in our several hours of need. The first angel in human form was Miss Sherry, the proprietor of the Harmony House Bed and Breakfast in Hazard. From Mckee, we had tried to secure lodging anywhere within 50 miles, only to conclude that we would need to go all the way to Hazard to find some. Most Hazard hotels were full. We finally found one with three rooms and drove 1 ½ hours to check in. Arriving, the desk clerk could not find our reservation (even though I provided confirmation numbers) and announced that they were full. Desperate, Steve did a search for “lodging” in Hazard and came up with Harmony House. We called. Miss Sherry had no reservations, as she had planned to be out of town but changed those plans at the last minute. When she learned of our plight and our mission she welcomed us in, greeted us with freshly baked zucchini bread and sweet tea, and cooked us a wonderful breakfast in the morning. It was a significant God moment for our group.
God moments continued. The next morning our GPS mapping took us up a hill onto a deeply rutted gravel road disappearing into the forest. Retreating, we were wondering what to do when I noticed an elderly couple gently rocking on their front porch. They were enjoying their five hours of daylight. I approached them with some trepidation, as I am not from around these parts and was clad only in spandex. If you have ever asked for directions from locals when lost, you will understand that most of the time they confuse you more than they help you. Not this couple. They should consult for Google Maps. They not only knew how to get us to Harlan (alive), but they knew the road numbers and the exact mileage to each turn. They were flesh and blood GPS. As we rode off, I turned to wave to them, but they had disappeared. By the way, they were the only folks I saw sitting on their front porch the entire week. In the hollers, all you see are dogs.
The last God moment came in the form of a Kentucky Department of Transportation supervisor who was driving by and noticed that our support vehicle, Vanna, had taken a wrong turn and was heading up a road that dead ends among several abandoned coal mines. He shepherded Vanna back to the rest of us. We thanked him and went on our way. Several hours later, we were about to turn up a road which would have led God knows where when he just happened to drive by us again, stopped, and saved us much anguish. Now here is the strangest part. The next morning, 30 or so miles beyond where we had last seen him, we were once again about to head up a huge hill into oblivion when he happened to drive by again. If he had driven by this road one minute earlier or later he would not have noticed us. But the timing was split second perfect. Now to a skeptic this might seem like dumb luck. But we think differently. God has an angel working for the Kentucky Department of Transportation.
All in all, Kentucky has been a fascinating state full of wonderful places and, now, wonderful memories. We are heading towards the Cumberland Gap, the famous gateway to the west that was used by the likes of Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark and thousands of pioneers, including Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather and father, and his mother as well. We are traveling east, so for us the Gap leads to Tennessee. More adventures await.