7/18/20 – Kentucky
From base camp in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, deep in the Appalachia Mountain Range, I drove up the “Coal Heritage Highway” toward Kentucky. It was only 12 miles to the state line. I had planned to bike it but the proprietor at the RV park advised against it. “It’s just a long, steep, curvy road up that hill. I wouldn’t ride it.” So, I took Sunride, Jr. in the back of the pickup, deciding I would drive until I found a safe place to ride. It was good advice not to bike the hill. Not only was there no shoulder, in places the road was eroded away leaving barely one lane for the two-lane traffic to pass. There were switchbacks going up to the summit of Black Mountain, elevation 4145 feet, the highest point in Kentucky, and there were switchbacks going down.
I was several miles into Harlan County before I found a place that looked safe to ride. I pulled into the gravel parking lot of the Lynch Country Club, a rather modest golf course in an incredibly beautiful setting. Black butterflies, hundreds of them, fluttered about. A nice man with an aristocratic-sounding soft southern accent, distinctly different from the twang on the other side of the mountain, greeted me and gave me permission to park there and ride my bike. He took a break from pressure washing some wooden benches to chat about Sunride and offer a history lesson on the area. “This has been coal country for over 100 years,” he said, “but they’re about mined out. At its peak when U.S. Steel was here there were 5,000 people employed in the mines. I’m all for renewable energy,” he said as I gave him one of my Sunride business cards, “but I don’t see how it can replace all the other sources.” I could have said something smart like, “it can” or “see my blog on Texas,” but I kept my manners, thanked him for his hospitality, and jumped on Sunride, Jr.
On the road which had flattened considerably but still ran downhill, I coasted effortlessly taking in the trees, the stream, the birds, and the butterflies. Some were fluttering in pairs. Maybe they came over from Virginia, the place for lovers, as the welcome sign read.
After two or three miles of a gradual descent into Kentucky I came upon a nasty curve that plunged steeply downhill. The road darkened with thick tree coverage. My instincts told me not to go there. There was vulnerability in that curve. My mind flashed back to a documentary where coal trucks go hurling down the mountain at breakneck speeds. I turned back to the golf course. The nice man had told me that the mining town of Lynch wasn’t far. I really wanted to go there so I turned around and went back down the hill. When I got to the nasty curve I looked up and saw black clouds forming overhead. Nope, I’m not going to get rained on or ride on wet pavement so I turned back again. A few huge raindrops pelted me as I loaded up the bike and prepared to return. It wouldn’t take many of them to totally drench a person. In all, I rode less than 10 miles and shared Sunride with only one Kentuckian; but I had gained a valuable history lesson.
As I neared the summit, I saw a bear, a rather small black bear bigger than a cub, that may have reached four or five feet in height standing on rear legs. His coat was full and shiny. He was just on the other side of the guardrail. I stopped right on the road watching him eat and wiggle his ears. I reached for my camera but before I could get a picture, he scampered down the hillside into the thick.
That night back in town we went to the BSG (Big Stone Gap) Café and Tavern to watch a local performer, Allen Meggard. He told the audience he had worked the mines for five years and wanted to “go where the hills don’t roll,” a sentiment commemorated by one of his folk songs. After a few years he returned home singing, “take me home southwest Virginia, take me home east Tennessee, take me home Carolina…”. All these places are in the mountains, including Kentucky, within 100 miles of Big Stone Gap. The tavern owner and his wife had returned form North Carolina. He is able to work, he said, via the internet. Will there be life after coal in this part of the country? It appears so.