Journey to Whitesburg: A deep weekend for a not-so-deep student



I am a pretty opinionated person. It is rare that I take the neutral position and stay out of a fight. I make one noticeable exception— coal mining.

I understand the fight against mountain top removal. I empathize with the struggle to retain the state’s inherent beauty. But I also realize the vital economic resource that coal is for our state. It employs thousands of people and has built and maintained the infrastructure of a very remote eastern Kentucky.

It was with these mixed feelings that I journeyed to that remote land this past weekend with the Gaines Fellows. We were visiting some benefactors who live in Whitesburg, a retired architect and his wife. Extremely involved in their tiny community, they took us to a coal mine-turned-park, their local cultural arts center and to visit the mayor of nearby Jenkins.

The majority of you will have to pull out a map and squint to find these sleepy and silent corners of Kentucky. They make no waves; they cause hardly any disruption. They have simply existed as coal towns, and have done so for the last hundred years.

Climbing into the car on an unpredictably warm Saturday morning, driving down the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway and winding your way down Highway 15 for three hours gives you a sense of location that no map can provide.

It is hard to talk about small, quaint towns until you drive down Main Street of Hazard. It is hard to talk about a need for greenery until you see ivy that spreads down an entire cliff. And it is impossible to debate the mountain-top/coal dichotomy until you journey deep into the hollers of Eastern Kentucky.

The final chapter of our evening took us to the top of a mountain where a brightly lit community center awaited us after another thirty-minute drive. We square-danced for two hours — a bunch of intellectual and fairly urbanized academics hand-in-hand with locals who had been journeying up that mountainside for a long, long time.

As we drove home, the moon was brightly lit and a sudden drop in temperature brought a thick fog into the mountains. Some blamed it on the coal particles in the air. I simply sat in silence, staring at the fog silently enveloping the geographical titans.

Alone and in a broken-down car it might have been spooky. No word in any man’s language can define exactly how that scene looked, that river of fog snaking its way through trees high beyond our reach and understanding. I still sit, in what I can only assume is awe, in contemplation of that primordial chain.

Jodie Foster said in “Contact” that they should have sent a poet. Perhaps one more gifted with words could move you to deeper sentiments than I have with this poor description of a shallow junior’s trip into a much more symbolic journey.

I have not returned a new man. I still understand the importance of coal and its massive impact, both good and bad, on those sleepy mountain towns. But nature is the one perfect thing upon this planet, unsullied until man stretches out his hand.

If those mountains are torn down the fog that so perfectly intertwined will have no where to settle until it descends to the earth and covers us all, a race unable to see coal, mountain tops or the more subtle and beautiful things that unite us all with a simple loss for words.