Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Cumberland Gap National Historic Park

O Pioneers! This photo of early settlers making their way through the Cumberland Gap & into Kentucky territory graces the walls of Cumberland's museum.
One can see a stretch of the Southern Appalachian Mountains in Tennesse, Kentucky, & Virginia from Pinnacle Peak at Cumberland Gap.

Cumberland Gap was the first great gateway to the west; it’s paths were followed first by buffalo, Native American, the longhunter, and then pioneers... all traveled this route through the mountains into the wilderness of Kentucky. One can walk part of the old Wilderness Road, hike one of the parks 85 miles of trails, camp in a modern campground, enjoy its waterfalls and the lush forest of Southern Appalachia. A drive to Pinnacle Peak allows one to view the break in the mountains that provided passage for early pioneers, and to view three surrounding states: Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia. The Park is located in all three states, with camping on the Virginia side.

Mountain Roads

Above: this county road was giving way to water erosion & the eternal grip of gravity. Sometimes huge chunks of road simply fell off, as on the right side of this one.
Even on the paved & well-maintained highway 66, one breathless moment leaves drivers wondering what's on the other side of a disappearing road. Here the summit of Red Bird Mountain.

Mountain roads are the stuff of legend in SE Kentucky. Old timers divide between those using common sense & others in a lifelong challenge of never letting the road get the better of them. I found few terrors worse than traveling some mountain roads. One never knew when the road, already clinging tenuously high up the mountainside, would give way to erosion & the eternal grip of gravity. With few safety posts, these narrow roads hug the mountain on one side, and drop hundreds of feet down on the other, with no margin of space whatsoever at the sides. Cars not equipped for mountain driving can be caught, unable to get up a steep incline nor to back out safely. I was always unsure about where it was safe to drive, so I followed the advice of a local: stay on paved roads. Traveling too closely to a coal truck was also dangerous as they were known to be overloaded and everyone could tell a story about a truck that a.) dumped its load on the car behind it, b.) lost its load on a sharp turn, c.) tipped over trying to navigate a curve while carrying a top-heavy load,…well you get the picture. Other road warriors liked to tell their stories about going off the edge of a mountain & living to tell the story, being rescued from upside down landings in rivers, taking out trees, sliding down icy mountain drives, & more. Still others liked to brag about how quickly they could get across a certain pass or to the closest town, and you knew they were driving way too fast. “What about the possibility of an elk, a four-wheeler, a fallen boulder or tree, electrical lines down, a dog, a person walking, or whatever might be right around the curve in the road?” I would ask. The reply was almost always a nonchalant shrug. Although I lost my gut-wrenching fear of the roads, I never lost a huge respect for their inherent danger. And I avoided driving the pass over Red Bird Mountain as often as possible!

High & Low Water Bridges

A low water bridge shows how little space is between the creek top & the road. No wonder people prefaced their commitment to being somewhere "if the creek don't rise"!

Road-building technology & blasting of narrow bands of mountain sides meant that roads could access most remote mountain sites. Swinging bridges & dangerously perched roads gave way in many places to wider, safer roadways (although many still cling tenuously to mountain sides). Even so, there remain “high water” and “low water” bridges, and, depending on the amount of rain that has fallen, low water bridges flood easily & make roads impassable. Most homes have access to major roadways by roads with high water bridges, but prefer the shortcuts on the roads with low water bridges. When a low water bridge floods, people have to go many miles out of their way to get anywhere, wreaking havoc with schedules, times, & sometimes the bottoms of their vehicles if they try to cross anyway. For a person not familiar with the labyrinth of mountain roads, a flooded low water bridge meant getting lost for sure!

Swinging Bridges

An anchor end of a still-usable swinging bridge
Swinging bridges remain as a reminder of just how hard it was to settle & live in the mountains. Travel & transportation meant traveling through stream & river beds; early roads were built in the waterways themselves. Later, roads were built just up from the water on the banks, filling what little level space was available, or digging & blasting out enough dirt & rock to build actual roads. All roads followed riverways, they were the only ways through the mountains & certainly the only ways to link the tiny openings in the hills called hollers. When settlers came it always meant crossing a waterway (river or creek) to reach any open places suitable to build a home. The narrow swinging bridge (named for the swaying caused by being attached only at its ends) became the lifeline over water between holler and road. One wonders how anything large could be carried over the bridge. For as fragile as they look & as dizzying as they can be to cross, swinging bridges were a practical solution for settlers in the mountains.

Ladies of the Club

Alan's farewell lunch with the Ladies of the Club (& George)-the women at the Senior Center who loved Alan as much as he loved them.
The ladies of the Red Bird Senior Center just loved Alan. The love affair began when Alan was tasked to repair the Center’s roof damaged by a fallen tree. Fixing the roof stretched into fixing storage space, building shelves, doing normal repairs, & more. His energy & friendly nature worked its magic on the ladies—no small feat for winning over strong mountain women. They invited him to eat with them & stay & visit as long & often as possible. They laughed a lot together and, yes, Alan fell in love with them too.

Quilting at the Senior Center

This heirloom quality quilt was hand-pieced and quilted by the women of the Senior Center

The favorite pastime for the ladies of the senior center is quilting. A few spend their time on jigsaw puzzles or other crafts, but most of the women are hardcore quilters. They alternate quilts, taking turns quilting their personal projects with others to sell. They turn lots of scrap material that comes into Red Bird into quilt tops; other they purchase themselves or find on favorite annual shopping trips to a fabric shop in Tennessee. Turning scraps of fabric into works of usable art is a talent honed by years of thriftiness & the continuing efforts to keep fingers nimble. One of the most pleasant experiences for those visiting Red Bird Mission can be had by spending a day quilting with the ladies of the Dewall Center.

DeWall Senior Center

Director, Zetta Bowling (r) with a senior center participant (whose blindness gives her a keen appreciation for the fellowship of the Center).

The Dewall Senior Center provides meals & something to do for senior citizens in the far reaches of Clay, Leslie, & Bell Counties in SE Kentucky. Because of their distance from county centers & isolated settings in tiny hollers along narrow mountain roads, these elderly people are all but forgotten by those providing services in their counties. It becomes impossible for them to participate in any senior programs in their county seat, even if they were inclined to do so (and few are). So Red Bird Mission provides a senior center to try to meet those needs, even though they receive little funding from surrounding counties & struggle to pay the cost of transporting, feeding, & entertaining those who come. Well, entertaining isn’t quite the right word, but you know what I mean. Meals also go out from here on the days of the week they’re open, & occasional side trips take the ladies to a local fabric store for quilting materials. Mostly the group shuns the new WII in favor of the quilting frame or visiting, and all are encouraged to participate when Marilyn Brock (retired public health nurse) comes twice a week for chair aerobics (Arthritis Association approved, of course). A very small number of those who are eligible in the area actually participate, but the Senior Center is a good antidote for the loneliness & isolation of life in these hills.

The Beauty Shop

Meet Betty Collett, hair dresser extaordinaire

Moroccan Sand. Who knew? Well, Betty knew, and that’s the color of my used-to-be hair that she paints through the white of my current hair to low-light a more natural look. Whew. I’m so glad Betty knew. Finding Betty Collett was a relief for someone needing frequent cuts to keep short hair in line. Going there was always a pleasure. If there were others in the shop I just listened to and enjoyed the chatter of women. The topics seldom change from salon to salon, but here the southern accents and colloquial phrases were especially fun. Often the visitors were family members of some sort and over time I met Betty’s family in person or in conversation. When it was just Betty and I, we enjoyed conversations about our children, fishing, family members, work, quilting, mountain life and more. Like most other mountain people, Betty had no desire to travel. Her favorite places were her home, beauty shop, and the lake house where her husband and grandsons love to fish. Going to Betty’s was like therapy at times: an afternoon away from the office, a wonderful scalp massage, good conversation, a leisurely cut, wash, and color, and always the company of a fine woman. And yes, a good dose of Moroccan Sand always made me feel better.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Kettle Rock

Note the elliptical nature of this "kettle rock" in the surrounding slate.
Here a kettle rock nestles into the layers of slate along a mountain road. The rocks present a danger to underground coal miners because of their propensity to fall from the slate onto the earth floor below during excavation. The slate, too, is dangerous as its slabs can break away & fall onto miners, creating horrific cutting injuries.

The office

Mine is the corner office with windows on two sides. I can see the mountains over the buildings of the campus; my view generally goes up the holler toward the southeast. On sunny days I enjoy a bright least during the mid-day hours when the sun is overhead & not hidden behind the rounded peaks. I always personalize my space, so this office has a large collage of travel pictures on one wall & hand-painted African canvases outside my door. People warned me that my canvases would be stolen, but there doesn't seem to be much interest in African art around here. I work at the end of a long, quiet hallway & find the need to take a walk into the clinic & business office areas several times a day. The stretch & conversation are always good. It is easy to feel disconnected when one's work is solitary, on a computer, & far away from others; I don't mind, though. Occasionally it gets noisy outside when clients come to check out the new goods at the Community Store next door. My violets love the light & fill the sills with color year-round. It is a lovely space in which to work & just a block from our house; one could get spoiled.

Where Alan works

With a visiting workteam
In the woodshop

Alan volunteers full time at Red Bird, even more than full time. He cleaned & organized the wood shop, streamlining the equipment to create a functional workspaace, & refuses to let clutter impede anybody's work. This shop is the center from which he works. He often oversees teams (several at a time in the summer months), working both inside & out on campus buildings; in one rainy stretch he organized youth teams to paint trim in the shop itself. Projects ranged from building a handicap-accessible bathroom, reparing a roof & eaves, building in the service part of the cafeteria, laying flooring, demolition, enclosing storage, building shelving & storage, replacing garage doors, partitioning, finishing & painting an entire building, and more. His focus always remains on improving the buildings on the Red Bird campus itself, since visiting teams focus on community housing. He gave about 2,000 hours of time, donated equipment & supplies, & always works with much energy, expertise, & good humor.