My step-dad, Wiley Amburgey Jr., worked for the Whitesburg Post Office, the majority of his tenure being at the downtown location when it was the post office and not the tourism building. When I was little, going to town with Wiley was exciting. Me being a holler girl, the change of scenery was nice. There were a few locally owned shops - Hoover's, Dawhare's, Quillen's, and Craft's. The quaint, happy little restaurant and authentically eastern Kentucky and world-centric gift shop (the Courthouse Cafe and Cozy Corner) that was a creation of one of my first best friends mother finished off the corner with class. There was something to see always. The library was downtown. If nothing else, I could go in there and smell old books. My dad's apartment was at one time downtown. Caroline's Diner was there.
By the time I was in middle and high school, walking to town after basketball practice was a regular thing. The old railroad tracks led from in front of my school to town. I'd walk those, crossing the North Fork of the Kentucky River wide-stepping over cross-ties. I'd walk to Madison Ave. to the Appalshop hoping I'd see a friend hanging out waiting on a parent or a ride home. Town was a reprieve to a teenager.
I'm always thinking about how Whitesburg used to be and I think of the other surrounding small eastern Kentucky towns that are like ghost towns compared to they way they were when I was young - Neon, Hindman, and Jenkins. I wonder how to create a new town in those forgotten buildings and streets. A town that will reprieve my daughters one day. I thought about it again when I took a trip to two rural, small Kentucky towns in the central and western part of the state.
My sister and I went to Dinosaur World in Cave City with our children this passed Sunday. We had a lot of fun and saw other things we would have done had we had the time, but for every neat thing, there were two or three novelty businesses closed down. Cave City is home to Mammoth Cave and you can tell at one time it was bustling with tourist attractions.
Later in the week, we were in Calvert City and Draffensville near Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. Again, I saw the emptiness. Many tourist driven businesses with closed doors. The shops that were open for the community seemed ran down and drab. For every business that appeared as if it were giving its best effort, there were as many more empty and deteriorating.
It brought me back to our little eastern Kentucky towns. A recent headline in our local newspaper The Mountain Eagle was "Coal employment down 70% here: 25 more lose jobs". With our local economy in swift decline and residents scrambling to make a life here or pack up and leave, it isn't a wonder that sometimes it feels like we are existing in the Twilight Zone when we walk down our main streets. Whitesburg can seem like a tiny oasis among the very small towns in the mountains. Adventurous folks are trying out new business. We are getting positive press (though it never seems to go beyond the "hey, look at this neat thing"). Yet, as many businesses on Main Street have closed doors as new doors are opened. The thing that the towns I visited had for them that we do not is they are off of major thoroughfares - easily accessible. Still, they are in major decline from the heyday.
I don't know if it is our collective American culture that is changing so that the interest in natural wonders and small town tourism isn't as wondrous as it was when I was small, or if it is our country's economic decline that is keeping people at home more. I consider that maybe the American spirit of entrepreneurship and pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is becoming lost as we become more technology driven and commerce and communication is changing within that landscape. It's that change that is getting at the heart of our small, rural businesses. I also believe that the desire to appear equal with the outside world drives where our local people shop and seek their entertainment. There's more excitement about a possible Target coming to Pikeville than any of the unique specialty eateries opening in their downtown.
As I begin making changes in my lifestyle toward being a working mother in the mountains, sustainability and happiness are always in the back of my mind. How best can I serve this community whilst I'm in it? What is my place here, and how will my daughters settle into their own? What will spring forth and what will remain as the whole country moves more toward the urban lifestyle? There's so many questions and possibilities. It's a brave new world among ghostly streets, lots of efforting and imagination, and many risks.
Kelli Hansel Haywood is the mother of three daughters living in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. She is a writer, weightlifter, yoga and movement instructor, chakra reader, and Reiki practitioner.