I’d just spent a wonderful weekend with Pine Mountain Collective, and informal group of artists convened by the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust (KNLT). The KNLT has the vision of purchasing all of the available lands on Pine Mountain and putting them in nature preserves. Pine Mountain is Kentucky’s only true ridge mountain, running 113 miles plus from Tennessee to West Virginia. It’s a unique biosphere with a number of endangered species unique to Pine Mountain. Pine Mountain has been blessed with the absence of coal, unlike the surrounding mountains and Cumberland Plateau. The only extractions from Pine Mountain have been timber and several limestone quarries. For the most part, it is a natural seemingly unexploited ridge.
Leaving Pine Mountain I traveled north in Harlan County on SR 221. The road rises from the valley ascending a ridge. Topping out the ridge there are two black bears playing in the middle of the road. They hear my car and scamper into the woods. I turn into a gravel-mining road adjacent to the woods and stop my car. One of the bears has stopped and is looking through the trees to see what I’m going to do. I continue on the mining road until it does a rocky descent, turn around and head back to SR 221. No bears to be seen.
Kentucky counties are separated by natural boundaries: creeks, rivers, ridge tops, mountains. Folklore has it that counties were originally set up so that one could ride by horseback to the county seat in a day. I’m sure that there’s some truth to that. The county line between Harlan and Leslie is the crest of the ridge.
The road descends into Leslie County. I see the turnoff for Leatherwood, and proceed northward to Yeadiss. North of Yeadiss there’s a gradual rise then as the road descends I see what appears to be a school or a minimum security prison in the valley below. First impressions. It’s a school, it has playing fields. I think about taking a picture from the elevated point I’m on. A photo that would show how the school sits in the valley with the mountains rising all around it. I take the easy way out and rationalize myself out of stopping for the photo, and drive on.
I pass the school. The valley is narrow; the school’s parking lot hugs the road, and is separated from the road by a chain link fence. The links of the fence have been embroidered with vinyl making a sign reading “WOLVERINES DON’T DO DRUGS”. This is the photograph to be made.
Now to find a place to park my car. I don’t want it in the school’s parking lot, because it might appear in one of my pictures. I drive back south to where I saw the school originally and find a flat spot on the side of the road to park. I take out my camera and take the original photo I’d thought about taking, then walk down the road toward the school. The school grounds are on the left as I walk. On the right is a steep hill with two houses about 70-80 feet up the embankment. I can see a Camaro parked in the carport of the house closest to the school. There’s a man with a bandana on his head moving about near that house and Camaro.
Further down the road also in the right side embankment are the remains of a Chevy Biscayne. I think about making a photo there, but proceed on to my destination.
The school is the Hayes Lewis Elementary School. The “WOLVERINES DON’T DO DRUGS” signage extends at least 50 feet opposite of the main entrance to the school. It also has a cartoon likeness of a wolverine. Drugs are a serious problem in Kentucky, and more so in Appalachia. The school board is trying to be preemptive in their messaging. Get them while they’re young. I saw a similar message on another school in Leslie County.
I take my pictures, then start walking back to my car. I eye the embedded Biscayne, and decide there really isn’t a picture there, and continue my walk back to my car.
Once at my car the man I’d seen up the hillside near the Camaro came riding down toward me on his 4 wheeler.
I figured that I was probably parked on his property. I greeted him and told him was taking photographs of the school, and this was the only place I could find to park. He was quite nice, and said that he thought I might be taking pictures of the property below his house. It seems that he and his father are in a legal dispute with his aunt, who claims the land immediately below his house is hers. She wants to excavate it and put in another house. The land is so steep that if she excavates, his house will slide down the hill into hers. I assure him that was only taking pictures of the school.
We start to talk. He has a Marine Corps tattoo on one arm and a skull and crossed rifles on the other. As we’re talking his father walks down from the other house . . . the one without the Camaro. The father has a labored walk. He comes to the 4 wheeler and we talk. I tell him what I’m doing, making a documentary on our state. I like the looks of the father and son and ask if I can take their pictures. They’re fine with it and I commence working.
After I’ve finished the father, Joe Adams, says I should go up the hillside and take photos of the signage over the family graveyard.
We go up. The graveyard is and excavated ledge in the hillside. The entrance has an arched sign over the walkway reading, “Kenny Joe Adams Memorial Family Cemetery”. Kenny is the only person buried in the cemetery. They are awaiting his headstone that’s coming from Georgia.
Ronnie, the son tells me about his brother. Kenny broke a lot of bones. When he was 5 or 6 he rode his Bigwheel over the side of the hill and broke a leg. Other bones were broken playing football. In his 20’s, weighing 400 pounds, he jumped off a fence and destroyed his knee. Also in his 20’s he developed esophageal cancer. The cancer treatments left him with a damaged esophagus, and he was prone to choking.
Last year, in a restaurant, he choked on a bacon cheeseburger. He went into the restroom attempting to cough it up, and burst his esophagus. Ronnie was taken to the hospital and eventually died of sepsis.
Kenny’s grave is raised concrete, awaiting its headstone from Georgia. It’s surrounded by plastic floral displays and solar powered lights. It’s lit up at night.
Ronnie says he goes to his brother’s grave almost every night and talks to him. “I tell him I know he’s in a better place, and I hope they gave him a new body.”