Kentucky, where have you been my whole life?

About a month ago, and before we had van troubles, we had an amazing week in Kentucky.  We didn’t have too many preconceived notions about the state, but we were blown away again and again.  The beauty, the kindness, the sheer number of interesting things to do and see, the work ethic, we could go on and on.  It’s become a bit of a joke between us.  Every time we go somewhere and find that someone is not that friendly or that service is not that good, we look at each other and say that we’re not in Kentucky anymore.  A week was barely enough to scrape the surface.  We’re both looking forward to going back in the future and spending much more time so that we can further explore some of the areas we visited and check out the many areas we weren’t able to see.

We spent our first full day in Kentucky in coal country.  Based on the recommendation of some friends in the know, we checked out a couple of coal camps (Benham and Lynch to be specific).  We also spent a good portion of the day driving some narrow, twisty, mountain roads to see amazing scenery, small towns, and evidence of coal mining operations.  Appalachia fascinates me.  Coal mining fascinates me.  This was easily one of my favorite days of the trip.  I also asked said friends in the know to direct us to evidence of mountaintop removal mining.  I had no idea what I was in for.  I expected to see this type of mining and be moved.  I did not realize how improperly named (or rather, nicknamed) this type of mining is.  It should really just be called mountain removal mining.  Mountaintop removal assumes that much of the mountain remains.  While this may happen in some cases, this certainly doesn’t happen in all cases.  I was blown away.  Thanks, Sarah and Tom for the great recommendations!

The Depot in Lynch, Kentucky

The Depot in Lynch, Kentucky

Portal 31 in Lynch, Kentucky

Portal 31 in Lynch, Kentucky

Coal

Coal

View into Virginia from Black Mountain, the highest point in Kentucky

View into Virginia from Black Mountain, the highest point in Kentucky

Closer view into Virginia from Black Mountain, the highest point in Kentucky

Closer view into Virginia from Black Mountain, the highest point in Kentucky

In our short time in the area, we began to gain a better appreciation of the social impacts and importance of coal mining to this region and the devastating environmental effects.  It made me think more about our role (because we all have a role) in this environmental destruction.  It also reinforced why local citizens are often such fierce proponents of coal – it is life here.  I came away from this day wanting to dive even deeper into the social and environmental history of coal mining in this region.  This is going on the top of my list of things to research and read about after our trip.

We spent the night at the nicest Red Roof Inn, probably in the history of man.  It was worth at least two or three times the $46 we paid for the night.  While we typically camp each night, we’ve been spending every fifth or sixth night in a motel.  Most have been around this same price point and nowhere (not even close) as nice as this motel.  And everyone we met who worked there were the most genuinely friendly and competent hotel clerks ever.  And thus continues our love affair with Kentucky.

When we awoke, the rain was coming down hard.  We decided to drive up to Lexington and spend the day at the Explorium, the local children’s museum.   Even through the gray and rain, we fell in love again.  And Van had a blast at the museum.  Though the horse exhibits were the most fun for us, he loved the “lala boat” (water boat).

My first horse ride

My first horse ride

Nothing is better than playing in water

Nothing is better than playing in water

Trapped in a bubble!

Trapped in a bubble!

I particularly enjoyed the exhibit about homes around the world.  I would have loved playing in the various homes when I was a child.  But then, a seemingly out-of-place panel caught my eye.  It was a panel dedicated to explaining that not everyone has a home.  The portion below made me smile to myself.  It was the part of this exhibit that explained our housing situation, except not at all.  While we may be living in a vehicle, we are not homeless and would never consider ourselves as such.  But, living in a car with fewer necessities does help me to empathize a bit more than I did before our trip with our homeless brothers and sisters who have no choice but to live in a vehicle.

Exhibit in the Explorium of Lexington

Exhibit in the Explorium of Lexington

Continuing our theme of being impressed with all that exists in Kentucky, we made our way to a beautiful and incredibly well maintained campground in Taylorsville Lake State Park.  Well situated between Lexington and Louisville, this became our home base for the next six nights.

Our campsite in Taylorsville Lake State Park

Our campsite in Taylorsville Lake State Park

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Eastern Tennessee

It was only fitting that on our journey through the land of orange dirt, we should stop at an old copper mine.  The mine has long since closed, but I had heard that this mine, in Ducktown, Tennessee, had one of the largest open copper craters in the area and I wanted to take a look.  Although we arrived after the small museum had closed, we had a nice chat with the woman who ran it.  She told us that on an ordinary day she’d stay open late for us, but she had to get home to see her daughter.  No matter, we were able to see the crater and be on our way.

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After a day and a half of exploring Chattanooga, we headed up to our highlight of Eastern Tennessee, the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton.  I’m a sucker for living history museums, and this was one of the best I’ve ever seen.  The curation was as interesting as the contents themselves.  It was pretty clear that this was not the work of a museum committee made up of historians who are at arm’s length from the history they are describing.  Instead, it was a more personal look at a community’s attempt to save, define, and communicate a sense of itself.  We were able to spend several hours there (it helped that there was a lot of outdoor space for Van to run around), but I could have easily spent a full day or so if I wasn’t tethered to a small child.

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We finished our stay in Eastern Tennessee with a couple of nights in Cumberland Gap National Historic Park.  We technically camped in Virginia, but all three states meet right there, so we considered it more of an extension or our time in Tennessee.  We did some great hiking, but by far the coolest thing for me was walking along the Wilderness Road Trail.  This is the trail that Daniel Boone blazed in 1775, following the footsteps of many Indians and bison before him.  The Wilderness Road was recently restored to its original appearance as it crosses the Gap.  I spent all of our short time on the trail envisioning the many, many people who had crossed this Gap with all of their belongings, heading west not knowing exactly what to expect.  Certainly one could draw some loose parallels to our trip, but those folks had guts well beyond anything that travelers with motorized transportation, a cell phone, and ready access to clean drinking water and food sources could understand.

Alan’s favorite thing in the park was standing in Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee at the same time.  I admit that it was cool, and made even cooler by the fact that this point is on a mountain, which is conveniently named Tri-State Peak.  We would have liked to have done even more hiking, but Van was having a particularly tough day (meaning lots of tantrums, crying, and not listening) and the hikes we were most interested in were rather long with a screamy two year old in tow.  Regardless, we were able to see a lot and get a few miles of hiking in before we headed north into Kentucky.

Van and Buddy the Bison, a gift from Uncle Jack and Aunt Jenni for his travels to our National Parks

Van and Buddy the Bison, a gift from Uncle Jack and Aunt Jenni for his travels to our National Parks

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The Wilderness Trail

The Wilderness Trail

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