A few moons ago former local news editor Amanda Gilmore tendered an assignment to hit U.S. 23 and drive as far as a gas tank would fling me.
She directed me to stop at every mom-and-pop, homegrown fueling station, country store and uncommon worthy of a note along the way.
I muttered a dirty word under my breath as she smiled and bid farewell — and phoned dear fisherman father to chauffeur me. I was scared taxidermists and bait shop owners might not like a big-city newshound snooping around their rustic affairs near Yatesville Lake.
Looking back, this young reporter fell in love with Johnson County countryside and its twisty artery that day. A rainy spring morning, chatting with gracious businessmen who hoped to purely share American dreams with readers, I found optimism on the Country Music Highway. With a yeehaw and a prayer, courageous capitalists shared grand openings and welcomed tourists in.
Early Friday I piled my youngun’ in the car and drove back, taking the road less traveled from here to Virginia. Lazy teenagers are notorious for napping whenever, wherever, so I implored her to open her eyes — ignore coal dust flying into those pretty peepers — and see her modest roots.
Such fancy gaps delivered her love of bluegrass gospel and sweet twang. There ain’t no shopping malls or frozen yogurt stands with gummy bear fixins’. But look, there’s the Tommy Mart. They’re hanging up artificial floral sprays for Memorial Day, and making primitive fudge, the old timey way.
Hospitality. Honesty. Decency. Close to dwelling in the Lord’s house forever.
You can still buy a Smashburger near UPike. And, why yes, my good child, that big building is Appalachian Wireless — the folks who ballyhoo the unbreakable cell phone on TV.
She pointed as we passed the turnoff for Van Lear, inviting conversation on hometown girl Loretta Lynn. She giggled seeing the rambling Sun Pavilion at Falls Creek, the Walt Disney World of Lawrence County corner convenience stores. The undulating Blue Ridge Mountains rocked her to sleep, snoozing as we left her Kentucky home, bidding goodbye to kinfolk she never met.
Over the Virginia foothills I turned on talk radio for some company. A congressman cautioned that Generation X-ers, like my kid, won’t have much to turn to. Leaving college a gazillion dollars in arrears, she won’t pay the debt off, eventually shall move back home to madre and padre (not that I’d turn her away).
But it got me thinking about the road we just left and how our state public servants could give young, positive people like her a bigger break. Agree to come home and we promise to assist.
The Kentucky Rural Economic Development Act provides tax incentives, but it’s a mighty scary undertaking for a fresh-faced grad to launch a small business in Betsy Layne. He must fork out more than $100,000 in capital and create 15 new manufacturing jobs to even qualify. It’s pretty darn impossible for the little feller to “Think Kentucky.”
The Community and Economic Development Institute of Kentucky, an offshoot of University of Kentucky’s Agricultural Economics Department, offers help — building economic development biz plans in fledgling rural areas. There’s state boot camps aimed at clever young leaders, too.
Let’s be frank, if you’re an eastern Kentucky native, right out of school, with no job in your parents’ neighborhood, you’re off to Lexington or Louisville searching for a decent-paying career.
When the busiest parking lot along U.S. 23 is the pain pill clinic, it doesn’t say much for our future and willingness of young people to come home, care, and commerce. The fast-food joint down the road is buzzing at lunchtime, as is the chest pain emergency center.
For all the beauty of these tiny mountain towns, most see no light at the end of this thoroughfare near Jenkins and Whitesburg. Will little Suzy walk the stage at college commencement or show up early to the family hollow? Will Johnny overcome Vicodin addiction?
Or, if she risks it all to open shop in these parts, will new worker fake a back injury and bilk young boss for a disability check, putting her dream in the Fishtrap Lake drink? You wonder.
In spite of questions, I believe this is where she belongs.
I trust the kid riding shotgun is our cardinal answer, a swaying goldenrod in Commonwealth darkness. After completing higher education, Frankfort bureaucrats must lend a hand to show off her newfound, micro-enterprising skills.
She has no family farm to run. So teach her to use all that hot air starting up a wind farm on an eastern Kentucky crag. Mentor her to find a successful, homespun venture and commit her whole heart to it. Point her back to this rural community; ask her to give, and coach her along the way.
Grant her enough money.
Time is ticking on Kentucky’s potential to thrive. The outlook of our communities may not be so rosy without good advice and young, potential prospects.
May this country road bring my child back home to me — to us — someday.
TAMMIE WOMACK can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org