After all my bragging about it feeling like spring in the last post, the lower mainland is now experiencing a cold-front, and we got our first snow on Sunday. It was nothing to write home about, and I wasn’t nearly excited as I would have been about snow in late December. It was nice, though, to pad around the house in thick socks and flannel. I did some writing on Up the River and made a sourdough starter. When growing up, I recall my mother always having a starter around for sourdough bread. Eventually, she would trade it back and forth with my sister-in-law. I was not always living nearby so wasn’t a part of that sharing, but at one time was on a kick of making my own raisin bread. Anyway, I have a recipe for crusty bread from the wife of a coworker. He will occasionally bring me the bread with Irish butter. He’s the same colleague who tipped us where to stay when we went to Ireland. I am looking forward to my starter on this bread and plan to make the bread next weekend. Nothing like making bread when it’s cold out. These sub-zero temps are going to stick around for at least a couple weeks, and we might get more snow.
A nice long weekend with frigid weather meant I stayed indoors, though we ventured out on Saturday. I also had yesterday off from work, so I kept busy at home. I have learned that when there is absolutely nothing else to do, I can preoccupy myself easily. I wrote on my newest novel, which now is about 50% done in first draft form. While writing this novel, which is set in the South, I wondered again whatever happened to the mountain behind my Mammaw and Pappaw’s house in Eastern Kentucky. It’s been puzzling me for years. Fortunately I had saved the coordinates of their old house in some private writing and was able to plug them into Google Maps and find the house and exact address. They lived on Francis Hollow Spur, which when my grandparents were alive was very different than it is today. I have some vague memories of the house, though in some ways my memories seem clear, partly due to seeing so many photos throughout the years. One of my clearer memories was going with my cousins to climb the mountains around the house. Now, today I would call these foothills. But to us kids back then, they were mountains. I recall vividly that this hollow had an L shape. The one that paralleled Highway 160 was where my grandparents lived, and then it had another part that went perpendicular back into the mountains.
The screenshot above is a Google Maps satellite view. The red point is near where my Mammaw and Pappaw lived. Francis Hollow Road is the old holler, and the spur where their house still stands veers off to the south and parallels the highway. To the wes is an area without trees that may have been mined, but not the area directly behind my mammaw and pappaw’s house. And to the further north is a larger area around Amburgy that looks to be mined too.
I know from traveling down there five years ago or so that the hollow traveling back to the mountains, to the west, used to be, but is no longer, edged on one side by cliffs. Behind those cliffs, south of Francis Hollow Road in the map above, is where the mountain was, and you’d start climbing it directly behind my grandparents’ house where the red dot is. Behind the spur, there was a grade that led up and up. In the winter there would be icicles hanging off the cliffs of the holler, and in the summer were tiny waterfalls. When we drove back there a few years ago, the cliffs were gone. It was just flat land. There was no obvious grade behind the part of the hollow where my mammaw and pappaw lived either. Viewing this on Google Maps shows the area is still covered in trees, so it does not look like it was mined. Further, the part of the hollow that went into the mountains had a little creek in it, but I don’t see that creek anymore on the map. Down that hollow were just a few old timey houses when I was younger. One was a little log cabin that my mother was born in. She also broke her arm there when young because she fell off the bridge crossing that little creek. There was also, at the end of the hollow, a little old lady who we thought was a witch due to her wrinkled appearance and general scariness. My cousins and I did approach her once because my mom and aunt said if we could find some black walnuts, they’d make us some cookies. I still feel a little disappointed that they never did bake those cookies and were probably just trying to shoo us out of the house! (Not that we minded, and also some of the walnuts did have worms in them.) That old lady’s front yard was full of nuts, and we timidly knocked on her door to ask if she’d let us pick up nuts from her yard. She was the sweetest lady ever, my first Boo Radley lesson in life. We used to find quiet hollows where not many people were. Now it still seems different, but back on Francis Hollow Spur and Road, there is way more housing development. And the hollow goes further back than it ever did before. Where it used to end at the black walnut lady’s house, it now goes further to some sort of farm or industrial place.
Going back to eastern Kentucky always felt like going back into time, and it was surreal. And I always felt frightened there, but wasn’t sure what of. Part of it was that when I was super young, we lived in a rural town and then as a young teen I lived in the Chicago suburbs, but traveling down to the Appalachians seemed so different from the rest of the world I lived in. Back then the world was different too, even just a few decades ago. There wasn’t as much kudzu. No meth. We used to go into the hills surrounding coal mines to hike or get Christmas trees with Dad, Pappaw, and uncles. My cousins teased me that old witches lived in the poor shacks in those mountains. And there were a lot of shacks. It was a place of poverty and echos. We used to go down the road and see the tiniest broken-down shacks where it would seem impossible that anyone actually lived there, but there would be clotheslines hanging on the front porch, so you knew people actually were living in those old tiny houses. Highway 160 went in front of my grandparents’ place, and at night when trucks went down it, they sounded like far away ghosts. There was a time I was certain my grandparents’ house was haunted too, and I’d never felt that way or since, but I think I was just too young to understand much about the world and how places like that existed and were part of the same world as me. The sounds and smells (I remember always smelling that sweet earth in the evening dew) were even different. The air felt different. The accents too. Everything did.
Though my grandparents’ house still exists, the log cabin is gone. The house with the black walnut trees is gone. The creek is gone. The cliffs are gone. The little icicles and trickling cliff waters are gone. The mountain is even gone, at least the immediate grade that used to be there (it seems possible that the roads were widened and cliffs were leveled). I did compare elevations from the road and back to the middle of the forested area we used to climb, and there is only a difference of about 100 feet now. I looked down the highway some and saw a bigger grade behind those houses, but we never went that way. I remember some of that hill being so steep that we’d have to hang on to trees to pull ourselves up. I don’t know why. I can’t explain it. It is one life mystery that keeps coming back. I was going down this rabbit hole yesterday and researching online if there had been any sort of blasting or leveling (were trees then replanted?) or any kind of mining and just couldn’t find anything. To add to the mystery, which has boggled me every since we went back down that holler and saw missing landscape, Brinkley, Kentucky, the town, doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry. I know it exists. There’s a little online about this old lost place of Kentucky. You can find realtor information. My grandparents’ house is now worth around $109K. There’s some info about who has lived in the house, at least in recent years. The only other online information about that holler is a few sexual predators.
I have said it before, but time seems cruel. I’m old enough now to have seen some major changes in the world. Things have happened that have forever changed me. I am not trying to say that I am somehow unique or have suffered more than others, but each of our perspectives is needed in this changing world and this blog is like a documentation of my own tiny part. First, the contrast between that old Kentucky and the modern world is even more surreal than it was when I was young. Going back there and finding old places changed so drastically fragmented my memory. Second, the climate is changing, and we see it all around us. Long-term climate change takes a while to map, but scientific models have presented to us what is actually happening. While I may not always be personally affected, I see the world around me and know that in some places it is already what we thought of as “the future”. Third, in 22 days, my father will have been gone for ten years. Those ten years have seemed odd without him. We all lose people, and it’s tough. My parents, however, are truly people I respect and love. I was so lucky to have them rather than being raised by parents who were uncaring or hateful or abusive or selfish. I feel fortunate my mother is still alive. We talk all the time.
For the first time in a long time this weekend I felt unraveled and lost. I kept trying to find this mountain on the internet, and it’s as if it never existed. I kept trying to let it sink in that Dad died almost ten years ago and it doesn’t seem like it in some ways, but in other ways he is starting to fade out like that mountain. I promised myself when Dad died that I would always remember everything I could about him. That I wouldn’t let go. That he deserved that those who survived after him would never let him go. Now I see his face and it begins to go away one mosaic piece at a time. And usually now his face is not a real memory but one that I know from a photograph. How odd is that these things can happen in a number of decades, and to everyone else in the world, it wouldn’t really matter–these faces and mountains–and in geologic time these long memories take place in such a short time they do not matter to the universe either.
It’s with these rambling thoughts that I try to portray in my Up the River novel the importance of hanging on, in remembering, in being able to change with the world–yes–but also preserving the natural wild places. Maybe this is what a lot of poets and authors talk about when they recognize the alien, the ghost, the loss, the silent invasion that separates us from the familiar, making us always have to redefine or relearn our places and our people. I find it a great comfort to realize that as I’ve grown older, I’ve established new family and great experiences in different mountains and rivers. It was with nostalgia I made that starter on Sunday! Who knows? Maybe in another 30-40 years I will write about today and remember it all fondly too. It seems that if there’s much purpose in life it’s to remember the good stuff and carry it forward.