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Thursday, September 21, 2017

"The Original Wisdom Of The Dao De Jing A New Translation And Commentary" by P. J. Laska--Book Review

Laska, P. J.: The Original Wisdom Of The Dao De Jing A New Translation And Commentary (Green Valley, AZ. ECCS Books, 2012)

P. J. Laska Photo by Warene Hobson

Please allow me to preface this review and/or commentary by saying that what I know about the Dao De Jing would not fill a thimble.  This is the first time I have ever read any translation of the Dao De Jing other than whatever small sections of it which might have been included in an old classic called "The Bible Of The World" edited by Robert O. Ballou and published in 1939.  That little classic and its subsequent replacement, "The Portable World Bible" also edited by Mr. Ballou and published in 1976, are both classic texts for the students of both religion and history who want to understand the complexity and diversity of the world's religions and their effects on world history without doing a full fledged doctoral level piece of research.  I was first introduced to "The Bible Of The World" by Dr. Billy Rojas, Ph.D., who taught history at Alice Lloyd College for a few years in the 1960's and 1970's.  Later in about 1974, I met my friend, professor, and mentor, P. J. Laska, who wrote the particular version of the Dao De Jing which I am attempting to address in this review, and he further broadened whatever understanding I have of the world's religions.  Laska published this version of the Dao De Jing in 2012 after having studied the Dao and Daoism for more than forty years.  It is also relevant to this discussion that P. J. Laska holds a doctorate in philosophy.  

The Dao De Jing is generally defined as "...a famous Chinese philosophical text attributed to the authorship of Laozi (Lao Tzu) (sixth century B.C.E.), and highly influential in the religion of Daoism."  Like most major religious texts of the world, the Dao De Jing must be studied regularly and frequently in order to be understood.  I do not presume to understand it. Laska has told me in our personal communications that:

"...I'm not interested in Daoism (the religion), which is what most of western writing is about.  I found the older wisdom tradition conveyed by the Dao De Jing to have a lot in common with the naturalism that evolved in early Greek philosophy.  Then I was puzzled by the phrase "wei wu wei" (ddj 3 &  63) and spent a lot of time trying to make sense of other translations before I realized they were passing off "act without action" and other contradictory nonsense as something subtle and mysterious.
I started exploring this phrase which asks the reader to bring opposites together.  Then it struck me that the opposites are "wei"=human action, and "wu wei" =non-human activity, or natural process, and it fell into place.  The ancient wisdom is about balancing these two, to achieve sustainability.  

The main difference between human activity and natural process is the intellectual and artistic design that's present in human action, whether it is called thought or idea,  or consciousness that gives our action its end or goal.  I call it 'desiging (sp) action' to set it apart [from] the processes of nature that go on without this conscious design.  This is the key to the ecological reading that guides the commentary -that and the anti-imperialist thread, which you will see in ddj 80 the paradigm for a sustainable community is a small state with few people." Personal Communication from P. J. Laska to Roger D. Hicks 2017.

As I understand our prior and subsequent communications about this book, P. J. Laska's intention was  to produce an ecologically based translation of the Dao De Jing.  I do not wish to further speculate as to whether or not I believe that Laska achieved his goal.  Or as they used to say on Beaver Creek when I was growing up "I reckon I jist don't know nothin' about that there stuff."  I did find the Dao De Jing sufficiently interesting that I might go so far as to reread Laska's translation in a more studious manner by following all cross referenced sections which appear in his notes and commentary which will be an even more time consuming task.  I read it this first time in what some might consider a fairly close effort and actually read every note or commentary section throughout the entire text.  I did find it somewhat disconcerting that there are notes at the end of most of the verses, stanzas, chapters, or sections and there are also commentaries in a separate section at the back of the book each of which is designated by an asterisk at the end of the particular stanza or chapter.  I would have found it personally more effective if both the notes and commentaries had been combined in a single note at the bottom of each stanza or chapter.  

I must also say that certain small sections of the text struck me as particularly pertinent to life and world politics in the highly dangerous world in which we live today.  I refer the reader to stanza or chapter 30, found on page 37 of the book, states in part: 
"Those using [the Wisdom of] the Way to assist a sovereign in governing do not employ force of arms. This will likely provoke the use of arms in return.  Where troops set up camp, thistles and thorns grow.  Where great battles are fought, years of hardship will follow.  Those adept [in the use of the Way] do not risk using force.  They succeed without vanity and without aggression, and get results without arrogance, gain, or use of force." 
This language is more pertinent today than it could have been at nearly any other time in world history.  I am writing this review on the day after the particularly ignorant, inflammatory, and ill advised speech before the United Nations by the TRAITOR and International TERRORIST Donald Trump.  There are other equally pertinent sections of the text of this book which can be applied to world politics today in general and in particular involving the Russian Owned Criminal Syndicate which is currently illegally occupying the White House.   But, to return to my discussion of P. J. Laska's book:

This is a book worth reading especially for the practicing Daoist or student of Daoism. It is also worth reading for the student of world theology and, perhaps, even for the person who is in that life stage of seeking peace of mind and a personal spiritual world view.  I would not presume, and I do not believe that Laska does either, that this edition of the Dao De Jing is a be all end all edition that will give the reader release from the need or desire to read other editions.  In fact, if I ever finish all the other projects I am working on to which I assign higher levels of importance I just might read another more commonly used edition myself.  Maybe, to that degree, P. J. Laska might have achieved one of his unstated goals, to initiate the reader into a further study of the Dao De Jing.  However, let me end this piece the same way I began.  What I know about the Dao De Jing would not fill a thimble. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Connie West Art Exhibition--Loyal Jones Center--Berea, KY

Photo By Roger D. Hicks

On September 7, 2017, my wife Candice & I traveled to Berea, KY, to see an exhibition of art by Connie West at the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center at Berea College.  The exhibition is the first to my knowledge of Connie West's work since her death in 1990 at the age of 81.  Connie West was the wife of my professor, mentor, and friend Don West, the Appalachian poet, preacher, teacher, union organizer, and social activist.  She was also the mother of the late folk singer Hedy West.  Connie was a highly accomplished woman in her own right.  She held degrees from Lincoln Memorial University, the University of Georgia, and the Baltimore Institute of Art.  She had met Don West at Lincoln Memorial University when they were both undergraduates there in the 1920's.  Connie was also always active in the social justice causes which Don worked to accomplish.  She had been active in the founding of both the Highlander Folk School and the Appalachian South Folklife Center.  Connie was also a brave example of the thousands of women who fought against cancer in the 1960's through the 1980's, a period when successes against cancer were rare and treatments were not nearly as well developed or effective as they are today.  

Photo By The West Family

It is sad that many of the paintings of Connie West were lost in a fire at the Appalachian South Folklife Center in 1974. At that time, many of her paintings were exhibited in the dining hall of the Folklife Center and an accidental fire destroyed the building along with many of Connie's paintings and a sizable collection of artifacts from the lives of both Don and Connie West many of which were also historic items in the progression of the field of study known today as Appalachian Studies.  Don West made a dangerous and heroic attempt to save as many of Connie's paintings during the fire as possible.  He did manage to save a few and suffered minor burns and smoke inhalation in the attempt.  I was living and working at the Folklife Center at the time and attending Antioch Appalachia in Beckley, WV.  When the fire occurred, three of us who lived at the Folklife Center were in class in Beckley and received a call that the building was on fire.  We left class and raced over the mountains to arrive after the building was a total loss.  It was the only time I ever saw Don West cry in the twenty years I knew him.  I will never forget standing beside Don and Connie with Connie crying openly, Don with silent tears streaming down his cheeks, his eyebrows and much of his hair singed from the fire, and openly weeping at the loss of both Connie's paintings and much of their lives work.  

Portrait Of Don West By Connie West Photo By Roger D. Hicks

As a result of that loss to the fire, the exhibition at Berea is of high quality photographs of many of Connie's paintings taken by Wes Harris.  Her surviving paintings are scattered through the collections of Wes Harris, her daughter Ann West Williams, and a few individuals who were lucky enough to own some of her work.  Even though this exhibition is of photographs and not the actual paintings, it is well worth seeing especially for the student of Appalachia and Appalachian Studies. This may well be the only chance many will ever have to see Connie's work.  Connie West painted primarily portraits of persons she knew and considered to be worthy of memorializing.  Subjects include her husband Don West and a sizable number of native Appalachians who had accomplished lives of distinction.  Attend the exhibition and make note of the fact that the online web page to which I provided the link above states that the show ended at the beginning of September 2017 but it is still hanging as of September 20, 2017.  I have been informed by personnel of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center that the exhibition is likely to remain open to the public until December due to the lack of another scheduled exhibition in the Long Wall Gallery.  I would also suggest that my readers find time to obtain and read the works of Don West and the James Lorence biography of Don.  Don't collected poetic works have been published twice.  The first book is called "In A Land Of Plenty A Don West Reader" which was published by West End Press in 1982.  The second collection of his work, published posthumously in 2004 by the University Of Illinois Press and was edited by George Brosi and Jeff Biggers under the title "No Lonesome Road Selected Prose And Poems".  The James Lorence biography is an excellent work with highly detailed scholarship and fine writing.  It was published in 2007 by the University Of Illinois Press under the title "A Hard Journey The Life Of Don West".  All three of these books will give the reader a deeper understanding of the many accomplishments of Don and Connie West and their joint importance to Appalachia and the field of Appalachian Studies. 

Appalachian Quilter Pipestem WV by Connie West Photo By Roger D. Hicks

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Carter Caves State Park--My Favorite Places In Appalachia

Yesterday, August 29, 2017, my wife Candice and I took our seven year old nephew to Carter Caves State Park near Olive Hill for his first encounter with a cave.  He is visiting with us from Wisconsin for a few days and we have tried to expose him to a few learning opportunities he might not have had in the past.  We arrived at Carter Caves just in time for my nephew and I to buy tickets for a morning tour of the X Cave.  Candice is in a wheelchair and had to wait for us in the area of the Welcome Center where she browsed the gift shop and spent time talking to the young woman in charge at the time.  The X Cave is somewhat unique in that it was originally two parallel caves which were eventually united by erosion of the rock barrier between them. As discussed in the previous link, The X Cave has long been rumored to be haunted by two Cherokee lovers although I have never known of any actual evidence of that. Also, keep in mind that The X Cave has absolutely nothing to do with the video game Mine Craft and is a far more positive way to spend time.

The tour was guided by a young man named Wesley, whose last name we did not learn.  He was a graduate of Morehead State University, my own alma mater, and therefore was bright, well educated, and a thoroughly competent tour guide.  Wesley was especially erudite about individual characteristics of cave development, cave dwelling species, and of the park itself.  He took time to be attentive to my nephew who is particularly verbal and asked many questions.  It was also helpful that the only other people on our tour were an elderly couple who were also tolerant of my nephew.  Wesley pointed out many different and entertaining aspects of the cave, the species of bats living in it, the current danger to bats all over the country from a fungal disease which was carried from Europe by spelunkers, and any particular questions anyone on the tour might have.  This tour was short, lasting less than an hour but is still an enjoyable way to spend some time on a hot summer day or a cold winter day since the temperature is constantly comfortable underground.  

This was actually my third visit to The X Cave since I saw it the first time nearly sixty years ago when my sister and I went there with the family of a high school friend of hers.  I was only six or eight years old during that visit but I always remembered the unique construction of The X Cave.  At that time in the early 1960's, it was a fairly long trip from Beaver Creek in Knott County to the park in Carter County.  

Later that afternoon, my nephew and I took a tour of Cascade Cave which is actually located a few miles and minutes from the main park.  Cascade Cave is considerably larger with large high ceiling rooms, a flowing creek of some size, and a small population of bats.  There are four species of bats in the park and fifteen species in Kentucky as a whole.  Bats are particularly important to people because of their voracious appetites for harmful insects.  It is noble work for anyone to try to protect the bats of the world.  After exiting any of the caves in the park, it is necessary for you to walk across an anti-fungal device which uses a liquid fungicide to kill any spores of the disease which might have been carried from the caves.  Cascade Cave has an underground waterfall which our guide, not Wesley, told us is fueled by water from an unknown source.  He said that several times scientists have conducted dye tests and cannot accurately determine the source of the water which falls down a deep shaft into the bowels of the cave.  This cave was used at times in the past as a cattle barn in winter.  

There are also several other smaller caves in the park including Saltpeter Cave and Bat Cave. The park also has a full scale lodge with a restaurant, conference rooms, and motel rooms.  There are numerous hiking trails, miniature golf, a large RV campground, and other interesting elements which can be enjoyed on a visit to the park.  Tours and tourists at the caves drop swiftly in number after school resumes in the fall.  The early days of the week are generally less attended also.  I strongly suggest that you visit Carter Caves State Park even if you are not a spelunker or cave lover.  Go simply to enjoy nature in a quiet state park setting run by friendly, competent people. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Thoughts About Writing Dialect

I am somewhat omnivorous in my reading within a few reasonable bounds.  I will read almost anything with the exception that I generally never read what I call "drugstore fiction".  By that, I mean that I will generally never read anything that can be found on the paperback racks at your local small store, dollar store, or other such general market businesses.  The one exception I make to that rule is that I do sometimes read the work of Dean Koontz who, at his best, is a better than average writer with intelligent, original, well constructed, plots which will hold the attention of most discriminating readers.  At his worst, Koontz is a typical drugstore fiction author.  Like most other authors who consistently crank out one or more books a year, he does not always produce his best work and sometimes, he, his agent, and publisher inflict some fairly low grade work on the ever receptive fan base he has developed over the years.  

I like to read with some variety although my first love will always be Appalachian literature, both fiction and non-fiction.  I am a native born, native educated, and proud Appalachian and I never apologize for it.  Several of the best writers America has ever produced came from Appalachia: Pearl S. Buck, Thomas Wolfe, Albert Stewart, Loyal Jones, P. J. Laska, Bob Snyder, and several others both living and dead. I do frequently find myself reading other literature from other areas, some in the social sciences where my degrees are rooted; history both Appalachian and World; poetry from the recognized masters; anthropology; and the natural sciences.  I often deliberately use a book from one of these areas to break up long term periods of nothing but Appalachian Literature. 
This post has been primarily caused by a little book I reread today from the fields of African American and children's literature, "Flossie & the Fox" by Patricia C. McKissack and illustrated by Rachel Isadora.  I had bought and read the book originally when I was employed as a mental health therapist in a juvenile treatment facility at a time when state licensing agencies were particularly focused on the consistent provision of culturally diverse group therapy and culturally diverse encounter experiences.  I dug it out of a pile of books today because my wife and I have had our seven year old nephew in our home for about two weeks and I am particularly focused on diminishing the amount of time he spends with what I consider to be his obsession with "Mine Craft" an internet based game whose value I seriously doubt.  "Flossie & the Fox" was published in 1986 and some readers and parents might consider it a bit dated.  The book is described by the author as "...a story from my youth, retold in the same rich and colorful dialect of the rural South."  It is an African American story about a young girl on a plantation who is sent to deliver some eggs to a neighbor of her mother's.  She is warned before she leaves home about a fox which has been stealing a lot of eggs and which cannot be caught by the local hounds.  In the story, she meets the fox and enters into a lengthy conversation, argument, or discussion with him in which she denies believing that he is actually a fox.  Told in rich African American dialect from the rural, agricultural south, the story moves quickly with humor, insight, and grace.  The little girl and one of the local hounds ensure that the eggs make it to their intended destination.  In spite of its age and particular cultural focus, it is a book which is worthy of any young reader's attention.  For those of us who are interested in southern or African American dialect, it is also interesting to the adult reader. It is a story about a young child learning self sufficiency, confidence, and inner strength.  I am glad my nephew's presence caused me to dig that little work out and reread it.  I freely recommend it to both you and your children or grandchildren.

It also reminded me of a fairly new friend of mine, an African American woman who grew up in poverty and lived to retire from the federal government.  She also happens to write some highly readable memoir material.  The dialect material in "Flossie & the Fox" might not be totally accurate in today's south.  But it is a rich window into the language spoken on plantations, farms, and small town streets in a dozen states running from Maryland to Florida and from Georgia to East Texas.  I rarely write in dialect and do not always see the value in using it.  Any culturally based dialect is worth saving for posterity whether it is Appalachian, African American, or Viet Namese American or any other.  Dialect written well and accurately can be a joy to read and learn.  Dialect written poorly and inaccurately can be a painful caricature of a culture and a people.  There is nothing in the world worse than bad dialect written by a person who knows little or nothing about what they are attempting to create.  Thank God that Patricia C. McKissack knew what she was writing about. 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

"The Pale Light Of Sunset Scattershots and Hallucinations in an Imagined Life" by Lee Maynard--Book Review

Maynard, Lee: The Pale Light of Sunset Scattershots and Hallucinations in an Imagined Life (Morgantown, WV Vandalia Press 2009)

Until Lee Maynard's recent death on June 16, 2017, I had never read any of his work.  Maynard was, and will always be, a controversial figure in the world of literature in West Virginia and Appalachia.  His first published work, "Crum", was actually banned from sale at the Tamarack Center in Beckley, WV, due to its perceived extreme negativity to Crum, WV, Maynard's hometown, and to West Virginia and Appalachia in general. Most of the West Virginia and Appalachian writers who have been my mentors and friends also held Maynard in contempt for the same reason.  We rarely, if ever, discussed him or his work.  And generally, to a person, we never bothered to read his work.  I chose to read this book after having read some comments, in a newspaper obituary, from Cat Pleska about Lee Maynard, his death, and his writing.  Cat Pleska and I have never met but are now Internet and E-mail friends and I trust her judgment. I am glad I read the book.

Lee Maynard Photo By Huntington Herald Dispatch
First and foremost, let me say that I am a strong proponent of the idea that everyone alive should read at least one banned book a year.  If you can't read at least one book which has been banned, then read at least one book a year by an author who has had work banned.  Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of expression are some of the most important freedoms available to citizens of a democracy.  They should be cherished, protected, and utilized on a daily basis by every citizen of such a democracy.  With that in mind, along with the positive recommendation of Cat Pleska, I decided to read some of Lee Maynard's works.  It was a wise and rewarding choice.  Let me say, unequivocally, the man could write.  He could also live.  He lived well.  He lived loudly. He lived dangerously.  He cherished ever day he was given on this earth and he used them to the best of his ability to achieve many of the things of which he dreamed and to which he aspired.  Lee Maynard, in his best moments, wrote fine, lyrical literature which sings, whispers, chants, and sometimes roars off the pages.  

"The Pale Light of Sunset..." is a memoir although it has been sometimes called a work of fiction or quasi-fiction.  One of the quotations which Maynard chose to use on the frontispiece states: "All stories are true, if they are well written. The question is what they are telling the truth about. Lee Kinder."   In that quote lies a riddle which the astute reader of this book finds herself attempting to answer.  Is it fiction?  Is it fact, memoir, autobiography?  Is it a little of both?  I subscribe to the idea that it is a little of both.  I believe that Lee Maynard, like most of us, wanted the world to know about his most cherished memories, his greatest achievements, and his greatest loves.  I also believe that Lee Maynard, like most of us, had a tendency to stretch the truth a bit.  As we live and move farther away from key events in our lives, they tend to grow in our hearts and memory.  They tend, sometimes, to become bigger than reality.  And, in reality, many of the events in Lee Maynard's life were already mighty big.  He rode a motorcycle from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to the Arctic Circle more than 4,000 miles away in September when the icy claws of  an Arctic winter were already attempting to grasp at the living beings in the great white north.  He climbed mountains even late in his life.  He survived a serious storm in a kayak in the Sea of Cortez which left him stranded on an uninhabited island off the coast. Lee Maynard also published eight books in his life, a feat that most aspiring writers only fantasize about.  Late in life, Lee Maynard returned to that island in the Sea of Cortez to answer unspoken questions he must have had.  On that return, he found himself sharing a meal with a total stranger, a Mexican fisherman who invited him to a fire, part of a large yellow tail, half of a Coke bottle full of coffee, and some reflections on life from a stranger and a poor man.  In return, as they parted, Lee Maynard threw the man a custom fillet knife saying "this is not in payment for the dinner.  It is just time for the knife to have a new owner."  The book is full of moments like that which show us a side of Lee Maynard which contradicts all the negative publicity he ever generated with whatever it is he said about Crum, West Virginia, and Appalachia in his other works.  

"The Pale Light of Sunset..." is a collection of autobiographical essays ranging from less than a page to more than twenty.  Like the work of any author who writes essays, some of them  are better than the rest.  Some are quite ordinary.  Some border on greatness.  When Lee Maynard was writing at his best, his work was rewarding, stunning, shimmering, and fulfilling.  There is one particular essay in the book which I must insist is a love song to West Virginia, the same West Virginia which produced a writer who wanted to leave her with all his heart also became a man who loved to return to her, loved to seek peace, solitude, and enlightenment in her mountains and streams.  "An Arrow In The Light" is a wonderfully written, glowing piece of work which tells the reader, without a doubt, that Lee Maynard loved to return each year to one quiet farm and one powerful friendship in the mountains of the Mountain State.  Any man who rode a motorcycle from Santa Fe to Central West Virginia could not have been motivated by hate for his destination.

"The Pale Light of Sunset..." is a book which has a cherished place in the literature of West Virginia and Appalachia.  It is a book which every student of Appalachian literature should read.  It will reward you.  It will fulfill you.  It will warm the cockles of your heart.  I am especially grateful that I chose to read this book by an author whose previous work was banned in West Virginia.  You will be too.  I sincerely wish I could have known Lee Maynard.  I realize that at times there was an abrasive edge to his personality.  There is one to mine also.  But I would have loved to sit beside a camp fire on a quiet West Virginia mountain in the silence of a spring night and share a meal and a few tales with Lee Maynard

Health Care Rally Coal Run Village KY July 29, 2017

The War Goes On--We Only Won The Last Battle

On Saturday, July 29, 2017, my wife Candice, my cousin Jack Terry, and I attended a Rally For Health Care at Coal Run City Park in Coal Run Village in Pike County Kentucky.  I have to apologize for not having written about this rally at least two weeks ago so my readers would have been better informed and had a chance to attend the rally.  The bottom line is that the recent win in the US Senate to avoid the destruction of American Health Care was only one battle in what will continue to be a long war unless TRAITOR Trump is indicted, convicted, impeached, and imprisoned for all his crimes, past, present, and future.  This rally was not a celebration of a victory.  It was much more a call to arms for the ongoing war to protect health care for the majority of Americans.  
The rally was sponsored by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and several other organizations.  If I unintentionally fail to list any of them I apologize in advance. Other organizations which sponsored the rally included the Breathitt County Democratic Women's Club, the United Steel Workers Of America, and several others. Speakers included Dr. Van Breeding a recent winner of Country Doctor of The Year.  Dr. Breeding practises in Whitesburg, KY, and spoke quite positively about the changes which Obama Care has brought to health care in Kentucky and Letcher County.  The rally was also held on the anniversary of the beginning of Medicare and Medicaid.  

The thing that all voters in America, Appalachia, and Kentucky should remember is that the battle against Obama Care will not stop because we won in the Senate more than one time.  The same Right Wing Radical Repugnicans, drug companies, insurance companies, doctors, lawyers, and others who are inciting the TRAITOR Trump group to destroy American Health Care will keep inciting, spending billions in lobbying money, and working to leave Americans in same lurch for health care we had been before President Obama instituted his health care plan.  800,000 Kentuckians, and about 15 to 30 million Americans will lose health care if this plan is allowed to be destroyed.  More than 10,000 of the highest paying and most stable jobs in Kentucky's 5th congressional district will disappear if this plan is destroyed.  Equal numbers of citizens will lose health care and equal numbers of jobs will disappear in other congressional districts all over Central and Southern Appalachia.  West Virginia's 3rd congressional district will have similar losses and their congressman, Evan Jenkins, is doing nothing to protect his district.  The 9th District in Virginia will also have losses nearly as high as those in West Virginia and Kentucky.  The 1st Congressional District in Tennessee will also lose high numbers of jobs and large numbers of the poorest citizens in that state will lose health care if we sit on our butts and allow TRAITOR Trump and his Russian Owned Criminal Conspiracy to destroy the best legislation to pass congress since the Social Security Act.  And, you can bet your butt that if they are allowed to destroy Obama Care they will come after Social Security, Medicare, the GI Bill, and other human services acts as soon as they can.  

Every citizen in America should be up in arms trying to protect Obama Care and fighting to end the attempts to destroy this program.  The United States is the only so-called civilized country in the world without universal health care.  Several Third World countries like Ecuador and Cuba have universal health care because they care for the needs of their citizens instead of their corporations and their rich.  You, as a citizen of both Appalachia and the United States, need to stand up, speak up, and speak out to protect health care in America.  Help bring America up to par with the other true democracies in the world which provide health care to their citizens.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Two Hundred Mile Chow Chow

Chow Chow Photo By Roger D. Hicks

On Friday, July 21, 2017, my wife Candice and I took a road trip around Eastern Kentucky for about 8 hours and exactly 200.1 miles.  The trip was motivated by our desire for a jar of chow chow.  For several years, we bought chow chow at a produce market here in Morgan County from a man named Timothy Shenk and his family.  After a family tragedy in 2013, the Shenk family decided to return to Ohio where most of their family live.  We lost our link to this particular chow chow which was being manufactured by a Mennonite family in Manchester Kentucky.  The Shenks had been buying it in bulk and reselling it at their family produce stand.  For the past several years, Candice and I had been missing that particular chow chow especially when we are eating pinto beans.  Candice got on the internet, which nearly no Mennonites use, and managed to find some comments about H & M Produce in Manchester Kentucky and we called them to verify that they are the makers of the particular chow chow we like to eat.  After confirming that they manufacture that chow chow and they had at least a case of twelve jars to sell, we decided to drive to Manchester to buy it.  

We are somewhat familiar with the Manchester area since we used to have a friend in nearby Burning Springs, KY, named Paul Gilbert whom we used to visit.  I also worked in neighboring Jackson County Kentucky for a few years and was familiar with all of the route.  We like road trips whether they are fifty miles or five thousand.  So we decided to take a road trip and, as we usually do, we chose to drive the two lane roads with the exception of just a few miles of KY 15 between Van Cleve Kentucky and Jackson Kentucky on the way there and about twenty-four miles of the Mountain Parkway between Slade and Helechawa on our way home. We left the house early and took about a mile of US 460 from our house to KY 1000 which we took to Cannel City where it connects with KY 191 to Helechawa. At Helechewa we got on KY 205 to Van Cleve where we picked up KY 15 south to Jackson.  In Jackson, we picked up KY 30 West to Booneville, KY, where we picked up KY 11 to KY 15 South between Manchester and Burning Springs.  From there it is just a hop, skip, and a jump to Manchester proper, the home of H & M Produce. The route from Booneville to Manchester goes straight up the South Fork of The Kentucky River and it is a beautiful drive.  The land is sparsely settled and it has some really nice farms on it.  The views are great. 

I realize that the route to Manchester from our house sounds somewhat complicated.  It is nearly all two lane highways and that is the way I like it.  I love to drive the two lane highways of Appalachia and I have traveled many miles over these particular roads during the past twenty-five years or so.  When you leave Morgan County and enter Wolfe County at Helechewa you can actually tell the difference in the two counties fairly soon.  The route goes through Lee City and it is known for some poverty and crime.  There is also ongoing construction to upgrade KY 205 for a few miles in that area but it did not slow us down.  For me the worst part of the trip is that section of four lane highway on KY 15 south between Van Cleve and Jackson.  It is wide, fast, and boring.  But as soon as you get on KY 30 west you are in rural Breathitt County and it becomes a fun trip.  You drive through the little community of Canoe just east of the Middle Fork of The Kentucky River.  There is nearly nothing in Canoe except one little general store with two gas pumps and a car repair and/or junking operation just before you get to the river.  There used to be a wonderful old steel bridge at the river crossing, painted blue, and awesome to look at.  But it has been replaced in recent years with a modern concrete contraption that has no eye appeal whatsoever.  Then you cross a pretty sizeable mountain into Turkey Creek which is an old fashioned Appalachian farming community and it is a nice piece of two lane.  Once, when I was working in Jackson County and driving this stretch of road every day, I popped around a curve on the downhill side of the mountain and struck and killed two crows as they were trying to eat a road killed possum.  That is the only time I have ever hit a crow in a car.  These two had set themselves up to eat too close to the curve and they didn't have enough take off time to get airborne when I popped around the curve.  As most of you know, it is virtually impossible to hit a crow in a car even if you tried.  They are incredibly smart birds and can actually calculate both the speed and angle of approach of an approaching car.  Crows will sometimes sit quietly on the edge of a highway and let a speeding car go ripping by if they can see that the angle of approach is not directed at them.  They are also excellent at timing their departure just so they leave the ground at the last possible second before a car approaches.  The great Nobel prize winning ornithologist and zoologist Konrad Lorenz who did incredible early work on imprinting and language in birds did some wonderful writing about birds in general and crows and ravens in particular.  Any of his books are well worth reading and will teach the average reader a great deal.  I particularly recommend his books "King Solomon's Ring" and "On Aggression".  They are both masterpieces.

Konrad Lorenz Photo by

Not long after you leave Turkey Creek, you enter Owsley County and come upon the community of Lerose which is not a particularly appetizing sight.  Owsley County is historically poverty stricken and it shows.  You will see clear cut evidence of the stratification of the community as you drive toward Booneville, the county seat.  You will pass a few houses in the six figure range and see a lot of beaten down rental trailers not fit for human habitation.  The county seat of Booneville is one of the smallest county seats in Kentucky with a population of only 81 in the 2010 census.  I suspect there were a few more people who simply refused to participate in the census.  I tend to believe the town is slightly larger than that, perhaps 150 to 200 people might be accurate. But I also tend to believe that if it wasn't a county seat, the town would quickly die. Several years ago, I had an interesting encounter in Booneville on my way to work in Jackson  County.  I used to always stop at the gas station in Booneville for a bathroom break and a Coke.  On one of these stops I saw a man as thin as a rail with a heavily loaded lightweight bike leaned up against the building.  I struck up a conversation and learned that he had been in the middle of a cross country bicycle trip from California to Washington, DC.  He informed me that he usually worked federally funded construction jobs and saved his money for a long adventure about every two years.  Now that is the way to live.

In Booneville you turn up Kentucky Route 11 toward Oneida and the drive nearly all the rest of the way to Manchester is beautiful.  It is also elk country but, somehow, I have never seen an elk in Kentucky.  The river views, hay fields, swimming holes, and fishing spots all blend into a pretty picture.  About half way to Oneida, you cross the Clay County line and realize that you are getting closer to Manchester.  

At Oneida you turn more westerly toward Manchester and come into a few really commercial looking farming operations with some tobacco fields which are few and far between in Eastern Kentucky these days.  You also see some large hay fields, big barns, cattle herds and can smell the money you could not get a whiff of in Owsley County.  Then suddenly you come to the intersection of KY 11 with US421 and turn south toward Manchester.  This intersection is about half way between Manchester and the little community of Burning Springs where my friend Paul Gilbert used to live.  When you arrive in Manchester, you realize you are in an actual town with gas stations, fast food restaurants, motels, and most of the small town businesses you never see in Booneville.  We stopped for gas at a large shell station and life got interesting quickly.  There was a woman about fifty, disheveled, and with all the appearances of poverty and probable drug addiction parked on the sidewalk in front of the store without any apparent harassment from the employees.  I went in, used the bathroom, grabbed a couple of drinks and snacks and went to the counter to pay.  As I approached the counter, the phone rang and the woman who seemed to be the manager answered "Burger King".  I could tell instantly from her responses that she had answered a call from her supervisor, either the owner or general manager.  She responded "Yes, she's right here." and handed the phone to the other older woman operating the register.  That woman said "Hello." and instantly snapped "Stock before I leave!  I always stock before I leave.  Well, just for that I'll walk out right now."  She had already rung up my gas and had my fifty dollar bill in her hand without having made my change.  I responded, "Well, check me out before you go, if you don't mind."  She didn't seem to see the humor in it.  As I walked back to my van, the woman on the sidewalk tried to approach me to either panhandle or turn a trick, I'm not sure which.  I ignored her and kept walking. 

We drove down the street about two blocks to the H & M Produce Market   which is actually formally known as Highway Produce Market but it owned by and/or affiliated with H & M Butchering in Manchester.  It is Mennonite owned and that is always a good thing.  I deal with Mennonite businesses every time I need anything that I can purchase from Mennonites.  As I write this blog post, Ottis Conley, a local Mennonite window installer if putting new windows in my house.  The produce market is a large metal pole building on a street corner lot in Manchester.  It is staffed by an older Mennonite couple and a young woman who is probably their daughter or granddaughter.  They are dressed in typical Mennonite fashion and there is a printed sign in front of the cash register telling customers "Out of respect for our Lord and God, please be dressed from your neck to your knees."  I always try to show appropriate respect to any serious member of a religious group and honor their particular strictures about such issues.  I suggest that you try also.  It is a simple matter of respect.

We did not stay long at the produce stand.  I talked to the owner, told him who I was, and he went into the back to get my case of chow chow.  In the meantime, Candice picked out some fresh tomatoes, miniature sweet peppers, and a jar of jam.  I paid up and we returned to the Shell station to buy a bag of ice for our ice chest which we always keep in the van for purchases of groceries.  The same aged, unwashed woman was still sitting on the sidewalk.  The recalcitrant clerk was nowhere in sight.  I have to assume she really did walk out after she waited on me.  The same manager sold me a bag of ice and accompanied me outside to the ice freezer to unlock it after saying, "We have to keep it locked up.  If we don't, they steal it all."  To my knowledge most gas stations in Eastern Kentucky still leaver their ice freezers unlocked in broad daylight.  Maybe crime is worse in Manchester than I thought.  We left Manchester on KY 11 North headed all the way to Slade Kentucky in the Natural Bridge area where we intended to eat lunch at Miguel's Pizza, a restaurant and tent camp ground on the side of KY 11 which caters to the large rock climbing community in the Natural Bridge area.  The Red River Gorge area is one of the finest rock climbing areas in the entire United States and has developed a sizeable community of year around climbers over the last twenty or thirty years with the world wide increase in rock climbing.  A few years ago, I picked up a young hitchhiker from Canada who was headed to the Lexington Greyhound Bus Station to return home after a winter of climbing.  He said he and his brother owned a farm in Canada and he climbed in winter and returned to the farm in spring, summer, and fall to earn his keep.

Miguel's Pizza serves a good, tasty thin crust pizza with your exact choice of ingredients from a long list.  A large pizza, an Ale 8 One, and a water were about $23.00 which is maybe a bit steep but not outrageous.  There is a large outdoor seating area scattered throughout the tent camping area which surrounds the restaurant.  The indoor seating area is small, tight, crowded, and handicapped seating for Candice could only be arranged by moving an old school bus seat from the end of a table after asking the single male occupant if we could join him.  The parking lot is tight packed pea gravel and a parking spot was available near the front door which allowed Candice to get inside with a minor push over the door jamb from me.  The unisex bathroom is a bit small and has a four inch drop to the floor from the main seating area.  An unaccompanied wheelchair person could not access the bathroom alone.  The service was efficient but curt.  I could not describe the atmosphere from the staff as friendly.  The pizza was produced in reasonable time, served on a flat piece of round cardboard with plastic utensils and brown rolled paper towels.  The crust was cooked to eating condition but not overly crisp.  The tomato sauce was minimal and the vegetable were still crisp which I like.  The overall effect of the meal was satisfactory but not overwhelmingly wonderful.  You bus your own table and dump your paper in a garbage can near the door.  There are empty cases beside the garbage can for the Ale 8 bottles which are refundable.  I am certain that this setup saves them a great deal on labor.

I understand that Miguel's caters primarily to the Natural Bridge Rock climbing community and does damn well financially by doing so.  But with a bit of an upgrade here and there to the parking lot, bathroom, and service they could pick up a far larger portion of the general tourist business in the Natural Bridge State Park and Red River Gorge scheme of things.

After we left Miguel's we drove down KY 22 to the intersection of the Mountain Parkway and turned east toward home.  We got off at Helechawa and retraced our route back home.  We arrived a bit tired, but not hungry, and the proud owners of a winter's supply of good chow chow.  If you need to do business and can use a Mennonite provider, you will always come out ahead in terms of competence, honesty, ethics, and professionalism.  I cannot imagine living again in any community without a Mennonite enclave to rely on. Oh, by the way, I am not remotely religious.