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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. 

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