Right now, Americans are freaking out over gasoline that costs $2.60 per gallon. The inevitable resulting rise in the price of meat, milk, fruit, and vegetables is starting to give us sticker shock at the grocery store. But really, as any visiting European will tell you, the US is quite a bargain compared to most of the developed world. This is especially true when you get far away from the cities.
I recently spent a few days meandering around the eastern edge of Kentucky. It’s a land where McMansions still look oddly conspicuous and “urban sprawl” would only apply to cityfolk stopping for a nap. A land where the nicest building on a road is still liable to be the church. Where people say, “down by the strip mall” and there’s only one place that could mean.
“This is the cheapest cheeseburger I’ve ever seen!” said my dining companion when she looked at the menu at Billy Ray’s, in Prestonburg, KY. It reminded me of when I went on a houseboat trip in Kentucky many years back with some college buddies. When the waitress at a diner reeled off the unbelievable prices of the lunch specials and what they included, my visiting friend looked up from the menu and said, “How much is a piece of pie–a quarter?”
Coal Miners and Country Music
I was in the area to work on an article about the “Country Music Highway,” a National Scenic Byway that runs through the foothills of the Appalachians. I live in Nashville, Music City and all that, but most of the big country stars have come from somewhere else. Often that somewhere else this rather small area of one state. Here’s a sampling of who sprung from there: Dwight Yoakam, The Judds, Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, Ralph Stanley, Tom T. Hall, Patty Loveless, and yes, Loretta Lynn.
I visited Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gayle’s childhood home, of Coal Miner’s Daughter fame. It’s in an area called Butcher Hollow (pronounced “hollar” of course), near the town of Van Lear–as in Van Lear Rose.
Apart from the memorabilia on the walls, the house is pretty much intact. They could have prettied it up and disneyfied it, but thankfully didn’t. Loretta’s brother Herman gives the tour, while his daughter Madonna runs Webb’s Grocery nearby. As I paid for my Moon Pies at Webb’s, I asked Madonna why there was a picture of Herman on the wall enclosed in a toilet seat. “Well, one time he had to go into the hospital for surgery. When I called him to ask how he was doing, he said, ‘I feel like I’ve been flushed down the commode.’ So that’s where we put him.”
I also swung by the brand new Country Music Highway Museum in Paintsville. Apart from being so new it looks like a highway rest stop, it’s well done. More memorabilia is set up in the older Highlands Museum and Discovery Center in Ashland. You never know what you’re going to find in these small town museums and the latter didn’t disappoint. Unceremoniously tucked away amongst some military artifacts was Hitler’s phone. Yes really–Hitler’s phone. The one that was in his bunker where he offed himself. Sitting in Ashland, Kentucky!
State Park Bargains
Some US states have unimpressive and underfunded park facilities, but Kentucky’s State Parks are some of the best in the country. Seventeen of them are resort parks, meaning they have a full lodge. I spent my nights at Jenny Wiley State Park, in a lodge room that was nicer than a whole lot of hotels I’ve been in. But in this room you could wander outside and see an owl, a woodpecker, herons, raccoons, or even a bobcat. It runs $80 a night double, or you can rent a well-equipped cabin that sleeps up to 8 for only $130. I did a little fishing on the beautiful lake at dawn. Caught one weed. Maybe I should have rented a mountain bike instead, or gone elk watching like some other guests did.
For more information on Eastern Kentucky, where you can also find rebuilt log cabin villages, several music and drama theaters, a canyon, and more, click here.