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The Herald March 3, 1989
Journey reveals a different world
On one of my long weekends off from work, the weather here was unsuitable for bicycling.
While I'm no stranger to an occasional ride in the rain, a torrential downpour limits drivers' ability to see a cyclist, and they're not going to be expecting a rider in those conditions, anyway. Rather than miss a weekend during the peak of my riding season, I loaded my bike into the car and drove toward better weather.
After a stop in Blowing Rock, N.C., I continued through the mountains to Jellico, Tenn. I chose Jellico for no reason other than it looked good on the map. Nestled in the Cumberland Mountains near the Kentucky border, Jellico was large enough to have a motel or two beside the interstate, but quiet enough to afford me some good bike riding on secondary highways.
By the time I checked into the motel, I had little time left on a Sunday evening for bike riding. I readied my bike and set out on a quick tour of the town just before sunset. I cruised down the main drag gawking at the houses that clung to the hillside above. Main Street was hilly enough for any mountain town, and some side streets were nearly vertical.
I made it all the way through town to the bank when I came upon Jellico's police force. The lone cop eyeballed me as I rolled by. I waved but he didn't return the gesture. More than anything, he looked bored to death. I guess a cop in a town this size has no choice but to keep a high profile. He can almost see the whole town from the bank parking lot.
After my encounter with the police cruiser, I realized the cop was the only person I had seen in town. This place was The Twilight Zone. I hit some of the steep side streets and still failed to make contact with the human race. I was beginning to get concerned. Maybe there had been a chemical spill, or a nuclear disaster that had caused the evacuation of Jellico. What if there was a plague?
Completely by chance, one of the side streets I tried brought me into a large state park. This is where the people of Jellico were hiding. Every last one of them. It was obvious that on this particular Sunday afternoon, the park was where it was happening. Be there or be square.
Every picnic table was loaded with goodies, and every barbecue grill in the place was smoking. Kids ran rampant, and by the time I made a parade lap, there wasn't a soul in the park who didn't know I was in town. The kids raised an awful commotion when they saw me in my loud cycling jersey. On my way out, the park ranger gave me a questioning look. For some reason I felt as if I was towing a banner marked "Stranger."
The next morning I rode my bike into Kentucky. The state line was just outside of Jellico's town limits, and this would be my first look at the Bluegrass State. I turned right onto highway 57W and soon came to the sign at the line - "Welcome to Kentucky. Open for Business." The modest sign was in stark contrast to the huge designer billboard for Tennessee facing the other direction. It appeared to me that the state line might actually be a set of railroad tracks. If the tracks didn't follow the line, they came close to it.
Over the tracks and into Kentucky, I soon discovered the state was indeed open for business. This was coal mining country --Loretta Lynn style. Huge dump trucks hauling coal through the hills treated me as though I was invisible. One of the rigs thundered past my left elbow, showering me with coal dust in the process. From then on, I politely left the pavement each time I saw one of the barreling monsters coming in the mirror. The fourth or fifth time I hit the shoulder, my front tire blew out from the mixture of gravel and coal chips.
As I changed the inner tube, I thought over the situation. I realized why the coal drivers were treating me the way they did. This highway was a workplace. They had no use for a bike rider who slowed their pursuit of some of the hardest dollars in America. I had finally found a road I had no right to ride on.
I was 10 or 12 miles north of Jellico, and now I wanted more than anything in the world to be off of highway 57W. After the tire repair I looked for the first road off in either direction. I got my wish a bit farther north when I came upon a road with a sign and a Kentucky number. I thought any road with a state number was a connecting highway, so I turned left. Maybe I could design myself a circular route back to Jellico.
After six miles on this secondary road, a familiar sign drained my spirits entirely. The sign said, "End State Maintenance." I was down in a deep, dark hollow somewhere in Kentucky and the road turned into a dog trail. I had no choice but to turn around and relive the last six miles.
Everyone in the hollow had big vicious dogs on copious lengths of logging chain. In most cases the chain would reach to the edge of the road before it would clothesline the charging beast. I thanked the Lord for strong U-bolts. These dogs meant business. I wondered if the dogs protected their owners from outsiders or from one another. In any case, this was no place to stop and ask directions.
Back on highway 57W, I battled the coal trucks toward Jellico until I picked a likely-looking road in the opposite direction of the hollow.
After some twists and turns on this road, I passed under a trestle for the railroad tracks I had crossed earlier. Soon I came to a neighborhood where modest, well-cared-for houses were spaced loosely on both sides of the road. There were lots of dogs in this area, but they had little in common with the chained assassins in the hollow. These dogs were much smaller and they scampered about freely in a social setting. They all ran and jumped and yapped and generally paid me no attention as I pedaled by.
The houses were all perched on hillsides: there wasn't a level spot in sight. Every 10 or 12 houses, there was the old-fashioned basketball hoop nailed to a tree or a pole. Most of the playing areas were situated at angles that would make shooting the ball difficult and dribbling just about impossible. Nonetheless, the turf under each hoop was worn down to the dirt, evidence that folks here enjoyed themselves despite aggravating conditions.
The road I was riding put me back near downtown Jellico. A 40-mile bike ride in the mountains feels like 100 miles around here, so I was satisfied with the day's performance. Still, it took me months to realize what I had seen during those miles.
In the economically troubled coal mining region of our country, I had seen both sides of the tracks. I'll not soon forget it.
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