Yesterday I hauled the moto bike back up to Southfork Elk View (Breathitt County, KY) for another after work ride. Instead of putting time on the moto bike as intended, I found myself driving around on the old mine road for a few hours and riding the dirt bike a total of 3 miles. At the time I wasn't being reflective or even conscious at all of what I was doing. It wasn't until I got back to the cabin and opened my News app that I got a little dose of reality. An article was posted from Outside Magazine called "How Hiking Could Help Change the Fate of Rural Appalachia" and is about the Breathitt County Hiking Club, our people's extremely poor health, economic disparity, and how little we are in touch with the outdoors.
It's no secret that the people of southeast KY are in poor health overall. I've come across the statistics more often than I care to recognize so I'm not really going to focus on that one. I do want to touch on the economic situation of the region but not directly. What I want to focus on is that last big point (at least the one that stuck out to me the most) in how we aren't in touch with the outdoors.
"Most of Bowling’s patrons lack any experience in the outdoors and don’t fancy themselves hikers..."
"[Facts about poverty rates, unemployment rates, life expectancy, etc...] Bowling believes he can begin to improve this situation by introducing his peers to the outdoors..."
What? The place in America that I thought was still the most in tune with their surroundings (yes, we're pro-coal but that doesn't mean we aren't paying attention to what it does to our mountains) lack experience and need to be introduced to the outdoors? The people who spend their time picking wild blackberries are less outdoorsy than those having blackberry infused mimosas at #brunch? The people that sip moonshine (made up the holler) shirtless on the porch need to be introduced to the outdoors while flannel-wearing hipsters ironically drink moonshine (bought at the grocery store) are seasoned outdoorsmen? The family living in a house built from wood cut out of the hillside where the house now sits, getting its drinking water from a coal bank are less minimalist survivalists than the Millennial or Gen Xer living in a (partially) off grid tiny house or downtown apartment?
We are described as "backwoods" but we don't know backcountry? Well now that I think about it, yeah.
The problem I'm seeing with my fellow hillbilly is that those shirtless, moonshine makin', blackberry pickin' minimalist survivalists are becoming less and less common. I was born and raised in a county where in the last census we had families that still lived on dirt floors (I'm too lazy to cite this fact, which is mostly hearsay, but I'm pretty confident is true) - yet I've never been hunting and not a fan of fishing.
It's not that most folks around here don't hunt or fish, I admit I'm in the minority on that one, but it still illustrates a point. My lack of hunting and fishing skills is not from a lack of interest in the outdoors. In fact, I would be comfortable betting I spent more time outdoors than a lot of kids elsewhere. We [kids I grew up around] all did. But most of that time was spent on a 4wheeler, dirt bike, or bicycle and little of it was just hiking to be out in nature. We did camp a lot and most of that camping was on top of a mountain - but always out of a truck or 4wheeler.
Sure, we regularly camped, and more often than not it was far away from a developed campground. However, we never camped in a place that wasn't just completely altered by man. [This is where I reiterate that I proudly have a Friends of Coal sticker on my pickup but that doesn't mean I overlook the negatives.] Strip mines and logging roads were our backcountry but that isn't 'backcountry' at all. Heavy equipment tamed the landscape and made it possible for us to get back on top of these ridges in my Dad's everyday work truck.
Even when we camped by 4wheeler trails (which are just washed out and grown up logging/mining roads) there wasn't much sense of being in the wild. It's seldom you'd go the entire evening and night without having another convoy of 4wheelers strolling by. I'm not saying that's necessarily a bad thing, again it just never truly felt wild.
Being from Central Appalachia is just this weird dichotomy of being constantly (sometimes forcibly) surrounded by nature, yet everything has been touched and manipulated by man. Even though I'd argue we still live in an incredibly free, open and relatively lawless space we don't really understand what wild is anymore.