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A Spiritual Journey into America

Beattyville, Boone County Kentucky

by Don Noyes-More

READ ANOTHER STORY BY DON NOYES-MORE

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THOMAS HART BENTON

"The people loved one another with all their flaws and shortcomings. As the woman at the clogging event said to me, “You’re home now.” This was an America where everyone seemed to fit in, and what you had was usually enough, many times it was enough to share with a neighbor in need..."


     I suppose no matter where I go or what I do I am psychologically geared to make some sort of philosophical reflection or statement of fact, of course, as I understand it.

     Only upon rare occasions have I encountered spirituality and the meaning of America together in one place. I found it this time in a small out-of-the-way place in rural Kentucky.  For me that one small place was in the backwoods of Boone County Kentucky, down a darkly wooded road, on a moon-filled icy night.

      Beattyville, in Boone County Kentucky is for the greater part at the confluence of two rivers within a state park, the Kentucky and Ohio rivers, with thousands of acres of forested parklands. Mainly populated by Cherokee mixed white people of Scot-Irish backgrounds. Families come to Beattyville and all of Boone County for vacations during the long humid summers. College kids from colleges party on the river and in the parklands.

      I went to Boone County to share a Christmas celebration with a local older couple, the husband had been sheriff for a few years, and his wife had been a part-time county magistrate. They lived in a beautiful hill top farmhouse with a large pond, trees, ducks, geese, chickens, a few pigs, one milking cow, beehives, goats, dogs, cats, one pet raccoon, whose name is Willie and a large 19th century tobacco barn. At one end of the property their oldest daughter shared a trailer with her three boys, all in their teens. There was a wood stove sitting in the middle of the tiny living room, blazing away while dogs and cats roamed without control through the tiny trailer, trying to find food or a place for a nap. The boys spent most of their time outside of school, hunting and fishing, or sitting for hours smoking and drinking the local “moonshine” made in the next county. The “hooch” is about 100 proof, “or there-abouts”. Beattyville was a “dry” county where the Feds still-hunted down “moonshiners” in the woods, somehow overlooking the marijuana crops planted all over the place. Some agents got themselves killed in the process of enforcement. Beattyville retains what so many small late 19th  and early 20th century towns looked like; one bank, one general store, grocery store, town whore, filling station, town hall, city jail, town restaurant, one pie shop, hardware store, all strictly Mayberryish.

     And it was into this town I drove one very dark and icy winter’s night. Winding through a midnight forest with streaks of golden moonlight cutting the dark in front of the car. Every few miles deer ran across the highway and bats darted. I called to find out the right road to take up to the house. Two of the boys jumped into grandma’s truck and came down the hill so I could follow them up.

     I was put up in a bedroom with a fireplace; it was cozy, and comforting. Victoriana was everywhere, the real thing. It was late; Grandpa had already gone to bed. I was given a hot cider and a cinnamon roll and told breakfast was at 6:30 “don’t be late.” Goodnight. I set my alarm on my phone. I fell fast asleep in the deep folds of the goose down mattress and pillows.

     At 6:15 in the morning there was knocking on the door, “breakfast” come and get it, “breakfast, com’on now”.

     The long oak table sat in a large airy room just off the massive kitchen. There were a number of people sitting and talking. Grandpa saw me, came up and gave me a hug of welcome. He is also half Cherokee, raised only 2 miles from the farmhouse. Grandma’s daughter and sons were there and a sad alcoholic uncle Rob, who died of AIDS a year later. He never got treatment. He lived in a room in the old barn. Everyone greeted me warmly and as family.

     Wonderful wood scented smells from the wood burning stove filled the house. Fresh baked rolls piled high on a platter sat in the middle of the table, with dark honey from the hives outside. Johnnycakes sizzled in the skillet. Home smoked hardwood bacon piled in a mound graced the platter next to the rolls. Grandma’s honey-orange pecan syrup sat warm and ready for use with the johnnycakes. Home churned butter sat as a monument of freshness. I had not seen this kind of breakfast since 1968 easily. Grandma served the johnnycakes and then a platter of fried eggs was served with a mound of home made cottage fries, crispy outside and so tender inside. Strong freshly ground coffee with a shot of homemade summer brandy was added to every coffee cup. After breakfast grandma served up “pie”; flaky slabs of spiced apple and preserved cherries, (preserved in brandy), flaky buttery crust with a mountain of whipped cream and cinnamon on top. Breakfast lasted about a hour or so, at which time most everyone lit a cigarette and started to gossip. Yes even the 14 year old smoked.

     I was asked what I would like to see while in Beattyville. The one thing I had in mind was, “I’d like to go clogging.” (A hill country Scots – Irish jig like dance with the slamming of feet on a wooden floor to keep time, all to the wild tunes of an assortment of violins, banjos, guitars and mandolins accompanied by singing. Kentucky is a place where even the sad songs sound upbeat; Hill country music.

     Two nights later I found myself in the back of Grandmas van with an assortment of family members. We wound slowly down the winding road in the middle of a dark ice crusted forest, seemingly on the way to nowhere. We were going clogging Grandma informed me. We turned off the narrow highway onto a dirt and gravel road, all the while the boys in the van passed hooch and a joint back and forth.

     After about 10 minutes we came upon a large unpaved parking lot. There was a long log building with a wide porch lit up with kerosene lamps and music blasting out into the cold, clear night.  We walked up to the entrance, which was a doublewide Dutch door. Men stood outside talking and taking swigs from their bottles,  $2.00 entry charge and a smile is what we got from the old woman standing at the door with a cigarette between her dark yellow teeth. “Where you from boy?” She said with a grin. “I’m from everywhere and nowhere,” she looked at me and smiled, “you’re from here now, everybody comes home again, everybody, welcome home son.” Grandma pushed me through the door.

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BOY FIDDLER AT CLOGGING & MUSIC EVENT

There were about 100 men, women, and children clogging to the hill music. Feet stomped loudly banging the floor in a symphony of bluegrass hill music. The room became a heartbeat on the floor. Lines of people in almost a mystical trance danced wrapped in the lifting tunes of heartbreak and loss at a bluegrass tempo. Feet slammed the old floor making the whole place shake. Indian yelps and screams came from the cloggers and from those on the sides watching. Mandolins added a bit of a medieval touch to an American Celtic gathering of musicians.  “You can make medicine with what’s in our woods, but it’s never enough to cure all our woes.” Grandma remarked to me, and then winked.

     The old men that weren’t clogging congregated at one end of the room with pint bottles of rye whisky and “shine” poured from narrow bottles into half emptied coke cans from the inside of their jackets. Their faces were already red from drinking, dancing and chewing too much chaw (tobacco).  The teen boys went from clogging to smoking and drinking on the outside porch that wrapped the building in chairs, benches, and wooden rockers.

A chorus of singing came from in front of the musicians; it was almost a shout,

“You got to walk, that lonesome valley, you got to walk it by yourself, no one else can walk it for you, you got the walk it by yourself.”

This was an old gospel song set to a bluegrass tempo. It’s a deeply spiritual song, strong, faithful almost triumphant as bluegrass with up-tempo banjo and all in accompaniment. Everyone in the room regardless of where they were, started to clog, sing, or both, everything else stopped. There seemed to be a magical connection here, something primal and spiritual, of connectedness and of the nature of a Celtic clan gathering. I could have been at a Celtic Winter Solstice celebration in Ireland or an Indian ceremonial dance; I was transported to a different place and time. It runs in their blood, it puts light into their faces, smiles on their lips and an ability to endure the biggest hardships of life. The arms of the cloggers went above their heads in an attempt to touch heaven I would believe. An amazing thunder of faith and love swept through the room. The room was shaking from the hundreds of feet clogging, the yelps started again, tears flowed, people sang, the pounding on the floor increased. I knew why I was there; I knew why I had to witness this, why I would leave a piece of my heart there. The people loved one another with all their flaws and shortcomings. As the woman at the door told me, “You’re home now.” This was an America where everyone seemed to fit in, and what you had was usually enough, many times it was enough to share with a neighbor in need. I was in need and they shared with me one cold, winter, almost Christmas night, they shared their souls with me. Thank you.

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CLOGGING

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CLOGGERS, BANJOS, & FIDDLERS

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