Today we drove about 450 kms from Richmond, just south of Lexington, Kentucky to Bristol, a town that quite literally straddles the Virginia Tennessee border. We took highway 421 which is as far from a highway as it can be. This is a two lane back road (just like home!) through the mountains (hills), and it was a sad and beautiful trip.
The road is tree lined right to the very edges; it winds up and down valleys and over hills and through very broken down towns. Mouldering houses, cars, mobile homes are being claimed back by the trees and undergrowth. In some places what seems to be the entire contents of a home are piled outside. We can only guess there's been a bailiff around.
Every few miles there's a town or settlement. From time to time there are well kept, sound houses with mown front yards, but a greater proportion lack any sign of care or maintenance.
The common theme is a Guns and Pawn shop (or two or three) a second hand/junk shop, several Baptist churches and a whiff of desolation.
I'm not sure why I stop in Sand Gap when I see the Country Corner store as there's nothing to differentiate it from all the other places.
It has furniture, general junk, some clothes, odds and ends of new things, and friendly dad and daughter proprietors. We chat a while, I ask for the bathroom and am sent outside and down to the cellar - with a key ring that holds two bullets.
I unlock the padlock and walk through a cemetery of appliances. I circle the dank cellar and don't see a toilet. What the? There it is! In the wide open, but hiding behind the shell of a washing machine. Yes, it's connected and it works.
Back upstairs I find the h-g playing checkers with the dad. "All day, regulars come and play for hours" the daughter tells me. "The only one who whops him is an 85 year old who comes in every day". The h-g gets his ass whopped.
It's lunchtime. We stop to find a diner in Harlan, mainly because we are fans of the show Justified and it's set in and around Harlan. We don't see our hero Raylan Givens, but we learn a few things.
As we don't see a diner we walk the few streets. A lovely lady in a flower shop (yes that was a surprise, though it seemed to have a lot of wreaths) tells me Pat's is officially the place for the best burger in Kentucky.
Next door the h-g is chatting to the crew in Guns and Pawn. The room is lined with rifles, there are fewer guitars, some crossbows, lots of jewellery. While we're there, a woman comes in. She's politely waiting for us to stop shooting the shit and astounding the staff with the fact we're from New Zealand and have turned up in Harlan. I'm not entirely sure they know where New Zealand is. The woman, dressed in a shapeless shift could be anywhere from 30 to 60. She smiles a toothless smile and I watch her open a small box of gold (coloured? plated?) pieces and the shop guy sifts through them. It's only then I understand she's looking to pawn her few precious pieces.
It puts into context the conversation I've just had with the staff.
Me: What do people do for work?
"Well, it used to be coal mining, but the environmentalists made it too hard and closed that down. Now it's cheques."
"Uh huh - welfare"
This folks, is why people here voted for Trump. When you've got nothing and someone offers hope, you believe him. Even if he's lying.