By Mitch Howard
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
On March 23, two roads diverged in Harlan County and I took the one less traveled. I had never been on 421 this far from home, but knew where it would take me eventually. First it took me back in time.
The first few miles were foreign. Winding and steep it makes one wonder if you should turn around. I pressed on. When I crossed over Pine Mountain the scenery looked familiar and began to tug at memories. Like a face you cannot match with a name what I saw looked familiar in an unfamiliar way.
People’s faces change with time and make them hard to recognize. It is the same with places. I passed churches and houses that spoke to me. Then again most mountain communities look the same from Harlan to Hazard, Pineville to Prestonsburg.
I rounded a curve and pulled into a community grocery store. There I sat for several minutes chasing the ghost from many years earlier.
This store had been owned by Eugene Howard, brother of my dad, Stanley Howard. We spent a lot of time visiting uncle Eugene and aunt Loretta when I was growing up. I thought they must be the richest people in Harlan County because they owned a store. My grandfather, Owen Howard, lived in a small house just behind the store. They were all sweet people that I loved. They have all been gone several years and sometimes I still miss them.
Although driving to Harlan still isn’t easy, it was much harder when I was young. The roads and the cars were not quite as good. We didn’t have phones and Ipads to make the trip seem shorter. It was always a long, car-sick haul.
Reminiscing on that day put me in the mood for old country music on my Ipod. I tried to find some of the songs I would have listened to on those trips to Harlan County. Maybe some Glen Campbell or Jim Reeves. For some reason Freddy Fender’s song, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” came to mind. Unfortunately, or fortunately, it’s not on my playlist.
There probably would not have been any music playing since back then families actually talked to each other on trips. We looked out the window and noticed what was interesting and what had changed.
So that was what I did as I trekked on to London. I passed an elementary school where I once raced bicycles with two Harlan County locals. They were older and beat me easily. “You’re pretty good, but you can’t beat the Bledsoe boys,” one of them said. Funny the things you remember.
I passed the road to Salt Trace where many family reunions were held before the remaining members of the family became too few to reunite. I passed the house that once belonged to my uncle Morris. He is no longer with us and his son Patrick also died tragically in an accident working on power lines.
Eventually I made it home feeling much older than when I left.
Monday I sat next to my sister at the visitation for Eddy Sizemore. My sister leaned over and whispered that uncle Eugene’s store had been completely destroyed by fire.
I sat in the parking lot of Eugene’s Store for a few minutes in March, but had probably not been there in the previous 20 years. Still the news was devastating.
Robert Frost wrote, “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
He also wrote this, “In three words I can sum up everything I have learned about life: it goes on.”
Yes it does Robert.