From The Mind

Home Thoughts from a Hillbilly Poet

by Gayle Compton

I have just returned, road weary and glad, from a four-thousand-mile tour of America’s Mid and Northwest. Traveling with six other family members in a capricious rented RV, I crossed four states before entering Billings County, North Dakota, and the rusty half-naked hills where Teddy Roosevelt reached the bag limit on buffalo, on land which would become the Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park. I tried to wrap my mind around the big sky, lakes, and snow crowned mountains of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, states I found frightening in their own grandeur. At Yellowstone I stood with two-thousand people and applauded as Old Faithful erupted in a hot and silvery plume seventy feet high. In South Dakota I looked upon the four faces of Mount Rushmore and felt the need to kneel or weep and did neither.

 

Among mountains, deserts and canyons, buffalo, moose and prairie dogs, I had enough soul-stirring impressions to make a book. Strangely, I wrote not a single line of poetry until I arrived back home and saw Dry John Elliot’s old yellow Camaro parked in the Elwood curve with the hood up and steam boiling from the radiator. Old Faithful had nothing on Dry John.

 

Welcome to Peabrook, Kentucky, stomping ground of Dry John Elliott when he's not in jail, home of Elster Farmer, inventor of the indoor pig feeder, and Whet Junior Damron whose Ashland station has a sign in the window that says JUNIOR’S GOT GAS YOU JUST CAN’T PASS. Peabrook is my own little corner in this place called Appalachia. Dry John, Elster, and Whet Junior are my neighbors. The farmer, coal miner, truck driver, schoolteacher, back-slid preacher, head-of-the-holler redneck, the washed and unwashed, are my people. Known the world over for our internecine feuding, we would defend our worst enemy against an outsider.

 

Knott County, Kentucky, author James Still, whose novel River of Earth stands as a monument to human suffering in the mountains, has called Appalachia “that somewhat mythical region with no known borders.” If we insist on boundaries, I believe they exist somewhere deep within the human spirit. The all-but-forgotten poet Roy Helton spoke of drinking lonesome water “up in a laurel thick, digging for sang.”  He claimed that no matter how far we roam, once we’ve tasted lonesome water we are “bound by the hills and can’t get away.”

 

It is with a sense of urgency that I attempt to preserve something of place, character and language here in Eastern Kentucky, where I see my world changing daily into the shapeless and soulless image of mainstream America. I must take comfort in knowing that, at least in story, my land will always be “somewhat mythical.”

 

Somewhere in North Montana tourists are snapping pictures as a small herd of buffalo block the road. Here in Peabrook the sun has gone down and a dog barks at a wooly worm. Down by the creek the frogs are tuning up. The Ashland pumps are idle. Whet Junior and Bill Boy Jones are playing Gin Rummy and swatting gnats by the light of a buzzing Firestone sign. As a final salute to the day, we see the flash of one busted taillight and hear the tortured screeching of tires as an old yellow Camaro lays rubber from the Old Regular Baptist church to the Elwood crossing.

 

Twilight has come to the Cumberlands. An early moon holds vigil over the purpling hills, over the valley and roof tops of the drowsing village. The late hour thrums with crepuscular wings.

 

The news tells me that far away in Chicago the streets are lit with gunfire, and rioters have taken Portland. I shrug my shoulders and open my window to the night air, cooler now with a hint of honeysuckle.

 

Dry John Elliott would put it more poetically: “It sure is purty tonight. Look at that damn moon!”

Gayle Compton’s stories and poems about Appalachia have been published widely. He lives with his wife Sharon in Pike County, Kentucky, the “Peabrook” setting for much of his work.

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