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Monday, June 6, 2022

PS - 7 "Guidelines" for Tourists Traveling To Or Through The Mountains of Eastern Kentucky

(*Edited - 7th guideline added about driving in the area ;)

*"Decoration Day" (Memorial Day) in the Appalachian tradition - open discussion and commemoration of the dead is very important to Eastern Kentuckians. 

So there are a few guidelines to go by when visiting Eastern Kentucky - and I say guidelines because most people are pretty understanding and welcoming to tourists, until you get further in the South/Southeast and deeper in the mountains, i.e. the Harlan County area or the Somerset area - then there are actual rules you need to follow to stay safe, if not from there or don't have family from there.

*In fact, if not from Kentucky or the Appalachian South, you probably shouldn't go to the Southeastern-most mountain regions of Kentucky at all - i.e., Harlan County and vicinity  - BUT - traveling to or through the mid-central-eastern and northeastern mountainous regions of Kentucky should be fine, keeping in mind the below guidelines.

In fact, even I might have trouble in the southeastern most corner of the state, despite my father's family being from Harlan (because I grew up in Cincinnati and now live in Lexington) without a family member to vouch for me :)

HOWEVER - north of that, especially if they're selling you something, they'll be very friendly (well, if white).

They might perhaps look you over a bit first, somewhat suspicious - so don't act they're beneath you - because they're very hard-working people with hard lives, distrustful of you already, thinking you're judging them - so don't help them out with that, right?  

Thus, I had to prep my husband from Detroit a bit on acceptance of all the "honeys" and "sweeties" a bit first, that it's not flirting, it's just their way of talking to you, both men and women.

Additionally, here are 7 guidelines for traveling to or through Eastern Kentucky ... 

1)  If you're from the city or the north, remember, you're a guest in their "house" - so act like it. 
Don't act like you're above them, be very polite and well-mannered, please and thank you, apologies for mistakes, "Yes, sir" and "No, ma'am" -  you know, act like you're a guest in their house and you're willing to listen and learn from them - and mean it.  

Little story about that, when I was sitting at the bar and grill, waiting to pick up my food, there was a couple next to me from Chillicothe, Ohio.  

Next to them was a man, a regular from the area, with no teeth and a bucket of beers.  

He waved and said "Hi" and waved to everybody that entered, which at first, I thought was just the women and therefore creepy -  but I quickly realized he did this with everyone, male AND female.

The lady from Chillicothe looked at me with widened eyes and mouthed, "Oh my God.

First of all, Chillicothe is fairly blue-collar to middle class, so it's not like they were super wealthy themselves.

And I understand the caution - anywhere else, men who like this can be creepy, but never judge a book by its cover - and after observing him a minute, you could clearly see this poor man was just trying to be friendly, and the bar staff loved him, literally telling him so.  

Poor man, he clearly noticed her being rude, but continued to try to engage them in polite conversation anyway and make jokes  :/  

The man had said, "I don't see no difference from those damned E-cigarettes from smoking regular cigarettes, do you? They're the same thing, but people get mad if they tell 'em they can't smoke them in here, neither."

Ohio woman completely ignored him and stared ahead as if he didn't speak at all. 

I said, "Well, I can't say anything because I'm a  smoker, but I'm an ashamed smoker - I hide outside, away from children, God, and everybody" - to which her husband and the man chuckled. 

The man said, "Well, nothing to be ashamed of, honey, it's hard to quit. 'Least you're consid'rate 'a people, 'stead of smoking them fancy things that don't really help nobody quit, getting mad when somebody tells you, you can't. There's people who got black lung here.  We don't need no more help with that lol"

Like me, the husband was very kind to him and chuckled at his jokes, chatted a bit, but she continued to not say a word to anyone else - local guy, me, or even her own husband!

I get the caution, but seriously, he wasn't a creeper after all, if you observed him - he was just some old local former coal miner, trying to be friendly with everyone, fond of the drink :) 

Remember, you chose to come in their house - that's no way to treat these people who graciously allowed you in -  like they're less than human  :(

(In fact, at any other place than a state park, that's also a way to get yourself eventually escorted out lol.)

It's actually pretty amazing that they're still so smiley and friendly, considering how hard their lives have been - we could learn a thing or two from them about that.

So when I picked up my food, the husband and the friendly man said, "Take care, have a good one," and I returned the same, teasing the local man "Now, you behave yourself," with a wink -  to which he replied, "Hee hee - Always!"

I added "Nice to meet you, have fun, y'all" to the couple, trying to engage her as well, but she literally turned her back on me now because refused to engage with her about belittling him, and because I treated the toothless mountain man kindly and interacted with him :(

The staff, however, then came out and hung out with us a while on the patio, after that (of course, it helps that I tip big) -  but believe me, they are observing  you at all times, even when you think they're not - paying attention to how you treat them and other locals ;)


2 (a) - If a man, talk about the military or at least thank them for their service, if they're a soldier - chances are they are or were.
Because other than the plethora of predatory and disability/worker's comp/social-security lawyers and local politicians there, the three main jobs are:  Coal miner, soldier, or working for the state or local government/school district.  
And when I say ask them about it, I mean ask if Army, Navy, or Air Force and which regiment (though they often wear pins or badges on their hats or clothes that will tell you, but you can ask about), where they served or were stationed, etc. - HOWEVER - you should NEVER ask a soldier if they've ever killed anyone. 
That question is considered rude anywhere you go and Eastern Kentucky is no exception. 
Talk about yourself less, and only about what you know -  but mostly ask, listen, and learn about what you don't.  
If nothing else, talk and ask about the weather, cars, or fishing  :)


2 (b) - If a woman, talk about family, children, grandchildren,  gardens (flowers or vegetables), or dogs.   


*Actually, when all else fails that's a good rule of thumb in general, in Eastern Kentucky, for either gender - ask about their family, their children, their dogs, or their vegetable garden and you can't go wrong.*


3) If somebody asks where you're from, and you live in Kentucky, tell them the county first, unless it's Lexington, Louisville, or Paducah - but even then, they may still ask which county (like my husband was  - I forgot to tell him about this guideline ;).  
If you're from another state, say the state only, not the city, unless pressed.   
If from another country, regardless of skin tone - don't talk, period - they will never fully trust you, even if Canada, the UK, or Australia - so just smile, say please and thank you, and just listen lol.  
Ever heard the old saying, "Better to stay quiet and let them think you're a fool than open your mouth and prove it?"  - true, better to let them think you're "simple-minded" than not from this country, trust me ;)


This is because what they're trying to assess is how "citified" and "uppity" you are, you see ;)


So especially if from New York  or California, but if not from NYC or LA, make sure to say "not New York City" or "not Hollywood or LA"   lol.  
If you are from NYC or LA, God help you - just make a self-deprecating joke about it, like, "I'm from NYC. I had to get out of there."    
Same thing for Chicago - say "Illinois" - NOT "Chicago" - unless pressed.
So my husband says "Michigan" - only saying "Detroit" if pressed, "Whereabouts in Michigan?""


***BTW, important detail - the City of Louisville is pronounced "LOOuh-vuhl" throughout the entire State of Kentucky, and perhaps only pronounced that way in State of Kentucky   - NOT "Lewis-ville" or "Louey-ville" - it's "LOOuh-vuhl" - thus, it's a dead giveaway that you're not even from the entire state, you know nothing about the culture, and even may appear uninterested or unwilling to learn about it, if you pronounce it otherwise ;)


4) Proudly mention any family ties to the area, or as close to the area, as you can find.


As I tell my husband, "If ever you find yourself in trouble or with especially suspicious people in Eastern Kentucky, tell them your wife's dad's family is from Harlan County, you'll be in like Flynn." 
"Plus, because of "Bloody Harlan's" especially tough reputation, they won't even THINK of messing with you, either, for fear my 'kin' would come up from Harlan and burn their houses down lol. "
"If they press, they might not know my Dad or my Granddad because they moved away, but they'll know my great uncle E.C. Smith, who was a local politician, everybody knew him, good reputation. "

Doesn't matter that my Dad was a complete A-hole, or that I've only been to Harlan once in my life, they just want to "know your daddy" and if you can trace your kin to a coal miner and understand the coal-miner's hard life  - which all three men in my family were, at least for a short time, before moving away :)

So yesterday, my husband got his first test of this (but in a friendly way).

On the way out of town, we stopped at a flea market, where locals were selling everything from second-hand clothes to homemade mountain items to their recordings from the recording studio at the MAC (Mountain Arts Center), to Kentucky "Mountaineer" half-runner beans.

I wanted some Kentucky "Mountaineer" half-runners (SO good), but didn't realize the flea markets in this region were still cash only.

(I should've thought of this, but didn't, because where we were staying took cards for everything and flea markets and farmer's markets here in Lexington do accept cards and have card readers).

So the man looked at me like a city girl and told me to walk down to the ATM at the gas station, which I did, only to find out the machine was out of cash and the banks were closed on a Sunday. 

Thus I scrounged up change from the bottom of my purse to pay him. embarrassed, apologizing profusely for having to do so, but he was so kind about it :)

As a matter of fact, he was actually less suspicious of me when I did that, saying, "Aw, honey, don't you worry about that - people pay me in coins all the time, it all spends the same, thank you, hope you like 'em  :)

Anyway, while I was gone, my husband struck up a conversation with another man from another table, who was selling second-hand military gear. 

I bought the beans and by this time, I had my sunglasses off, and the man bent down slightly, looking straight in my eyes, and said quietly, "Let me see ...  yep, now I see it ...  welcome back, young lady" 

(Of course, I am NOT young - this is something Kentuckians say trying to flatter older women lol - the main thing to takeaway from that, though, is it's a sign of welcoming, acceptance lol)

I looked quizzingly at my husband for a second, then realized what was going on - he was looking for any trace of Eastern-Kentucky Appalachian physical traits - specifically, the blue-green "mountain" eyes, which are a dead giveaway you're of Appalachian descent  :)

So now, he was super friendly to us and told us to come back any time, even though we didn't buy anything because the ATM was down.

As we walked away, Mark said ...

"Yeah, so your guidelines are absolutely 100% right - the guidelines apply.  He asked me where I was from, I said Michigan, but he pressed for where in Michigan.  I told him I lived in Lexington now, but he wanted the county lol."

"He was friendly the whole time, but didn't really open up towards me until I told him your "kin" was from Harlan.  He widened his eyes and said, "Really?  I wouldn't have known, her accent's mixed like, she sounds and looks like a city girl" 

Mark explained I grew up in Cincinnati, but my mom and her "people" were from Nicholasville (Jessamine County) and my Dad  and his people were from Harlan.  The man of course asked what county Nicholasville was and then he understood :)

Once my husband told him that, he was in like Flynn - the man visibly relaxed and became very chatty with him :)

So when I came back and took my sunglasses off, he wanted to see if I had "mountain eyes"  - the blue-green eyes of the Appalachian people :)

Many women from Appalachia - especially in Kentucky - have the dark hair, light skin, and the blue-green Appalachian eyes of Loretta Lynn, Crystal Gayle ... and me lol ...  so that's what he was looking for :)

Not to say that all the ladies there have that coloring, but it's more common there.

Ladies come in all shapes and sizes everywhere, of course, but in Eastern Kentucky, because they were so isolated, for so long, there are generally 5 main physical-trait groups they fall into (which is changing after cable TV and access to the internet) - and we're talking white women, because although there are people of color there, not many, and the races tend not to hang out together :(

The first group is, yes, the unfortunately obese set, often nowadays with short hair dyed colors like pink, candy-apple red, purple, blue and green.

Secondly are the freckled-faced, stereotypical Irish-looking girls :)

Third, there's the platinum blonde-bombshell set, regardless of eye color - some naturally blonde, many bleached.

They often win the pageants here in Kentucky and are what most people think of when they think of a stereotypical mountain beauty - think Ellie Mae Clampett?

Although of course, they don't still dress like that lol.

Yes, most of them wear too much makeup - like, porn-star makeup -  which they wear even just to the flea market, and often are scantily clad, even tacky at times, but my God, they truly are striking. 

My paternal grandmother belonged to this set - she actually had coal black hair, but bleached it platinum blonde all her life lol

Most of them are overdone (think Dolly Parton) ...

Dolly Parton  (from nearby Tennessee rather than Kentucky, but still the Appalachian mountains)  

And like I said, they're often pageant beautiful or Playboy/porn beautiful lol ...

Allie Mae Leggett - Miss Kentucky USA 2013, Playboy Playmate , 2017 (Whitley City, KY) - and yes, the similarity in transforming her name to sound similar to Ellie Mae Clampett was intentional ;)

And sometimes, even supermodel beautiful (think Rebecca Gayheart)

Supermodel and actress, Rebecca Gayheart (Pikeville, KY)


(Rebecca initially had dark, curly brown hair and thus would've been in the last group below, the traditional mountain coloring, but became increasingly blonde, going full-blonde shortly after this picture was taken at age 16, and is thus mostly recognized as a blonde.)

Then there's the dark brown hair and brown eyes, set, of Native-American ancestry - also stunningly beautiful (think Naomi Judd). 

Naomi and Wynonna Judd (Ashland, Kentucky - Northeastern Appalachian Mountains)

Lastly, there's the more traditional Appalachian-folk set, like me,  (think Loretta Lynn, Crystal Gayle)  - dark brown to coal-black hair, blue-green eyes, and fair skin.

(We may have pale, fair skin, but you'd be surprised how dark we Appalachian-descendent girls can tan, we just burn the first few times and it just takes us longer lol I personally rarely hang out long in the sun anyway, unless I have sunscreen and/or a hat ;) 

We typically don't win any beauty contests, like the blondes, in this region - because we're not exactly bombshells or considered great  mountain beauties  - and I guess we're a dime a dozen in this region lol. 

Loretta Lynn (Paintsville, KY)


Crystal Gayle (Paintsville, KY)


June Carter Cash (originally from West Virginia, but still Appalachian mountains) 

Me (Cincinnati, OH and Lexington Kentucky - paternal side of my family from Harlan County, Kentucky)

My coloring comes at me from both sides, though - this is my mother's coloring from Central Kentucky - but there's no record of her great-great grandmother, Priscilla,  before marrying her great-great grandmother, Priscilla, they cannot be found in any census records before marrying his grandfather, making it likely she was from Eastern Kentucky, where census takers often didn't dare go.

Also, as mentioned, my entire paternal family was from Harlan, with my grandfather having the exact same coloring as me, and though we aren't in communication with our family there, as mentioned, we know their names through oral tradition (and have since verified them through census or courthouse public record) :)

Now - I will warn you, - everyone, EVERYONE has tattoos in Eastern Kentucky, both male and female - it's a badge of honor.  

You usually mark your family's dead on yourself, or commemoration of a tragic event, Native-American symbols, or something else of importance to you.  

5)  The community is very focused on commemoration of their dead, including their pets - so they will openly talk about their dead, very early on in the conversation and often, as they don't consider it a conversation-stopper or downer, like we do.  
Remember, Eastern Kentucky was so isolated that it largely wasn't literate until the mid-20th century (though my grandfather taught himself to read, as well trigonometry and calculus) - so for them, oral history and song  were the only methods they had of keeping historical records, which they continue to this day, despite now being literate, out of tradition. 
Thus, they will expect you to  compassionately comment about their dead, and praise them - and you should do so.

There hillside cemeteries throughout the region, always meticulously cared for - they're house or trailer might be falling down and ready to be condemned, but by God, their family's hillside gravesite will be well manicured and flowered up to the hilt lol

It also used to be that they often decorated their homes with pictures of their dead in their caskets, a thing which freaked me out, growing up, but like I said, that's changing with their access to the larger world due to access to cable and the internet.

Just remember that these people are doing the best they can with the hand they've been dealt in life, working the coal mines until they get black lung, for not a lot of pay, to keep your lights on - so treat them with respect and kindness :) 


6)  Lastly, if a liberal or a Democrat, I would strongly recommend that you never,  EVER mention it - you are outnumbered and may be not-so-politely escorted out of the county lol.  
If a woman, they probably won't ask you about politics anyway, but if they do, you can say something like, "My granny drilled into me it's not polite for ladies to talk about politics in polite conversation and I can't get that out of my head lol -  so forgive me if I don't join in." 
Of course I don't really believe that, ladies should be able to talk politics every bit as much as men  -  and any other time I would -  BUT - 1)  My granny really did say that, and 2), what granny says is always respected in Eastern Kentucky, and her advice comes in handy in this region especially, as an escape route from political conversations;)


If I man, just say, "I don't know enough about them here to say, what do you think?" - and listen to their experience, agreeing with any points you find common ground on.

No one is more eager to help our culture progress than me - but I also recognize a situation in which I'm outnumbered - and is potentially dangerous - to mention this in. It's just good common sense/wisdom, right? :) 


But I will say, in this particular region, popular with tourists, no one did - no one will bring up politics except old men sitting on the front porch of the gas station, talking to each other, not tourists lol.

Also, the "Jesus hates Democrats"  or "Democrats are going to hell" type of billboards were noticeably absent from this region, unlike more Southern/Southeastern Kentucky, thank goodness. 

In fact, I had a lovely conversation with the waitresses, having waited tables myself previously. 

I asked the if people ever tipped them in religious pamphlets that looked like dollar bills.

They said "Lord, yes, I hate tha-at! Sometimes a "Jesus loves you bracelet" instead of a tip."


Me:  "Lol, right?  I always hated that.  I mean, I love Jesus, too, but Jesus doesn't pay my rent, right?"


Servers:  "Ha HA, ri-ight, Jesus ain't gonna buy my diapers for me.  But you know, they mean well, I guess."


Me: "Maybe they do, but they need to think about that a little more.  One time, I was left a big mess by a church group who camped out at my table for like three hours who left me one of the "Jesus Saves" pamphlets that looked like a $20 instead of a tip, and you know what I did?  I ran after them and said, with the biggest smile, "Oh, I think you left this on the table!  I know Jesus already, thank you."  I swear I did.    


They found this hilarious.

Well?  I was super nice about it, but it made me mad - that's no witness for Christ, taking up table space all day, waiting on them hand and foot, racking up a $300 bill and leaving me a Jesus Saves pamphlet in lieu of a tip?

I bet even Jesus shook his head lol


Of course, I tipped them all very well - not only because I'd waited tables myself and $2.15 an hour suucccks ... but because these people were hit harder than most by COVID.

Sometimes I have to interpret for my husband because he can't understand the accent, but I still way he's getting much better about that :)

In the end, people are the same wherever you go - if you're kind to them, they'll be kind to you, right? At least for a quick  conversation exchange, anyway   :)


I just thought of another one after this post was written.

7)  Although less true that it used to be, do NOT turn on your brights at an oncoming car or flash your lights- no matter how dark or twisty the road is - don't do it with an oncoming care, and turn your brights off if they're on
This is because flashing your lights, not turning your brights down, or turning them on with an uncoming car  is considered an  affront, an aggressive act, an intentional offense - essentially, it's a challenge to a fight.    
Especially never do this in the daytime, but it applies at night, too - UNLESS - you're trying to warn an oncoming vehicle of a state trooper parked over the next hill, a speed trap - which is why it's more acceptable than it used to be.  
If trying to warn of a speed trap, just briefly on/off flash your lights - do NOT turn your brights on all ;) 

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