Sidebar to: A River Ran Through ItSpring 2011 -- The beauty of eastern Kentucky was never apparent to me until I moved to Texas and didn’t see flowers bloom for two years. I flew home during summer for the first time in 2010 and was astounded by the beauty. The leaves were mint-green, the grass was as soft as my mother’s voice. I walked barefoot on mossy banks behind my parents' house and helped my niece pick wildflowers. We ate strawberries fresh from the garden.
In Texas, the leaves are often dull, the grass is crunchy, and if you dare step outside with no shoes, be sure to check for fire ants. The strawberries are ripe and red and tasteless. At least it seemed so compared to Kentucky.
All my life, I’d seen past the hills and mountains and yearned to experience the lights of a big city. At 22, I moved just north of Dallas for graduate school and was certain I’d never live in the Bluegrass State again, certainly not in a tiny town of 2,000 with just three stop lights.
Last year, my mother kept telling me of the horrors people in Olive Hill were experiencing. I had grown up on a giant hill, so my family never felt the wrath of Tygarts Creek. In Texas, I watched the news online and saw shots of Alma Sturgill sweeping out her shop. Much to my surprise, she didn’t seem defeated, but more determined than ever to reopen. I realized I needed to return home to write about the town and tell the world how strong its people were.
While I was home reporting the story, talking to dozens of people whose homes washed away before their eyes, listening to them tell me they wanted to move right back in that same spot, all I could think was, “Why would you stay here?”
The question lingered in my mind when I returned to the Lonestar State. I read and reread my notes and couldn’t find any answers. I called my mentor and told him my problem. He suggested I read a couple of books, one of which was N. Scott Momaday's The Man Made of Words. I opened the book to find his essay about sacred ground and the Black Hills, his ancestors’ land and their hardships in the mountains. I reread my notes, and saw the words sacred, cemetery, and home sprinkled through them.
Something switched on and I realized what I’d been missing. Olive Hill, to all the characters in my story, was sacred, a place rife with memories of hard times and good times, floods and fires, love and loss.
It’s hard to leave something so rich, so beautiful. It’s like a delectable strawberry, ripe and juicy, always leaving you yearning for just one more taste of sweetness.