Summertime in Eastern Kentucky is a rite of passage among those who call this region home.Eastern Kentucky folks brave harsh winters and soggy spring times to be able to enjoy everything that summertime dog days have the offer. I, myself, am someone who has always marveled at the beauty and mystery of summertime in this wonderful region of the state. From early mornings, misty with mountain fog, to late nights, complete with lightning bugs, twinkling among the rolling hills and plateaus, there’s something almost mystical about this land when the sun shines hot and the moon seems to perch herself right on the mountain ridges.
As far back as I recall, May was a welcomed time in my life. It meant that soon school would be letting out, and I would be free. In a place where, historically, school was let out in the summer so the children could help tend farms and harvest crops, there really isn’t much that has changed here.
Children help hoe rows of garden beans and corn, and stand in the kitchen in the fall to help Grandparents can, making fresh corn salsa, and sealing up vegetables in freezer containers. Young boys help cut and hang tobacco in worn wooden barns, or buy pigs at the local auction. The whole family helps pick green beans, corn and reap the benefits of actually planting, tending and harvesting your own vegetables. Here, we make the most of our skills, and there’s nothing like eating fresh corn, tomatoes, or beans from the garden. As a girl, I remember taking a salt shaker down my grandparents garden and eating tomatoes and cucumbers right from the vine. Picking strawberries and drenching them in milk in sugar and eating them like a bowl of cereal. Waiting for the wild cherry tree to blossom, and making myself sick from eating so many. Not many things rival the taste of salty shucky beans, fresh cilantro from the herb garden, and Grandma’s garden cucumber salad.
Early June, you can look out at all the ladies front porches and see those tell tale signs of an approaching Kentucky summer. Hanging ferns, and plants adorn every hook on porch pillars. Young and old alike, flock to local flower haunts to pick up their azaleas, hydrangeas, rhododendrons, and phlox. Perfectly manicured lawns sprawl and wildflowers are left uncut. Milk glass vases are brought out to be set up on coffee tables to make for a pretty display of peonies, daffodils, iris’ and Sweet Williams. Cut class pitchers are displayed, with gallons of homemade sweet tea, complete with a fresh sprig of mint picked straight from a garden. The aesthetics of a true Appalachian summer.
Sun tans, freckled faces, scraped knees, elbows and bare feet are the summer uniform for Appalachian children, and when you see one you’ll be sure to recognize them. I was all teeth and blonde stringy hair for the better part of the 1990’s. My childhood was the product of rolling down hills, climbing gigantic pine trees, eating apples picked up strait from the ground, and swimming in dammed up creek pools. I recall walking down a gravel road to pick blackberries, having at least a half a dozen “copperhead” scares, and making friends with little green garden snakes. I can’t imagine any other kind of setting for spending my summers. I’d never trade those memories for anything.
When I smell skin so soft, OFF, or Cutter, I’m transported 15 years back in time when I could never get rid of chiggers and had endless amount of “skeeter bites.” Mason jars weren’t just for jams and jellies. Put some aluminum foil on the top, poke some holes in it, and you have the perfect lightning bug habitat. Nothing can compare to the smell of dusk, after the grass has been mowed, when the light dims and the world becomes soft around the edges. Lightning bugs lift themselves from the ground, and trees become illuminated with what we call, the bugs of the south.
In July, teenagers barrel down back country roads, kicking up dust and finding new ways to outrun the law. Reclaimed strip jobs serve as make shift party spots. There’s not much like drinking a beer beside of a fire, listening to an old car stereo and watching the sun set behind the hills. 20-somethings pass around jugs of shine, and old timers sit on hay bales and recant tales of glory days. Ours men are either country boys or outlaws, and either way, Mama tried.
Creek banks become worn, and, welcome old friends as they come back to try their hand at fishing. Bass, blue gill and catfish are caught by the dozens. Communities gather every weekend for a barbeque, pig roast or fish fry. Kids good up the old watering hole rope, and swing from tree branch to home made swimming pool in rivers and creeks. I will never forget the feeling of cool, wet moss, weathered creek rock, or slimy green algae. Creek banks were your haven, and skipping rocks was a sport.
Roadside custard stands and hamburger joints, are stuffed full of people, waiting to get their foot longs and superman ice cream. Drive In theaters show the latest pictures, and everyone is out and about on Friday nights. On July 4th, the entire town comes out to watch the county seat put on their fireworks display. Every home flies the American flag. Everybody loves their country here. Nobody is more proud of their heritage than we are. People may say a lot of things about folks from Eastern Kentucky, but one thing they can’t say is that we aren’t is Patriotic.
Remembering these things always brings a smile to my face. Especially now, since my children are getting old enough to know and appreciate all the aspects of truly enjoying and having an Eastern Kentucky summertime. In listing these things, I hope that perhaps I have brought back some special memories for my readers, and maybe even made you appreciate what we have, right here, in this special little spot of earth we call home.
I can never put my finger on these things while I am writing about them. What makes me so nostalgic, or what makes me love my homeland so much. I have always attributed it to not only being a romantic, but also being the product of a long line of settlers, patriots, and hell raisers who came here years ago and made Kentucky their home. I think a lot of people take their heritage for granted, and become so desensitized to it, they forget what a beautiful place we live in, and what a privilege it is to be a Kentuckian. Kentucky, for me, is something as much a part of me as the blood in my veins and salt in my skin. She’s made me who I am, and every season spent within her borders is just another season to look for the good, and celebrate.
There are many things about Eastern Kentucky summers that I could ramble on about. For me, summertime in my home state is something that can neither be rivaled or duplicated. Many states have just as many attractions, or beautiful spaces as we, but none have Eastern Kentucky people, or our constant “Kentucky state of mind.” That in itself is something in a league of it’s own.
“I take with me Kentucky embedded in my brain and heart. In my flesh and bone and blood. Since I am Kentucky, and Kentucky is a part of me.” -Jesse Stuart