I’m planning a trip back to my hometown of Ashland, KY soon to visit my dad and stepmom. It’s as much a trip through time as through space. I left Ashland 44 years ago to attend the University of Kentucky and only briefly ever lived there again. In 1982 I moved back to Ashland for a very short time during the final weeks of my Mom’s awful fight with cancer. And then again for a couple of years between marriages, when Emily was in middle school. I left again for good in late 2000 to make a life in Socal with Kathryn, and Ashland has felt increasingly distant from that time forward. (The featured picture above was taken in Ashland around 1999. From the left it’s my brothers Mark, Mike and Don, then me and my Dad. We looked pretty good back then.)
I’ve always had a fraught relationship with Ashland and eastern KY. On one hand I remember it as beautiful country and a great place to be a kid. My brothers and I ran through the hills like wild animals and loved every minute of it.
On the other it holds some harsh memories of people departed and poor decisions I made during my college years (another set of stories for another time). In those days I traveled weekly from Lexington to Ashland and back, one foot in the past and one attempting to find purchase in an uncertain future. I remember getting lots of traffic tickets in those days, as the interstate highway speed limit was 55mph and strictly enforced. Just try driving at 55 today on the highway and see why a young, impatient person might have ignored the limit.
During my adult years I’ve watched Ashland decline as a city and a region, as the steel mill closed, the tobacco and coal economies collapsed and population declined. It’s one of the poorest regions in the country, now gut-punched yet again by being in the epicenter of the opioid epidemic.
I tell people I’m from Appalachia and that’s true. It’s like a completely different country there – people, culture, language, values, economies – all pretty much the opposite of my chosen life in Socal. So my upcoming trip to Ashland feels like a much longer trip than 2300 miles. It’s a journey back into the past and into a somewhat foreign land. Planning for the trip has kicked off a big round of introspection, nostalgia and pointless thoughts of “what if?”.
I hope the person I’ve become post-retirement finds a way to appreciate my hometown for what it is and what it was. We’ll see when I get there; old habits die hard. For 40+ years I’ve gotten in there and out as fast as possible, wondering how I ever escaped in the first place. Thinking about it now I wonder, “Did I really?”.