Music is Medicine.


Lost & Forgotten, Found & Remembered

a review by Jeffrey Scott Holland

One might have thought it would be difficult to find inspiration in a Kentucky cross-country trip
on foot, in this god-forsaken nanotech-walmart-RFID-Halliburton-iPod new millenium we currently inhabit. After all, it's hard to get back to one's roots these days when what's left of the wilderness is so pockmarked with cellphone towers, toxic waste dump sites, covert Government installations, and built-overnight housing developments with names like "Spruce Acres" even though there isn't a spruce tree in sight.

Leave it to Sarah Elizabeth and Ron Whitehead to distill the moonshine of inspiration from the genetically modified
corn of today; to make lemonade from the lemons of the 21st century. The inevitable comparison to Kerouac's "On the Road" looms large, but this ain't Jack and Neal boozing and whoring their way across the desert:  this is more like Walt Whitman and Emmylou Harris on safari, as William Burroughs put it, "deep in the heart of darkest America."

Their journey begins by walking the gauntlet of Dixie Highway on foot. This in itself merits some
sort of award, and could probably stand alone as the subject of a book. Pink porno parlors and liquor stores highlight a road strewn with dead animals, broken bottles, abandoned clothes and condom wrappers. Frightening "Deliverance"-style characters lurk everywhere.

As their sojourn continues, they speak of their encounters with snarling dogs, rat-filled trailers,
derailed trains, Fort Knox paranoia, hobos, motels, hitchhiking, roadkill, creosote, junk food, corporate convenience stores, (and mom-n-pop general stores that carry mostly the same stuff), greasy diners, bootleggers, rattlesnakes, and dangerous bloodsucking pests such as ticks, mosquitos, and policemen. Outside it's America.

And yet, it really isn't a grim story, and what keeps it from being such is the emphasis placed on family and on history. The carpenter's glue that holds these wood shivs together is
Ron and Sarah Elizabeth's rememberances of what happened on this land before it became dotted with gas stations, and their strong tribal sense that includes not just their blood relatives (who are interviewed at length) but the greater circle in its most inclusive sense, the ghosts of Pee Wee Reese and Bill Monroe.

Best of all, at the end of the road there is no pot of gold, save that which Ron and Sarah Elizabeth
already carried there in their hearts. The trip itself is the reward of wisdom, not the path to it.

Taking the Long Journey Home



Appalachian News-Express

Of all the states in the Union, only four share a peculiar similarity: They are long, far longer than wide, almost too long to have any real cohesiveness between the starkly different geography of each part.

From the spine of the Appalachians, the rivers of Virginia and North Carolina rise and flow east to the Atlantic Ocean. From that same spine, the rivers of Kentucky and Tennessee flow toward the Mississippi, and as they flow, east or west, the terrain changes from mountains to plateau to rolling plains.

Unfortunately for the people of these states, between the beginning and the end of those journeys are people who do not really know much about the rest of their respective states. Because of this anomaly, the western part of our state is largely unknown to many Eastern Kentuckians. We rarely have relatives there, since our families migrated over the years to northern industrial centers to find work, and if they did move west, it was usually no farther than Lexington or Louisville.

We know little about our Western Kentucky brethren, and that is a shame. For that reason alone, it is worth purchasing a copy of Sarah Elizabeth and Ron Whitehead's book, Western Kentucky: Lost and Forgotten, Found and Remembered.

Ron is a teacher, writer, and publisher who lives in Louisville. Sarah Elizabeth is a writer and recording artist. Both of them were born and raised in Western Kentucky. They decided to walk from Louisville to the farthest western reach of Kentucky, where the Ohio meets the Mississippi, and record their experiences in this book.

The book includes a daily narrative, photographs, poems, and articles written about them as they journeyed through towns like Central City, Matanzas, Woodville, and Kevil. Except for Paducah, it is doubtful the place names have ever appeared in print in Eastern Kentucky.

Journeys always make interesting reading, but there is something else about this book that recommends it. Except for the lack of mountains, Western Kentucky, at least through the eyes of Ron and Sarah Elizabeth, is hauntingly like Eastern Kentucky.

They dodge coal trucks on their hike, step over roadkill on back roads where, like most other Kentucky roadways, there is no appreciable shoulder to walk on. They meet some people who are friendly, some who are suspicious, and some who can't understand why they would want to take such a long walk.

They stay with friends or relatives along the way or stay in cheap motels or even in an abandoned building on a concrete floor. They befriend stray dogs and commune with deer, rabbits, eagles, turtles, and spirits. They walk by marijuana fields and scenes of ecological disaster, and they look at polluted streams where they fished when they were young. In short, they could have made the same trip east of Louisville as they made to the west. But what is most important about the book is that they completed a journey that is somehow required of all of us: They went home, and surprisingly, their homes are little different from our own. Their people face the same challenge of adapting to a modern world where the good things are sometimes outweighed by the bad.

They recapture memories in old cemeteries, in trailers and run-down houses, and in the faces, old and young, of their families. The names are different; the mountains are missing, but there is no difference in the hearts of the people of Eastern and Western Kentucky. They have the same joys and tragedies, and it has been too long that Kentuckians do not realize that connection.

It is a popular convention of literature that you can't go home again; that when you grow up you somehow have to leave and say good-bye forever. Most books that are beloved, like Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, go back to another age, for better or worse, and describe what happened there because it cannot happen again. That's why memoirs remain popular, because they illuminate the past.

What Ron and Sarah Elizabeth have done is something different; They did go home again. It is not where they live now, nor is it likely to be the place where they die, but they went back and captured their journey, their pride in their land and their people, in this book. They proved that you can go home again.

What's more, they proved that you have to.