Tag Archives: Eastern Kentucky

22 Easters gone: Lessons from my dad

19 Apr

IMG_5064Legend has it that, as a child, I slept through a lot of my dad’s sermons. In fact, I can remember doing this. I’d curl up beside my mom on the padded pew and drift off into the deep slumber of an active preacher’s kid growing up at a camp, lulled by the rich and familiar tone of my dad’s stentorian voice.

Even in my sleep I believe the structure of the sermons reached me on some level, as when I consider the way I construct my own essays today, I believe they are derived somewhat from the sermons my dad so eloquently delivered, speeches that were essentially essays themselves.

Dad had a great formula. He’d start on a personal level, relating an everyday down-to-earth anecdote to establish a bond with his listeners. Then he’d read a passage of scripture and do some analysis of it, bringing to bear on the text the words of contemporary scholars, professors and his own insights. To me as a child, this part seemed to go on and on.

But then came the part I liked best: some story or illustration that, at first, would seem completely out of the blue. When he’d start telling this story, some compelling, magical quality came into his voice that usually caused me to wake up to listen to it. I learned that the tale would have pertinence to the topic beyond all expectation. As the voice of Francis Ross Figart, Jr., built up into an insistent crescendo, it suddenly became clear to all that the point of this analogy was exactly what the scripture was saying.

I remember two such illustrations in particular: one about not judging and one about trust.

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The first story was about how my dad went to the airport in Louisville in the late 60s to pick up a “summer missionary” from some other state who would be working with the small churches in Eastern Kentucky to help them run programs like Vacation Bible School. I think her plane was delayed and when he picked her up they basically had to drive directly to a church service up in the mountains.

When Dad met the young woman at the airport, he was startled to see that she was dressed impeccably from head to toe in an expensive white suit that was the fashion of the day. Dad worried on the way to the hollers whether this gal knew what she was getting into, and was concerned she might not be well suited to work with the people in the impoverished area they were driving to.

As they made their way up into the foothills of the Appalachians, it was evident that recent rains had brought flash flooding and creeks were running high. When they got to the small mountain mission, the people from the community were also arriving and a group of little children were playing in the churchyard.

KY - two girlsUnlike the new summer missionary, these kids weren’t wearing their Sunday best. Families in that area often did not have running water, kids were usually covered in coal dust, and in fact, Dad said, they had gotten pretty muddy playing on the soggy grounds of the tiny church.

Dad held his breath and watched as this woman who was dressed so impeccably got out of the station wagon, and immediately went toward the little kids, getting down on her knees to greet them with hugs and smiles. They instantly loved her because she talked differently and was so beautiful and interesting. She paid not one bit of attention to her attire, nor did the kids, and she turned out to be the best person for the job he could have ever imagined.

lrc-87-451x300The other story was set on the campus of Kentucky’s Georgetown College, my dad’s alma mater where he was number one dude on the debate team. One of his good friends was a fellow student who, if my memory serves, was named Ernie. The fact that Ernie was completely blind didn’t prevent him from being totally self-sufficient. He walked all over campus by himself because he had learned where everything was; he didn’t let his disability slow him down.

One fall, Dad had just arrived back on campus to go through registration for the new semester. He was walking out of the admissions building and looked across the quad and saw Ernie, striding rapidly as usual across the courtyard. At the same instant that he saw Ernie, Dad also noticed that during the summer break some construction had begun on the main campus thoroughfare: where normally there had been a sidewalk, now there was a gaping pit, taller than a person. Ernie was confidently pacing right toward that huge hole!

imagesErnie was pretty far across the campus, but my dad had this booming voice that those who knew him distinctly remember. He called out the command: “Ernie, STOP!” And as Dad’s voice echoed across the quad, just one step before disaster, Ernie did. He recognized the deep voice of his friend, trusted it, and obeyed. Dad went running over to Ernie to explain, and the two had a good laugh.

Just before my mom died, she and I talked about these illustrations and she remembered them too. Maybe she recalled the details a little differently than I do – and even knew the scripture that went with them – but that doesn’t matter to me. What matters is, the messages behind these modern day parables got through – to both of us.

My turn to pull it all together.

One of the big reasons I came to Western North Carolina has to do with the adage of not judging a book by its cover. Here in Asheville, it’s common to see stereotypes of dress defied; often the person in a crowd who most resembles a homeless vagrant may be the one who has the most money; I have seen it over and over again in the retail store where I work. Conversely, it’s not unusual for those who appear in the most fashionable attire to be the nitty gritty, hard working volunteers who help needy animals and children with deep commitment. Grubby Appalachian Trail hikers walking into a mountain town may just as well be doctors or lawyers as students or “trustafarians.” I love being in an area that has this equalizing factor.

My dad would probably call it the voice of God, but I think of it as my intuition when something tells me I need to slow down lest I fail to notice a gaping hole in front of me. Whatever it is, when it says, “stop,” I trust and stop. And when it says, “go,” well, as Daddy would say, you better believe… I go!

Trusting that intuition once again as part of an almost two-year long transition to a new place and new life, I’ve become engaged to an amazing person who defies many stereotypes and possesses wisdom and balance that I haven’t encountered for about 22 years.

Dedicated to Ross Figart, Sept. 30, 1926-April 10, 1992.

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Hike #5 Mountain Springs Road

13 Apr

DSC06454“Look, Daddy, it’s a natural tree tunnel,” shrieked the six-year-old girl in delight.

From behind the wheel of the sky blue Valiant Station Wagon, Ross Figart clapped his strong, olive-colored hands together once and smiled his biggest, sweetest smile. This signified his approval of the moniker his daughter had coined for sections of curving mountain roads where the trees were so old and their branches so outstretched that they literally joined each other over the roadway, forming a canopy.

The diminutive child arched her back, lifted her pointed little chin, pushed her unruly camel-colored hair behind her elfin ears and breathlessly took in the overwhelming vision of deep green hues rushing by and encasing them in wonder.

“It’s like a dream world,” she cooed, peering out the window and into the shady branches as they careened past, hoping to glimpse at least one fairy.

DSC04799The year was 1970 and the roads took us through the forested hills of Eastern Kentucky, where my father made his living as a Southern Baptist minister. He preached not hell and brimstone, but compassion and forgiveness. People adored him wherever he went, whether it was to Hyden or Hazard, Pikeville or Prestonsburg. And he adored the mountain people and their culture, a love he also instilled in me – along with his love of nature and of trees. The greatest gift he and my mother would give me was an idyllic childhood that could rival that of Wordsworth in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, on the wooded premises of a summer camp that was part of their ministry.

After I grew up and left Kentucky, whenever we would connect on the phone, I could hear Dad smiling as he’d say, “You’d like where I went today.” He would have just returned home from a trip to some remote community like Whitesburg, Grayson, Pippa Passes, or Booger Branch (yes, this is an actual place). “There were lots of natural tree tunnels.”

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Thirty years later in 2000, eight years after my dad had passed on, I finally got an opportunity to realize a lifelong dream: I went on a quest to find some forested property to purchase in Eastern Kentucky. I will never forget the first time I ever drove down Mountain Springs Road in Estill County, in search of a remote cabin that was listed for sale in an area called Furnace.

DSC06151My sidekick that day was my spiky-purple-haired New Yorker friend Cindi, who had implanted herself in Estill County a few years prior, and quite staunchly I might add. Even streetwise Cindi, who is rarely caught off guard, was taken somewhat aback when I began to shriek like a child at the amazing trees, whose branches bent and met as if in prayer over the winding gravel road. “These are the natural tree tunnels!” I screamed at her over the din of the Rav4’s tires on the thick gravel.

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The cabin itself was situated on a knoll that crowned six acres, two miles in at the head of this heavenly mountain “holler.” The greater forest of which this small plot of land was part teemed with wildlife! To a wood spirit like me, the place was perfect. Tree-covered, rustic, comfortable, private (the nearest communities were all 30 minutes away) yet accessible (I could get to my office in Lexington in an hour) – and with a few improvements and embellishments, it became utterly and completely home. My plan, very simply, was to live out my life on Furnace Mountain.

But fate had other ideas. In a few short years, everything would change. And it all started because I loved – and lost – the trees.

DSC06115About five years into my stay, much of the land around the cabin was unsustainably and mercilessly logged, the beautiful forest habitat ravaged by the largest and most ruthless equipment used in the state. Catalyzed by this catastrophe, which I worked for a year to try to prevent, changes would lead me to let go of the one thing I thought I’d always keep: I sold the cabin.

DSC04808But letting go of what we can’t imagine letting go of always leads to new adventures – to realities that before could have only seemed like dream worlds from a childhood fantasy. Before long, I would be riding through natural tree tunnels in the lush forests of Costa Rica. And from that land of diversity, I’d eventually return to Kentucky to help my mother die, two decades after losing my father.

As I write this, I’m getting ready to spend my last day as a Kentucky resident. Tomorrow I’ll head south and try to make a new life for myself in Asheville, North Carolina. I’ll be living at 3,000 feet elevation overlooking the city and surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains, with abundant bird life, resident white squirrels, black bears passing by and natural tree tunnels surrounding me once more.

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Last week, I returned to Mountain Springs Road for a hike with my dear friend Jane, who now has a small cabin not far from my erstwhile home, which is well cared for by its new owners. Every bend in the two-mile road brought memories flooding back. We hiked on Forest Service Road 2057, which I used to walk with my dogs almost every day for the six years I lived there; I was walking on that road when the planes hit the towers. We visited the special rock sanctuary there, a sacred formation known only to a handful of locals. And I said my goodbyes.

I love Eastern Kentucky. And, although I’m not sure what is coming next, I cannot deny that I also love change – probably as much as I love mountains, mountain people, and trees. North Carolina, ready or not, here I come.

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