Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Rivers in Kentucky

We were not yet done with coal upon entering Eastern Kentucky. In fact, one of the worst coal industry disasters occurred there on October 11, 2000, when a sludge dam gave way and swept millions of gallons of toxic, black goo through the community of Inez (37°52'), down Coldwater and Wolf creeks, and on down the Tug Fork clear to the Ohio River. No human lives were lost, but the EPA called it "the largest environmental catastrophe in the history of the southeastern United States." We reached the town 9 years later, as they were preparing for a Harvest Festival. A young woman selling popcorn had been in high school when the flood occurred and remembered a river of black sludge, so solid that thrown rocks would bounce off of it. We had another interesting encounter in nearby Paintsville, where an apple festival had drawn thousands of people the week before, though almost no apple orchards remain nearby. Coal companies have bought up most of the land. Apples now must be bought from outside the region for the festival.
The look of the forested land changed as we moved westward into Kentucky. We made stops at Natural Bridge State Resort Park, where one can walk over a sky high sandstone arch with nary a guardrail in sight, the nearby Red River Gorge (a national wild and scenic river), then at Fort Boonesborough State Park (37°56', 84°16'). There, where the Kentucky River flows, Daniel Boone had arrived with a party of settlers on April 1, 1775. Drawn by the river, there they established Kentucky's second pioneer settlement. The appearance of the river has changed, partly because of locks built early in the century to facilitate barge travel.
The Kentucky River is a tributary of the Ohio River. At Louisville, the state's largest city (38°15', 84°30'), an interstate freeway was built right along the Ohio River waterfront, blocking river views and access. The freeway remains, but now inviting access has been created through a lush park, with sculptures and architecture that celebrate water, and interesting views of barge traffic on the river. That story reminded us of San Francisco's recovery of its bayshore waterfront after an earthquake made it possible to correct a similar mistake in locating a freeway. As we travel around the world, the approach cities have taken to their waterfronts will be a theme to explore.
Louisville is also the site of the Falls of the Ohio, where a series of rapids interfered with river traffic until the Army Corps of Engineers built a dam and locks. The Falls of the Ohio park on the Indiana side has an excellent interpretive center and provides access to rich fossil beds along the north edge of the river itself. It was here that Lewis and Clark started on their expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase.
Today, thanks to a mutual friend, musician Malcolm Dalgliesh, we had lunch with author Wendell Berry and his wife, Tanya, at their farm near Port Royal, Kentucky (38°33'). It was wonderful to meet someone whose books and poems have so eloquently explored the importance of place and home and sustainable farming. We'll cherish the memory of their hospitality and good wishes for our travels.

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