The walking tour through the Wind Caves in South Dakota was awesome, but our exploration adventure of the Marengo Caves in Indiana took caving to the next level. We were told to wear long pants, long sleeve shirts and shoes that we didn’t mind getting dirty. On the picnic tables where we met our guide rested helmets, head lamps, and emergency packs. Our guide informed us that the average temperature would be 50 degrees, and we would be walking in up to two feet of water at some points. As we walked to the entrance of the cave, I had no idea what to expect. The entry zone was about 4 feet tall, so we hunched over and walked about 50 feet through a gate into the “twilight zone”, the last point in the cave that you can see sunlight. Now things were getting serious as we walked through a small stream into the dark zone. All we could see was what our headlamps would light up, I felt like a true cave explorer. We came to a stop and our guide challenged us on who could get the muddiest. At first I was hesitant until a fellow student smeared a handful of dirt on my face. After that I was determined to win, so I rolled around in the mud like a little kid. I was caked in mud from head to toe. Little did I know that the fun had just begun. We had to army crawl 200 feet through a crevice that was only two feet tall. This made me feel like an explorer who had just discovered the cave. I forgot about the outside world and my imagination went to work. Pretending that we were all explorers in the 1800’s I proceeded on. I convinced myself that every new cave room we entered was a new discovery. At the end of the exploration we emerged back into the sunlight muddy, wet, cold, and tired. But I would do it all over again to get that feeling of adventure back.
The Marengo cave in Indiana was an unbelievable fun experience. We started off our tour by going over safety procedures before we entered the cave. I received a head lamps and helmets so I could see in the dark and also used the helmet to protect my head from banging against the rocks in the mine. Being so tall the helmet was extremely beneficial. Crawling through the mines was my favorite part. I got to do the 200m crawl where I had only 1ft and ½ of head room. This was one of the most intense experience of the mine. I’ve been in mines before but never gotten the opportunity to crawl through a tiny crevice. I had to take the opportunity. Before I could go anywhere I had to lay on my stomach. At first it wasn’t that bad but suddenly my knees started to hurt. The ground was freezing and my body got covered in wet mud. The more I crawled the more my knees started to ache. Once I realized that there was only 20m left I pushed myself and I started crawling faster. When I reached the end, my adrenaline was pumping. I wish I was back in the mines.
On Friday we went to a dinner and dance at the local community center. I was excited to learn some cool dance moves, but I ended up spending most of my night outside. There were some musicians out there Robert and Charlene who were jamming on a guitar and singing some songs. I had not been able to sing or play guitar since I left home and was missing it greatly. At first I just listened to them play and sing. They played bluegrass music better than anyone I had heard before. I observed the cool techniques they were using on the guitar and plan to use them when I get home. Then they sang one of my favorite songs Wagon Wheel. When I told them I loved the song they asked me to sing along. I was ecstatic about this. Back home I sing and play my guitar almost every day, I felt a sense of comfort in this moment. Charlene and I harmonized on the song and it sounded fantastic! We jammed out to a couple more songs by Johnny Cash and Elvis until they were called up on stage to perform in front of the whole crowd. I followed them inside and watched as everybody cheered them on. When they were done I finally got the courage to ask if I could see Charlene’s guitar. She gladly agreed and handed it right over. This was the moment I had been waiting for. We went back outside and I played around for a few minutes until my peers happened to noticed. They rushed over and asked me to play for them so I nervously agreed. Playing Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash I gave it my all. It went great. Getting to know and jam with some locals was a great experience. I never would have guessed that I could feel so at home in Harlan, Kentucky.
I can now consider myself a two-step dancing expert thanks to an awesome night at a Kentucky community center. Every Friday night they hold a dinner and dance for the community and anyone else interested in going. When we first arrived we introduced ourselves than ate a delicious spaghetti dinner. After we awkwardly made our way to the dance floor nervous because none of us had any idea how to dance two-step or shuffle step. Thankfully one of the band members was excited to teach us and quickly got us on the dance floor. Once the traditional blue grass music started playing we slowly all one by one made it onto the dance floor. It was a great opportunity to see a glimpse of the lifestyle in eastern Kentucky with locals who were obviously passionate about their culture and music. Next time I visit Kentucky I will be excited to show off my new dance moves.
After a long week of learning about the hardships coal mining and mountaintop removal bring to Harlan’s culture and environment, it was nice to experience a different side of Harlan’s culture by going to a dinner and dance at a local community center on Friday night. We didn’t know what to expect as we entered the community center, but I was definitely relieved when we were greeted with open arms. We ate a spaghetti dinner with locals while the band was setting up for the show. Right after we finished eating and before the band started, the lead singer eagerly invited the whole group onto the dance floor to learn two-step and shuffle step so that we would know what to do once the music started. We all were nervous to step onto the dance floor but we realized that if we all went on and learned at the same time then it wouldn’t be as embarrassing. I know that’s a classic teenage thought, but it definitely rang true for that moment. It took us a few songs into the playlist to realize that we shouldn’t be nervous to participate in dancing. As the night progressed, everyone in the group danced with everyone for at least one song. Some of us were asked by locals to dance and others of us built up the courage to ask locals to dance. The whole night was a blast. The coolest part for me was experiencing a different side of Harlan’s culture. We had learned so much about the destruction that mountaintop removal has done to the environment and culture that it was refreshing to see a better, happier side of the culture.
As we drove seven miles up a winding Appalachian back road, I could not help but to be transported back in time to the countless drives my family made up a similar road in Western North Carolina on our way to summer camp. With each vista that opened up around the hairpin turns our vans were navigating, I could see the place that I spent my childhood summer in the Kentucky mountains. The rolling peaks and ridges that I had fallen in love with as a child were suddenly all around me again. I found it impossible not to feel an unexplainable connection with the place we were passing through. To think that only after a few days in Harlan, Kentucky I already felt a connection with the land, I can only imagine how strong the relationship between those who live in the area and the land must be. As we rounded the last turn going up the mountain that our road traversed, we left Kentucky and entered Virginia. We pulled the vans to the side of the road and unloaded, ready to take in the view from the highest point in Kentucky. Looking out across the horizon line I was again amazed with the beauty of the area. That is until I dropped my gaze to the area more directly below us. There was something missing. Where one would expect to see a mountain gracefully rising from the valleys, only a bare half-mountain remained, dissected level by level. The mountaintop removal process had ravaged this area permanently. A place that if I, a mere visitor, felt a connection with must be sacred for whom this is home. As we looked down upon what was left of a thousands of years old landmark I could not help but to feel distraught. As we loaded the vans and drove back down the mountain I couldn’t help but wonder: if something as powerful as a mountain is being destroyed how can anyone expect to stop the force behind this destruction?
One of my most memorable experiences in Harlan Kentucky was visiting the mountain top removal sites located throughout the Appalachia. Mountain top removal is a process in which coal companies’ blow up mountains to reach coal seams that are located inside the mountain. This method can devastate the environment and can destroy plants, wildlife, rivers that are used for drinking and destroy forests. After being on a NOLS course and learning about LNT (Leave No Trace) principals I was appalled. The lack of respect these companies have for environment and for the people of Harlan, Kentucky is sickening. This method has gained notoriety in the United States Federal court system and I believe that is a step in the right direction. Kentucky is a beautiful place and it should keep pushing these pro-environment issues.
Walking into a local family’s house, I had no idea what was in store for me. All I knew was that he was an ex-coal miner that was disabled and they had lost 2 kids to foster care. The currently unemployed couple’s home immediately explained why they had their kids taken away from them and placed in foster care 8 months ago. We were greeted by 4 barking dogs and a house with unfinished floors and uninsulated walls with holes big enough to look outside through. They had no furniture in the kitchen other than a sink and a big wood burning stove. The walls were also scattered with sharp nails and dangerous live wires that were sticking out in every direction. It was really difficult to see how these people were living. I couldn’t imagine how cold the winter would get and how much electricity they would have to use to heat their home. She also told us that they were being given 1200 dollars a month by the government to survive as they continue unemployed and on disability. Things are looking bright for them in the future though! She is about to begin classes at a nearby college to study a field in healthcare. He is the current fire chief of his county as well. While this is a volunteering job, it is good to see that he is doing something good for his community and that his wife is planning on going to college. Also, a neighbor happened to come over and help out some as well and the man living there had a conversation with him reminding him not to miss class at the local college. I found this to be great insight into these people’s lives and I was able to see the hardships of what they are dealing with.
Our group arrived on the property of a local couple to find that their living conditions are close to condemnable. The two areas of the house our group worked on was the kitchen, which lacked dry wall in turn exposing electric cables, and the basement had no insulation installed which in turn explains the couples’ $500.00 electric bill in the winter months. I’ve laid insulation before, so I was able to help out a lot with tackling the insulating of the basement. While outside I got to talk to the woman for about 30 minutes, and she couldn’t express how happy she was that they can finally have walls in their kitchen and a heating bill that is reasonable. Because of what our group did that day they will now be able to reduce their heating bill substantially and live in a house they feel comfortable in. This experience also made me think about all the people our group has helped on this experience and how much better their lives are because of what we did. I hope to one day come back to their house and see the long term effects of what we did.
When I first arrived in Harlan this week I questioned why the people didn’t leave their community to live elsewhere. Coal trucks are constantly racing down their roads, their water has become polluted, and the unemployment rate continues to rise. While talking with many of the locals over the course of the week and in learning about the history of the coal industry I soon found an answer. The people of Eastern Kentucky are proud of where they live and their culture that surrounds them. Everyone I talked to in Kentucky cherished the beautiful mountains around them and the scenery they looked at every day. They also take pride in the coal industry. The job of being a coal miner is tough work and pays well, it has also been passed down for generations. Many people who work in the coalmines today have had fathers and grandfathers work in the mines. It is family tradition to go to work in the mines. The struggles that come with working in the mines are portrayed in the music of the people. There is great meaning in the music of Appalachia and everyone enjoys listening to it and takes pride in it. Pride surrounds every aspect of Appalachia and continues to keep people from leaving the beautiful land that carries on so much of their history.
During our week in Harlan, we did many activities to help us understand the many perspectives that the population had on coal. One of them was our trip to the Kentucky coal museum. The tour started on the main level of the 3 story high museum where we met up with a retired coal miner. After that he told us about how the equipment has changed over the years. He took us in the basement where he told us about his experience in the mine. He explained that he lost many friends in the mine and came very close to death 7 times during his career as a coal miner and many other great stories about his time in the mines. Later in his stories he spoke about the horrible working conditions the miner had and how hard his job had been so we all assumed that he would be against the coal industry but surprisingly enough he wasn’t. He actually said that the coal industry was good for the town as it brought in many jobs and was good for the economy. His views on the coal industry shocked me. I couldn’t understand how someone that lived through all that hardship could actually promote the same industry that was destroying the natural habitat of the place while hurting the population around it. This experience was personally the one that I learned the most from in my time in Harlan. I learned the lesson that if a company or organization puts enough propaganda for the public to see they can actually change the opinion that people have on an idea or a product even if they know that the propaganda is wrong.
At the end of our week in Harlan, we traveled to Norton, Virginia to do a different project. We were going to build a trail for mountain bikers. Building this trail will help people to see the natural beauty surrounding them as well as bring in revenue for the community. First, we had to rake all of the leaves off of the trail. As soon as we did this, we could see a difference in the trail and could tell we were making progress. Next, we had to dig up the rocks in the trail because it was a “beginner” trail and there couldn’t be any unavoidable obstacles over 2 inches. After that, we used a Pulaski to carve away the bank on the side of the trail to make it 45 degrees so that the water would run off it and not create a puddle. Then, we used a tool to flatten the area. Our group worked very hard, like always, and got the job done quickly. It was so rewarding to see the trail at the beginning and then look at it when we had finished and think about all of the hard work we had done to create this. It made me feel awesome that because of the work we had done, a lot of people are going to enjoy the trail. I loved being out in nature again and being reminded of NOLS, which seems like a lifetime ago, and working to bring out the natural beauty of Norton.
During our week in Harlan we received a new assignment from our visiting professor, which definitely affected the way we thought and reacted during the week. He asked each of us to become aware of any assumptions we make about Harlan, the people and the Appalachian culture. At the end of each day he would challenge why we thought that way and then we would decide whether or not our assumption was valid. I found this exercise to be extremely beneficial to my learning experience because it really made me stop and think about an all-encompassing perspective before passing judgment. An assumption that I made prior to our arrival in Harlan was that due to socio-economic status, many people lacked education and do not have access to resources that could help them improve their situation. This assumption that I made was proved otherwise when the Elon group went to a couple’s home to weatherize their house. Throughout the day, I spent a good amount of time talking to one of the home owners. She told me that she was planning to go back to school in January by taking online classes to become a phlebotomist. It was encouraging to hear her motivation and determination as she enthusiastically explained that this was what she needed to do to make a better life for her family and herself. While I do recognize that there are still numerous people living in Harlan that lack education, by reflecting upon this assumption it was a good reminder to not generalize a large group of people because there are always exceptions to stereotypes. As our group moves into our final week of service, I want to keep track of any assumptions that I make on my own so that I can better form an understanding of what homelessness is like in D.C.