Day 40/ Apr 7th – Middlesboro, KY to Barbourville, KY: Dead dogs, farm dogs, hot dogs

The weather forecasters had been predicting a heat-wave today, and we took them seriously.  Weather forecasts in America are, by and large, much more accurate than in Britain, but then it’s a great deal easier here.  If you’re on the East coast, you look at the weather on the West coast and, hey presto, that’s what you’ll be getting, more or less, in four days’ time.  When we started out, before seven, it was blue and clear, and although the heat hadn’t yet arrived, it was definitely in the post.  In hindsight, this wasn’t perhaps the day to establish a new distance record of 26 miles.  By the time we arrived in Barbourville in the early evening, we were mildly traumatised and extremely sweaty, and when the receptionist at the Best Western volunteered to wash our clothes overnight for no charge, we nearly wept with gratitude.

Cliffs outside Middlesboro Kentucky

Sally striding out of Middlesboro

 We’ve been noticing diminishing levels of gentility as we’ve walked west, much as travellers to the 18th-century frontier must have done.  The comfortable refinement of Chesapeake Bay and the Piedmont region in Virginia gave way gradually to grittier, blue-collar regions in the mountains of western Virginia and eastern Tennessee.  But south-eastern Kentucky is just plain rough.  The animals give it away first; today, we were barked at by 43 dogs (yes, we keep track) and experienced four actual attacks, both double our previous best tally.  These aren’t over-exuberant household pets, but largely under-nourished mongrels, untethered in trailer yards festooned with plastic household detritus and the innards of half-a-dozen vehicles.  For the first time we even saw two dead dogs lying by the roadside, on a residential stretch of road.  We filled a couple of miles mulling over how a person might see the corpse of a dog at the bottom of their yard and come to the decision to leave it there.

Trailer yard near Barbourville

A trailer yard - and lair of psychotic dogs - near Barbourville

It’s local election season here in Knox County, as it has been across the Appalachians.  We were much taken with a new candidate whose poster we saw today: ‘Vote Steve ‘Farm Dog’ Farmer: Magistrate District 4’.  I don’t know about you, but if the day comes when I’m hauled before the bench to answer for some piece of reprobate behaviour, I don’t want to be weighed in the scales of justice by someone who encourages people to call him ‘Farm Dog’.  The amazing thing is, he’ll probably win.  The lead story in this morning’s Mountain Advocate described how the incumbent magistrate, Terry Brown, had been arrested the night before for causing a drunken disturbance at his home.  Brown, it seems, has a bit of prior form; last month he pleaded guilty in court to the baffling but intriguing charge of ‘misdemeanour third-degree terroristic threatening’ of an employee of a local fast-food restaurant.  So it seems that the responsible use of one’s franchise in Knox County might well be an ‘X’ in the box for ‘Farm Dog’.

Steve 'Farm Dog' Farmer poster

You know it makes sense

There are, of course, better people around.  There’s a charming practice of erecting signs on the highway – large, green, metal, permanent and official – celebrating local heroes who live in towns nearby.  So this morning there was ‘Home of Jeremy Elliott, World Archery Champion’ and the heart-warming ‘Home of Melissa Evans, 2010 Kentucky Middle School Teacher of the Year’, though these were more or less cancelled out in the afternoon by ‘Home of Jessica Amber Taylor, 2009 Mini Miss Kentucky’.

In person – let’s be plain about this – the people of south-eastern Kentucky are fat.  This may sound like a banal, even cruel, observation in a poor part of Middle America, but there is a concentration and ubiquity of obesity here that is unusual and remarkable.  We’re not very far from Huntington, West Virginia, recently identified as the ‘fattest town in America’, where Jamie Oliver is even as we write focusing his campaign against childhood obesity (as far as we can tell, he’s been met with a resounding ‘fuck off’ from the local townsfolk).  We’ve found ourselves no longer noticing that people are fat unless they are of such a weight that you half-expect a documentary crew to be filming them.  Instead, we’ve started noticing ‘skinny people’, who, it takes a few moments to realise, are of normal, healthy size.  If this has happened to us in a few weeks, presumably it happened to the people here a long time ago.  You don’t feel fat at 250 pounds if everyone around you is 300.

This cheery disregard for personal well-being extends to Kentucky’s motorcyclists.  Unlike Virginia and Tennessee, riders are not required by law to wear helmets here, and to a man, they seem to have decided to do without.  (Kentucky law, fascinatingly, does oblige riders aged 20 and under to wear helmets, as though after the age of 21 the skull hardens to a sufficient degree to prevent harm.)  They may be responsible for the increasingly exotic roadkill, which, in addition to dogs, has recently expanded to include snakes and turtles.  Turtles, we can confirm, are bright red inside.

Knox County is a ‘dry’ county, meaning that no alcohol can be sold here.  We learned what this meant in practice when we stopped for a rest in a petrol station shop near Barbourville.  A skinny man of about fifty in a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops was haranguing the queueing customers with a tale of woe.

“Damn!  Y’know what happened to me last night?  I got fined by the police – four hundred forty-nine dollars! – for walking down the street with a beer in my hand.”

He looked over suspiciously at a boy of twenty sitting at a table in the corner, sipping from a brown glass bottle.

“That a beer?”

“Nah.  Root beer.  ‘Bout all you can buy ‘round here.”

“You enjoyin’ it?”

“Well, I ‘bout cain’t eat a hot dawg without one.”

We’d always associated dry counties with the South, but you find them all over America, in places as unlikely as Alaska, Massachusetts and even New York.  Even almost eighty years after the repeal of Prohibition, almost 500 counties in America (of just over 3,000 in total) ban the sale of alcohol.  And so we spent the rest of our walk into Barbourville trying to imagine what Knox County would be like with booze thrown into the mix.

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2 Responses to “Day 40/ Apr 7th – Middlesboro, KY to Barbourville, KY: Dead dogs, farm dogs, hot dogs”

  1. Angie Farmer Says:

    I just happened to come upon your website by accident and I am so glad that I did. My name is Angie Farmer and I just so happen to be the wife of Steve “Farm Dog” Farmer of whom you speak of in this disgusting post. First of all, you don’t know us. You may believe that there are better people around here; Home of Missy Evans 2010 Middle School Teacher of the Year…, but you don’t know those people either. Truth is, you judged Barbourville from what you saw as you “walked” through. However, what the sign failed to tell you about Steve “Farmdog” Farmer is that he is a terrific father, a member of the Barbourville Fire Dept. for the past 15 years, a Mason, a Shriner, Sunday school superintendent at one of the largest churches in Barbourville with a membership of over 300+. To top all of this, he manages the prestigious Falls Auto Group and provides very well for our family. I imagine that you walked by his dealership on your adventure; perhaps the same day that you saw his campaign sign. To top all of this attributes, Steve weighs less than what you describe when you spoke of people in Southeastern Kentucky. We are both college graduates and proud of where we are from. If you don’t like what you saw, or what people call us, don’t let your feet travel through our parts again. Nobody asked you to come here in the first place!

    • Margie Says:

      Good for you, Angie Farmer! While I cheer the attempt to get to know the world, it small-mindedness to think that one can presume to know an area of the country by simply walking through it, overnighting at a BW, and visiting a gas station. I, too, happened upon this blog by accident, and my conclusion is that the writer, perhaps, would have better served the reader by staying home and doing research on the internet about Barbourville and the surrounding area. If I had the desire to waste more of my life reading this blog, perhaps I would discover where the writer is from and how their “neck of the woods” differs from Barbourville. But I’d rather not waste my time.

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