All Roads Lead Home

This article from One-Year Volunteer, Michael. 

“All roads lead home.” I’m not sure the origin of that lyric, but I am sure of this: My life down here in Appalachia has been leading me somewhere, although I’m not always sure where that might be. One place that it has led me with some regularity is to the southern tip of Rockcastle County, the county where we live and primarily work, and along Lower River Road, just off State Highway 25, aka Wilderness Road. Lower River Road is blacktopped in places; elsewhere, it is just dirt and gravel. It roughly parallels Rockcastle River, which flows a slimy shade of green.

Follow the road for four or so miles and you arrive at our destination, a one-time schoolhouse, well-appointed in some ways, occupied by the present residents since 1978. It sits on a hill that rises above the road with no other homes within sight. In any event, it is a home with a million dollar view. It is canopied by one of the most magnificent stands of Beech trees I’ve ever seen. I’m told that the reason other trees don’t grow under a Beech umbrella is that the beechnut can be poisonous, but I don’t know for sure. There are a lot of things I don’t know for sure these days. The hill on the other side of the river climbs precipitously. It appears unscalable, maybe only by a wild turkey scared off its roost.

In January, we returned there (to the house, not the roost) for, what would be, my fourth service stint at the location, but to tell the full story, we have to go back in time. In December of 2019, I drove to this part of Eastern Kentucky to interview for my current service opportunity. As part of the interview process, Ken — who would become one of my supervisors — took me out to the site to assist in the moving of a refrigerator from a concrete outside porch to the space that served as the kitchen. Getting the fridge moved proved a challenge. It was much more challenging — and dangerous — for the 80-year-old mother of the house.

Fast forward almost a year to the week before Thanksgiving. It was a homecoming of sorts for me; the image of the house and land had remained indelible in my mind, and I often thought of them. Ricky — another of my supervisors — and I had gone out to the location the previous week to clear the porch. Along with Friends of Hanover (Va.) Church, one of the few groups to volunteer for service during the pandemic, we would be demolishing the present porch (except for its roof) and erecting a new one, along with a ramp to allow easier access and egress for the mother of the house. I had forgotten what it was like to work with a dedicated group of volunteers who traveled from afar to do a week of service. It rekindled fond memories of similar adventures with Institute of Notre Dame students. What a better place this world would be if we all took the time to do the same.

But our work on this Eastern Kentucky outback home would not be finished. We ushered in the new year by returning to repair and refurbish a room off the kitchen, an addition to the original schoolhouse, I am told. Its floor had fallen in, and we were back to bag and remove the debris that had been deposited in the once-upon-a-time whole room. The remaining floor joists weren’t too terribly difficult to remove since they had been decimated by termites, and I recalled something Ricky had said on a previous job, “The only thing holding it together was the termites holdin’ hands.” Love that expression!

Members of our Housing division then returned to install new floor joists and sub flooring, hang and finish new drywall, and install floor, door and window molding. Working indoors gave us more chance to interact with the now 81-year-old mother and 42-year-old son who cares for her. The matriarch kindly inquired several times about young Zach, my housemate and coworker who had to sit out a day with an upset stomach. We then got to talkin’ ‘bout the weather during this more frigid than usual winter here in Kentucky.

“However you cut it, it’s cold,” said I.

“Yeah, buddy,” she replied.

When I went outside to gather some more materials, I relayed the conversation to her son, who was choppin’ wood. I mentioned that I was surprised by the Kentucky weather, that our weather back in Pennsylvania last winter was milder.

“Are you a Pennsylvania son?” he asked.

“Not really,” I replied. “I was born in Baltimore.”

“Dean Koontz,” he said simply.

“It’s ringin’ a bell, just can’t place the name,” I returned.

“I read his books, sort of like Stephen King. I believe he’s a son of Pennsylvania,” said he.

“I didn’t know that,” said I.

There’s a lot I don’t know.

It’s dangerous to assume anything down here in Appalachia.

Funny where roads will lead you.


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