Friday, December 13

The Mountain Parkway


The Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway (or, as it’s simply known the Mountain Parkway or just the Parkway) opened in early 1963.  Having been an important road in the region for the past fifty years it has been the conduit for moving people between Winchester to the west and Prestonsburg to the east; not only people, but ideas…dreams…and all the talent, intelligence, and passion that the Cumberland Plateau region of Kentucky has to offer.  In many cases it has been the conduit carrying all of that good stuff out of the region bound for better opportunities in other places.
In January 1974, a mere nine years after it opened, the Mountain Parkway carried me home from the hospital.  In the interim years it’s carried me back and forth to work, to school, on trips to see the wide world, and four times it has carried me away looking for opportunity elsewhere.  Four times it’s carried me back.  I don’t know how many times through the years it carried me Home for visits, but only again to carry me back to the far lands I was calling home at the time.  
In my teenage years I sort of discovered for myself that the Parkway continued east beyond Campton.  My best friend and I often “cruised” the Parkway.  We were looking for escape deeper into the hills, into the unknown of the Eastern reaches of the state.  We called it the “Untain Parkway” due to an unfortunate maintenance issue with one of the big green signs along the road.  I started to be aware of the road independent of the rest of the road system.  It started to have some significance in my mind even then.
On many return visits home over the years I’ve always felt the swell of my chest at mile marker 10 when Pilot Knob comes into view and the Cumberland Plateau begins its slow reveal.  I’m home.  I’m Home.  There is a wicked conflict in my soul as I write this.  I want to believe in the potential of my homeland, but I am also tired of living on faith.  It takes a great deal of energy to squint your mind’s eye to always see potential.  And when you relax that eye the same tired, beat down, and hollow landscape comes back into sharp relief.  

Pilot Knob from Indian Fields
I want to love my home, but I also harbor so much hatred toward the institutional apathy that drags me down.  I want to be free of it forever, but when I’m away there is an inescapable pull back to the center.  could drive the Parkway with my eyes closed.  I’ve driven it mostly asleep too many times to admit.  There are times I woke up and couldn’t remember how I got home from work, dogged, late in the night, and it must have just been that so many trips down the road blurred together that I just forgot I was really awake.  The experience was one replay of a hundred thousand in my life.  When I look at the ADT count on the KYTC website I wonder if it was collected on a day that 2 of the 11,447 were my own trips.  And I wonder how many total trips I’ve ever made on that road.  I know a lot of them I wished I didn’t have to make.  Too many.
The Mountain Parkway was built fifty years ago as a tool for economic development.  Bert T. Combs had a vision for Eastern Kentucky.  For my own little self I’m glad he did, but in the grander scheme of things I don’t know if his vision ever truly played out.  I don’t know if it ever will.
These days, particularly at the recent SOAR Summit in Pikeville, there has been a lot of talk about widening the Mountain Parkway from two lanes to four beyond Campton.  Currently east of Campton the Parkway is what is known as a Super Two highway.  Basically it’s a limited access highway with only two lanes.  It’s curvy, hilly, and you pass mere feet from speeding, oncoming traffic in semi-remote areas, often foggy, infested with leaping deer and other critters, coal trucks, and the perceived perpetual threat of drunk or stoned drivers.  You know we have a drug problem in Eastern Kentucky, right?

Mountain Parkway at Hatton Creek
At the summit the figure of $700 million was thrown out as an estimate to complete this project.  Likely the total cost might be nearer a cool billion, with a B, but the reality is that 11,447 trips a day at the Western terminus doesn’t seem to justify the price tag.  Living along a section already four lane makes it easy for me to say it’s not necessary and not viable.  I’m sure if I lived in Prestonsburg and commuting west each morning and east each night I’d be singing a different tune.  The early morning trip to Pikeville to the summit in the 33°F air on rain-soaked roads through spotty fog…well, I would have been more comfortable on four lanes, but I slowed down and other than the maniacs that thought they should still be able to drive 75 mph the remainder of my trip was fine.
So we widen the artery that seems to be clogged.  What does this accomplish?  More life?  That’s the argument.  But why can’t we just change our diet and lifestyle and live with the artery we already have?  We can reduce congestion, and perhaps reduce the need for so many people to travel the Mountain Parkway so often and in doing so we can free up the paved vessel to carry more precious lifeblood into our region.  Tourists don’t need wider roads; they just need less of us hogging roads and terrorizing them.
They say a four lane Mountain Parkway will attract industry.  Why can’t we just build our own industry?  Why do we need to attract anyone?  Aren’t our own entrepreneurs, the ones we’ve been saying we need to help out all through this summit process, aren’t they good enough to build our economy?  We don’t need to sell out to “foreign” investors.  We can envision and build companies.  We can add value to the resources we have right here in our own hearts and heartland.  We can channel our inner Appalachian rugged individualism and build a culture and economy of our own.  And if we do that we don’t necessarily need a conduit to bring in the elusive Industrialist.  I’m confident that our existing Mountain Parkway is more than adequate to get our own goods out of the region.  We’re sparsely populated, so we don’t need to export much to reap a lot of economic benefit for all.
How long would it take to recoup a $1 billion investment in widening a road that currently doesn’t end in a pot of gold (to steal from Congressman Rogers’ imagery)?  What guarantee do we have that if the road is widened that the communities situated along the Parkway and at its eastern terminus will be able to successfully develop the right kind of appeal for foreign visitors?  I’m not saying they won’t, or that they don’t already, but how will widening this road truly enhance the opportunities that are already there waiting many long years to be taken advantage of?  If there is so much potential why haven’t we already tapped it?  If it’s maximized potential why isn’t the Parkway jam-packed with tourists all the time?
I think a key component to solving a lot of our transportation and economic problems in Eastern Kentucky is to reshape the industrial culture to allow the widespread telecommuting of our workforce.  Cast off the stigmas of telecommuting and embrace its powerful potential!  Good transportation planning also includes reducing the need for travel, not just making it possible for more people to travel faster.  In fact, a sustainable transportation philosophy would have that at its core.

In The Unforeseen Wilderness Wendell Berry writes describing an experience of camping in the Red River Gorge:

I can hear traffic on the Mountain Parkway, a steady continuous roar—the corporate voice of the twentieth-century humanity, sustained above the transient voices of its members.
Sundy Best’s song captures the spirit of this road.  It’s a road a lot of Eastern Kentucky people travel to provide, to chase dreams, to return home in glory or defeat.  The Mountain Parkway is a conduit between Home and the rest of the world.  It’s a lifeline, a tether, and it’s the focal point of the region.  Its importance can’t be overstated, but its future condition must not be presumed.

PS, it's pronounced "Mwn Parkway."  You've got to make "mountain" into one syllable or less.

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