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Harlan, a Homecoming


January 1, 2024

“If you love something, set it free. If it comes back it’s yours; if it doesn’t it never was.”

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

I hadn’t planned on coming back.

For at least 10 years, if not longer, I hadn’t stepped foot in the hills of Harlan County, Kentucky. This place – one that’s on the

surface so idyllic in its simplicity that it appears to stretch its green pastures out like a welcome mat to those who enter. That’s the perception anyway, for those who may not have history with this place.

But I do. And it’s an entangled one.

Which is why my visit to the Pine Mountain Settlement School in Harlan County for the Waymakers Collective 2nd Annual Gathering in August 2023 was a step forward… except that it took an unexpected turn into a litmus test for acceptance of diversity. (It did not pass.)

Because don’t get it twisted: while Mother Nature is a dominant presence in the region, a vocal minority of its people insist that belief in their laws – more specifically, those god-given declarations – is required for admittance.

But the better question I think is this: who is the official sentry of Appalachia and what membership list are they working from?


My paternal relatives go back generations in Harlan County.

Pathfork, Kentucky, to be exact.

My father and four of his nine siblings graduated from Black Star High School, which – like many other communities in the region – was named after the coal mining camp that laid claim to this valley. From 1923-1928, the mine operated as Black Star Coal Company and employed 400 miners. After a name change to Black Star Coal Corporation, it employed another 900 miners from 1939-1958.

The promise of a better life was to come from those hills. Yet while the coal was taken, what was left behind was a thick layer of black, dusty soot; hazardous outdoor air pollutants laced with sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide, mercury and arsenic; and a legacy of black lung that has taken countless lives, including my grandfather.

He died when I was 5.

And because such a large portion of its eggs were put into this coal basket, Harlan County has been stuck in this endless lob of “generational poverty/back to the coal mines” that our necks are kinked from watching this tireless match for decades.

Coal, primarily used to generate power, ironically has left its residents with very little.

To clarify, I can only speak for my relatives. On my father’s side, we come from Welsh and Irish heritage (read: white). Yet we are only one assemblage of Appalachian residents.

About 10 years ago, as the owner and publisher of STORY magazine, I traveled across Kentucky to discover more about its identity than the horses, bourbon and basketball that rolls off the tongue as soon as the state is mentioned.

And no surprise, those stories were abundant. The cover story of our first issue took me to my family’s ancestral home in Harlan County yet exposed me to areas I didn’t know existed. Particularly a place called Lynch, Ky.

Yet another coal company town, Lynch, established in 1917, became a community populated by African Americans who were recruited from the deep South in the early 20th century. Yes, that’s right. This community has been in Appalachia for over 100 years. (It was formed 54 years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed enslaved people in the Confederacy.)

At its peak, some 10,000 people populated the town (compared to around 650 today). Lynch, in the southeastern tip of Harlan County, had the largest capacity coal tipple in the world at the time. (Back up, read that again.)

I’m not sure you understand yet so let me put it this way: as World War II came to an end, Lynch was the largest coal camp in. the. world.

So, don’t they get to claim this region as their own, too?

Let’s keep going though… the earliest settlers were of course the Indigenous Peoples of Kentucky, which included the most prominent tribes of Cherokee, Chickasaws and Shawnee. They certainly have dibs, right? We’re talking firmly planted on the land since the 1700s.

Yet some would have us believe that history only starts once a certain race sets foot on the scene.

But it’s not like they’re a thing of the past. The descendants of these OG Kentucky natives still live in the area. Still carve their handmade flutes from various woods in the region. Surely, they trump all others when it comes to declaring this land as their own?

Yet some would have us believe that history only starts once a certain race sets foot on the scene.


On Aug. 19, 2023, the Waymakers Collective retreat was attended by people from each one of these populations. Some representing more than one, others with the added demographic of a historically marginalized group like the LGBTQ community. Looking at it through an unbiased lens, this group was truly an amalgam of Appalachian culture.

Though not everyone saw it that way. A group of protesters from Harlan caught wind of the private Waymakers event and took it upon themselves to essentially rewrite history and claim the settlement as their birthright.

While one protester played the ancestry card, stating they were a descendant of the settlement’s founder William Creech and was there to ensure his legacy would remain unscathed, others were locals who didn’t take kindly to the chapel building being used as a healing space and not a Christian-only place of worship.

So, interpreting that Biblical law outranked the law of the land, this group raced down Highway 510 to Pine Mountain Settlement School and confronted the attendees who were engaged in meditation or simply taking advantage of the quiet space.

Twinkle lights, throw pillows and candles confronted the locals as they stood in the doorway of the chapel and demanded the attendees pack up and leave. The word “desecration” was thrown around due to an ill-placed “om” symbol (which means “universe” in the Hindu religion) above a faintly carved cross on a wooden podium.

Binary thinking is a problematic cancer that plagues this country. So, believing that the “om” negates the meaning of the cross was all the fuel these fired-up locals needed.

The locals – grown men and women, even a couple of toddlers in tow – darted out of their 4-wheel drive trucks and ATVs with no signs of firearms. (Before you ask, we don’t know if anyone brought guns to the fight. Luckily, it never came to that.) But no punches had to be thrown that day for people to feel threatened. Language is a mighty weapon, and the intent behind their chosen words was enough ammo to produce trembling bodies passing through the chapel’s doorway. Mission accomplished, I presume.

The Waymakers event had in attendance a true menagerie of people from different Appalachian backgrounds, including: African American storytellers from Asheville, N.C.; Indigenous people from Harrodsburg, Ky.; LGBTQ folks from down the road in Letcher County, Ky.; among many others.

Knowing full well this was the population at Pine Mountain Settlement School that day, the local sheriff’s deputies rolled up, thinking it wise to bring along their K-9 units to diffuse the situation. In the meantime, a member of the Waymakers group had called the Kentucky State Police, who arrived on the scene minutes later.

These two images tell a story unto themselves: two sheriff’s deputies posted on the barren porch to the empty chapel, strapped into their bullet-proof vests, hands and gaze in full Napoleonic pose, ready for action that was never imminent. And then the three state troopers, kinesics that can only be interpreted as calming and empathetic, staying eye to eye with two members of the Waymakers group after the fervent incident.

One prepared to curtail fear. The other… pining for escalation?


You remember the telephone game? Where you whisper something to the person next to you, then the story gets repeated around the room until it reaches the last one in line? And when that final person shares what they heard, it is practically guaranteed to be nothing remotely close to what was first shared. “There’s nothing better than warm apple pie” becomes “There’s no bothering war apparently.”

It's not like we intend to misunderstand each other, it’s just that our personal filters – past experiences, childhood traumas, family dynamics, etc. – tend to skew how we interpret situations. You say it’s definitively a 6. I can only see a 9. That’s because we’re standing on different ends of the numeral.

Same goes for Harlan. Like many places, Appalachia comes prepackaged with its own set of preconceived notions: Poverty. Prejudice. Pride. And guess what? It’s all true. But look down your street, and you’ll also find shining examples of these because, well, America.

I mean, we gave a national holiday to a white guy who fucking failed on his mission to sail from Europe to Asia because we refused to concede that his journey was a mistake.

1492 Itinerary

Christopher Columbus: Explorer

Departure: Spain.

Arrival: “Asia” (more accurately known as the Bahamas).

Too proud to own up to his mistake, Columbus doubles down by telling the indigenous folk – who told him he was in the wrong place – that they are actually “Indians,” took many back to Spain as captives while forcing others into indentured servitude.

All of this instead of “Oh man, my bad. Y’all go on about your business, and we’ll see ourselves out.” Oh no, the ego would much prefer to rewrite the entire narrative than admit to a misstep. Or, heaven forbid, we accept that we have differing opinions and end at a draw. Because as Americans, we don’t like to tie. We either win or we lose. Again, it’s that binary thinking that gets us in trouble.


Much was reported – both fact and opinion – on the incident at the Pine Mountain Settlement School last summer. And according to its website, the board of trustees adopted a new policy for use of the chapel: As of November 7, 2023, the chapel will be open during regular operating hours for personal reflection and meditation by individuals provided that the chapel is not being used for a scheduled Pine Mountain program or event. Any group wishing to use the chapel will need to make an application and receive approval as outlined in the policy document.

While the Waymakers Collective contract included use of the chapel as part of its retreat, this board declaration makes it clear that any subsequent group using that particular space has received approval from the school beforehand and its activities should not be contested. Whether Harlan Countians will abide by these rules or not remain to be seen.

But the perennial question for me is our country’s (our city’s, our neighbor’s) indignant belief that there is a faint asterisk next to Thomas Jefferson’s contribution to the Declaration of Independence, which states “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” (There’s debate about what he intended by “all men” but we’re sticking with the idea that it means all of humanity.)

We come to discussions with our rebuttals already locked and loaded in the chamber, ready to fire before the other person has finished their thought.

Does this implied asterisk denote some kind of hierarchy of humanity? You get yours once I get mine? And who decides what’s equal? On Jan. 6, 2021, one group was determined to prove that things are so far out of balance that only an insurrection could bring about change. They took matters into their own hands. Just like at Pine Mountain.

And this is where we go astray every time. We don’t listen. We come to discussions with our rebuttals already locked and loaded in the chamber, ready to fire before the other person has finished their thought. If we concede to any part of their argument being correct, we feel as if we’ve betrayed our team. Our “side.” The notion that two contrary ideas can co-exist is so difficult for many to fathom.

We’ve pushed this polarity so far that we’ve ignored one of the simplest ties that bind us as human beings: the need to feel seen. If we opened up a dialogue with no requirement to find a solution other than to simply lay out our concerns/commonalities/vulnerabilities, what would that look like? Would it be productive? Could we even do it?

“We choose our next world through what we learn in this one. Learn nothing, and the next world is the same as this one, all the same limitations and lead weights to overcome.”

Jonathan Livingston Seagull

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