As I waited to leave Washington D.C. by train with my backpack filled with notes and recordings from so much experience over the past month, I asked myself, “Why Kentucky, again?” I was somewhat familiar with the radical and awesome history of the labor movement in Appalachia, but also held some less than flattering stereotypes about this part of the country. I was heading to Lexington on the strength of one friend’s insistent recommendation that I go there.
I believe his exact reaction to my planned itinerary was to point at my map, shake his head, and say, “You’re fucking up, not going to Kentucky.” He said that he had a friend in Lexington who was “the more intense, male version of [me], but Appalachian instead of Cascadian”–an intriguing description– and in my fervent planning haze, I up and changed the final leg of my trip to make that meeting happen.
I somehow ended up in my own seat without a companion for the 17 hour ride to Louisville. I wish I could say that I spent that time hard at work editing and writing, but aside from a couple poems, I largely slipped in and out of full consciousness in the state of being nowhere while in passage that I see as one of the greatest gifts of travel. Alternately reading the Neil Gaiman stories I had found on a Brooklyn stoop for free, writing my own, and calculating my next steps, I made my way to the “Gateway to the South”, where I’d spend the night waiting for the bus to Lexington in the Greyhound station there.
For those who have never traveled by Greyhound, let it be known that the experience varies significantly from both flying and even the wildest family road trip. There is a sense of camaraderie in the women’s restroom (where we attempt to feel a bit less like we’ve been on a bus or train for entire days without a shower), a shared anticipation for coffee as we wait for the snack bar’s strange hours to shift back into our favor, and a polite rotation of use of power outlets to charge phones. During the seven or so hours I spent there, CNN played over the televisions and I heard the same stories cycled through that time. The shooting of news reporter Alison Parker and her cameraman, Adam Ward, had just taken place on live television that morning and the network cycled between speculation on the killer’s motives and coverage of the wildfires of the west.
Finally arriving in Lexington after that long wait, I was greeted by the resident cat of their small bus station there, who clearly runs the place. She inspected my bag and then took a break to drink from the water fountain. Greg picked me up there and we headed to his house. I wanted to meet his fellow leaders of Kentucky Workers League, and they happened to be meeting that night to clean their office space to welcome the local Bernie Sanders campaign, who would be leasing some of the space. Their office, in a Lexington strip mall, held a few indicators of what type of work happens there among the enthusiastic and young central organizers. The stereotypes I mentioned before about Kentucky hadn’t prepped me for finding a robust group of passionate socialists in the “Horse Capital of the World”. But here they were, with my home state’s socialist City Council member, Kshama Sawant, framed on the wall.
We cleaned up the storage room, talked about the strategy of engaging Bernie supporters despite many of our disillusionment with and distrust of the electoral process as a means for change, and joked about eating the rich while actually eating top-notch Cajun food. We then recorded a round table discussion with those present that was one of the interview highlights of the summer for me. You can hear it in part on Praxis 146 and in full soon here. Despite the group’s fairly new status, they hold an impressive track record–organizing fellow workers to address discrimination in the workplace, taking on corrupt developers, and providing mutual aid to workers on the losing end of capitalism. Both during our interview and during the evening spent at the pub with most of the same crowd, I was impressed and motivated to do this kind of grassroots organizing in my own community.
I considered Lexington the last working stop on my trip, made some attempts to reach other activist types Greg, my host, had recommended, but having only two full days there limited my ability to follow up with them fully. I took quite a few walks, caught up on writing, and spent quality restorative time in his house, a comfortably familiar punk-ish collective of roommates and a new kitten named Assata. Exploring the town, I enjoyed the pace (slow) that reminded me of home and also came to appreciate the reason for that pace (heat and humidity). I’d love to spend more time taking in the radical history of this region in the future, and it was excellent to reflect on the history I was so near–the Highlander Center, the coal and other labor organizing of the past two centuries, the civil rights movement, and their echoes today.
I packed up after those couple of days and headed to Bloomington, another long bus ride sequence via Louisville and Indianapolis, for the last stop of the trip, feeling like the end was in sight and looking forward to returning home to share all of the ideas and stories from this trip.