“[My mother] taught me early on not to care what people thought of you; just be who you are, and enjoy who you are, and go about your life. She taught me there was nothing wrong with being independent, and being a woman on your own. And there was nothing wrong with being creative and a little bit strange.”
Misty Skaggs, Writer, Blogger, Artist; Stark Ridge, Elliott County, Kentucky;
“Growing up here was a fantastic experience, and I’m sure of that a lot of people say that because it is. It’s an amazing, wild childhood where you can get out and run around. My cousins and I would get out in the woods and play. A lot of kids don’t do that these days, but we were just outside all summer long. The only time we come in the house was for a baloney sandwich and a cup of Kool-Aid, and we were gone again.
I came from an odd family, I guess, for the region. Mama was an artist, and Grandma was an artist, too. I had the whole farm girl experience, but I also had the experience of traveling and going to art shows, and meeting a lot of interesting people.
When I wasn’t outside, I was reading. We would buy boxes of books wherever we could find them, yard sales, junk stores, auctions. I would just buy boxes of books, fiction, non-fiction, anything. I mean it when I say anything. One of the first books I ever remember really loving, was a book of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. It was one of those really thin volumes, with the super thin pages like I’d only seen in a Bible. My Dad’s cousin, Terry, was the first person to ever buy me brand new books. We had tons of books everywhere, but I never had brand new, like fresh from the store, books. He bought me an illustrated ‘Little Women,’ probably in third grade, and a copy of ‘Gorillas in The Mist,’ and I read and loved them both.
I [went] to Berea College right after high school. First time away from home, very over-protective mother, so I got out on my own and got into a little bit of trouble. I actually got arrested for shoplifting. I had my little anarchy t-shirt and my spiky hair, my dog collar, and I thought, ‘Well if I could just steal from Wal-Mart, that’s going to change the world.’ So I got busted in Berea with blank tapes and fish food in my purse. (Laughs) I was going big, obviously. The bad part of it was, I was an RA and supposed to be in charge of three hundred girls, and I was in jail for the night.
I ended up coming home for a while. I was a waitress for a while, and then I just took off. You don’t think of a nineteen-year-old running away from home, but I did, and it broke my Mother’s Grandmother’s hearts. I moved to Missouri with a boy, and lived out there for about three years. I did nothing but get into trouble. I went to a lot of punk rock shows, and just had a little life experience, I guess. I was so homesick the entire time. Like, crying myself to sleep, homesick. I think the only reason I didn’t come home sooner was because I was genuinely too stubborn. I didn’t want everybody to know I couldn’t handle it on my own. About three years later I came home, and I haven’t left since.
It’s a different world out there [Missouri]. It was the flattest place I have ever been in my life. It was like an ocean of beige and corn everywhere, and I just couldn’t stand it. I’d spoken to people from the Midwest who had come here, and they say, ‘Oh, the mountains make me claustrophobic.’ It was the exact opposite for me. I was completely stunned at all that space. What they called the woods was like a stand of trees. I was like, ‘Y’all have never seen the woods!’
Mom would drive ten hours just to pick me up for two days. One year, I was working in a truck stop. I was the night shift person and I had to work on Christmas Eve. Mom and my little brother drove all the way from Kentucky to sit at the truck stop and just spend the holiday with me. I called home two or three times a day, every day, but it was heartbreaking being away from everybody.
[While in Missouri] my great-grandpa was sick. I made it home for the funeral, but I wasn’t there when he died and that about broke my heart. I just knew it was past time to get back where I belonged.
(Decision to come home) It was probably the feller. I mean, it wasn’t going too well with us, and my Papaw was sick. That did a big number on me. I came home for a visit and just never went back. I left everything I owned. I came home with a pair of pants, two pairs of underwear, and a couple of shirts in a grocery bag, and that was it. I was like, ‘That stuff is stuff. I don’t need it. What I need is home.’
It’s so easy to get wrapped up in all the meanings of [home]. When you start to see those mountains pop up, it’s an amazing and soothing feeling at the same. It takes your breath away, and makes you feel comforted all at once. When you’re from way-out Eastern Kentucky, Louisville ain’t even hardly part of Kentucky. (Laughs) But as soon as we passed Lexington, I could breathe.
[My grandparents are] amazing people. I was always really close with my Mom’s mom and dad, and also my great-grandparents on the maternal side. My great-grandmother, I took care of her at the end of her life. She was smart as a tack and hilarious. It was such a wonderful experience, because we all knew her as this matriarch. She was the glue that held the family together, but I got to know her as a person, and as a woman, and I got to hear all of her great stories. She could remember what she wore to a picnic in 1912. If you asked her, she knew.
My Great-Papaw was quite a character. He was a farmer mostly, but he was also a trapper, and he kept bees. He ran a seven-mile trap line until he was in his seventies. He walked fourteen miles a day. He was a short, little guy. He might have weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet, and he would be walking across the porch and just break out into a little jig all of a sudden. He loved to make people laugh, and it was funny because my Great-Grandmother was the straight man to his comedian. They had perfect timing with each other, and they were probably the happiest couple I’ve ever seen in my life. She was in her seventies, and she’d bend over to take biscuits out of the oven, and he’d come up behind her, and smack her on the butt. She’d be like, ‘Charlie Blankenbeckler!’ But she loved every minute of it. It was a true partnership, and I think that set an example for me of what marriage is supposed to be.
My Papaw passed away in 2010. He was the first father figure in my life, and he was a very special man. He battled mental illness for his whole life, and survived a very abusive childhood and turned out on the other end, to be the kindest, most gentle soul you could ever meet. He loved us unconditionally, and I miss him a lot.
I live with my Mamaw still, and we’re very close. We do everything together, and she’s not what a lot of people would picture for an Appalachian Mamaw. She’s very adventurous, and we try all sorts of new things. She’s also just clever as can be, and super artistic.
My Great-Papaw, one of his favorite stories to tell was, his father was a very serious, very religious man, and supposedly also a healer, which is an interesting thing here in Eastern Kentucky. [Great-Papaw] he and his brothers, there was five of them, were running a batch of moonshine. They had just brought a big truckload of sugar to the farm and they were trying to hide it because somebody had called and told them the revenuers were coming. They’re out there loading sugar onto the truck again after they just unloaded it, and Papaw said, ‘I was bent over at the waist, and all I saw was my Daddy’s shoes.’ He looked up, and there was his Dad standing there just as serious as could be. He said, ‘Daddy, you can whup me, but first let me move this sugar before the law gets here.’ He helped them move it and hide it, and then he whupped them. We’re talking about grown men, but they were going to take their licking.
There was a big moonshine culture where I live. It’s the middle of nowhere, and there was a rock called ‘Toenail Gap,’ and the moonshiners used it. It was a straight bald-faced rock went straight up, and they carved little notches in it, so you could stick your big toe in there and climb it barefooted, but the revenuers, who had shoes on, couldn’t get up the face of the rock. So you go to the ‘Toenail Gap’ when you’re running from the law.
[My mother] is an amazing, fantastic woman. She was unmarried when I was born. Back in 1982, when you live as far out in the middle of nowhere as I do, [it was] still kind of strange to be an unmarried woman having a baby. People even asked her, ‘Are you going to let Lonnie and Joyce (my grandparents) raise her?’ No way that was happening. My Mom was very protective. We moved right in with my Mamaw and Papaw. We all lived together in a big house. Actually, there was a whole bunch of us. All my aunts and uncles were there, too. [My mom] is one of the most kind and compassionate women I’ve ever come across in my life, and she’s just so creative. Everything in our childhood was fun. We were poor, but we didn’t really know it, because we had a blast the whole time. She’s most definitely been an inspiration to me through my whole life.
I am who I am, because of her. She taught me early on not to care what people thought of you. Just to be who you are, and enjoy who you are, and go about your life. She taught me there was nothing wrong with being independent, and being a woman on your own. And there was nothing wrong with being creative and a little bit strange. She taught me the value of kindness and family. She taught me all that.
When I was at Berea College, I studied art a little bit, not a whole lot. Recently I’ve taken up painting more, and I’ve worked it in with my writing.
I’ve written as long as I can remember. I always had a journal or notebooks or was always scribbling. The funny thing is, I never considered myself a writer. I went to college for art and psychology. I was going to be an art therapist the first time around, but I don’t remember ever not writing. When I was in seventh grade, my Papaw bought me a computer at the school auction. It was one of those old Apple IIs, and the only thing on it was two games and a word processor program.
I sat down in the sweaty back bedroom of their trailer and spent the whole summer writing a book. It was about a girl who fell in love with a ghost. (Laughs) That was the first thing of substance I ever remember writing. When I came home after being in the Midwest, a local author named Bob Slone (he passed away a few years ago), found a few poems I had written on MySpace. He was like, ‘you have to send these somewhere. You have to get into writing. You’re a writer.’ It was the first time I really thought about professionally studying writing. It was always a passion of mine. All my writing is set in Appalachia. The characters are Appalachian. I just seem to write what I know. Even when I tend to write about people who are away from here, they’re always from here and somehow ended up somewhere else. I write a lot about the experience of spreading out all over the country, and having those Appalachian roots. Once they’re with you, they never leave you.
I’d love to travel and see the world, but for me I have to have a home base, and this is it. This is my fortress. This is where I come from. I will probably be hunkered down in these hills for the rest of my life.
I tell people that Appalachia is a special little pocket of culture that you don’t get anywhere else in the world. We are so rich in music, and art. When you think of the hillbilly stereotype, you don’t think of an artist, but they exist. There’s mysticism to this place I think, and there’s also the closeness of family that is something that I’ve learned over the years. Other places [I’ve been], I’m like, ‘Don’t you have any cousins?’ And they’re like, ‘I don’t know.’ How can you not know? I know where all of my first cousins are right now.
There is a connection to the land here that goes beyond just appreciating nature, or liking to go hiking. It’s your land. It’s the land that raised you, and the land that sustains you, and that’s a big part of it. My Great-Papaw, he was not a church-going man, but he was a Christian man. To him, going out and standing under a big oak tree was just as much [religion] as going into a chapel. It’s the connection to the land that a lot of people today just don’t have.
There were a lot of stories about mysticism in my family. My great-great-grandfather was supposedly a healer. The story my Grandpa always told [was], a boy got cut in the logwoods. His leg got cut real bad, and they brought him to Watt Blankenbeckler. [Watt] said that he had a dream that a Bible verse came to him, but he would never tell anybody what it was. He leaned over and whispered that Bible verse in that boy’s ear, and the blood stopped.
You’ve heard about things like marking a baby, and that’s something people outside of Appalachia have never heard. That’s another good story my Grandma used to tell. Well, it’s not a good story. It was a sad story, [about] my great-Grandmother. A carnival came into town that had a freak show. She was about six or seven months pregnant, and they told her, ‘don’t go to the freak show because it might mark the baby.’ I guess the idea is that you see something like that when you’re pregnant, it can be so traumatizing that it has an effect on this unborn child. She went to the freak show and she saw ‘Jo Jo, the Dog-Faced Boy,’ and her child was born deformed. She went to the freak show, and it marked the baby. There’s a lot of spirituality and superstition mixed together here, which is really special.
I am a hillbilly, and it’s a loaded word, isn’t it? It’s one of those words I’m taking back for myself. You get sick of outsiders using that term in a derogatory fashion, so why can’t I call myself a hillbilly? Why can’t I establish a positive meaning, and a happy and dignified connotation for that word? There’s a rich heritage to that word. Some of us embrace it, and some people don’t like it. That’s their prerogative, too.
I’m only thirty years old, but when I graduated high school, if you were an intelligent person and you planned on having a future, you got the hell out of here. We’re starting to examine the reasons why we were pretty much forced out of our region by poverty, lack of economy, lack of jobs and all that. We’re taking our whole culture back. There are Appalachian restaurants springing up in Brooklyn, so if there can be hipsters playing banjo, I can use my culture for good, too. I can bring people here and show them what it’s really like, and a lot of people are coming together to do that now. People from my generation are saying, ‘Maybe we can do this. Maybe it’s not as hopeless as we’ve thought.’
I hope [the economy here] will be better [in the future]. Personally, I think people are going to pour in here because ten or twenty years from now, people are going to realize, ‘Maybe we don’t want to be packed in on top of each other in the city. And maybe we don’t want to breathe filthy air, and worry about smog blocking the sunset.’ I think people are going to see what Appalachia is, and they’re going to want to be here, which could be good and bad for us. In the past, outside interests moving into the area hasn’t exactly been great. People don’t realize Appalachia has been exploited as far back as salt mines. It goes beyond coal, and it’s still being exploited. Even now, those hipsters in Brooklyn playing banjo…that’s exploitation of us on a different level. It’s hard to say where we’ll be, but I hope that things will be better, and I hope that a lot of people keep working on what they’re working toward now.
If I can make somebody know that they’re cared about, if I can write a story and make somebody say, ‘I’m not the only one that’s happened to,’ well, I don’t even care if my name’s attached to it. I like to help people, and that’s so corny, but it’s true. I would like to make an impact in a positive way, on a region that really needs it.”