Cheyenne Coogle, Age 13, Student and Harlan County Boys and Girls Club Member; Cranks, Kentucky:
I just finished 8th grade at James A. Cawood Elementary, so now I’m going to start at Harlan County High School.
Me and my mom and my family, we live up on a big hill where my papaw built the house in 1976, so I usually go up in the old mountains and try to find things and play. There’s this old ruined house there, and me and my friends play around there. And then whenever I’m not playing in the woods I usually read a lot. I love reading.
I feel safe in the mountains ‘cause I know I can rely on it, (that’s) where I’ve been built. I guess you can call me ‘homegrown,’ really. The mountains were my playground. I grew up climbing trees and creek stompin’ and all that jazz. Never really been one for the city. Hate all of it. But here at the Appalachians, I think the people, the neighbors, everyone, you can go anywhere and people will be friendly.
I went to Florida this year for my summer vacation. I just got back and I really didn’t like it. It was too flat, people weren’t as nice and no mountains.
(Here) we know what’s right and wrong. We know what to do and what not to do. We know how to rely on each other, instead of pick at each other and stay individualized. Here you can count on anyone. My mom sent out a text during the ‘snowpocalypse’—‘almost out of butter and milk, hopefully it’ll last us the day’—and within three minutes a bunch of people just texted her and said ‘ how much you need?’, ‘where you live at?’, ‘I can get you some within twenty’, ‘I’ve shoveled out my driveway do you need some help?’. It basically makes me feel like the Appalachians are just people that are not families. We’re basically one family. We’re all connected, eventually.
Whenever I think of the Appalachias or Harlan County or anywhere in my region, I automatically think of mud-blooded, hillbillian, redneckkin’ creatures. You can ask my mom, I’ll say that every day.
My family’s really different. My mom, she didn’t grow up here. She moved here when she was nine I believe. My papaw built our house up on the big hill and we lived there with three other people who rent land from us. My mom got remarried after her and my dad divorced. I’ve got two little brothers, they’re twins and they love the outdoors. I can’t get them in. I’ll be yellin’ dinner 5,000 times and they won’t come in. But it’s amazing to see my family grow. Of course, since we live in Harlan or the Appalachians we’re all pretty crazy. I mean, there isn’t a sane one of us. I’ve got grandparents; I’ve got aunts and uncles. My aunt just got remarried to another crazy feller. We’re family, so I mean, if you remarry, you might as well just show ‘em the ropes of the family… know who’s crazy, know which one’s are not as crazy, who cooks better and know which foods you need to hide behind the plant.
Home cooked; that’s all I can say [about Appalachian food]. It’s comfort food. Whenever I’m down I automatically just ask my mom for some mashed potatoes ‘cause she doesn’t do those little boxes of flakes. She just makes ‘em automatically. Appalachian food is a reflection of all of us. There are a lot of people that aren't doin’ so well so it’s soup beans and cornbread, of course. And you’ve got fried chicken and biscuits and, most people don’t know this, but a lot of culture in Appalachia basically comes from the plants. It’s not all fried and greasy and buttery and fat. It’s a lot of plants. There’s green beans, poke, spinach, greens, collard greens, all that good stuff. And all of it together is a diverse little thing.
Poke is a plant. It’s an edible plant after you cook it for a while. It’s very good for your body and all of that but it really doesn’t taste that good unless you cook it just right. Poke is a native plant. Most people boil it before you do it and recommend that. Poke is an important part of Harlan County, mostly because of the Poke Salad Festival. That one just got finished. And there was the poke contest. I tried one or two of ‘em ‘cause my stepmom was one of the judges, and I don’t think I’ll ever try it again. Poke is okay, I guess.
[On the happiest time in her life] It was when I was eight, my brothers were just I think two, maybe two and a half, it’s bad when you forget your brothers’ birthdays and all that! It was another kind of a little ‘snowpocalypse’ and the snow was really high. We lived up in the apartments in Fairview and a lot of my family just came over that night for dinner and it started snowing really bad. We had my grandma and her new husband, my pappy and his new wife, my aunt, my mom’s sister, Sarah, and her husband, all my cousins, the rest of my weird aunts and uncles and all that. They all came over for dinner that night and it started snowing like crazy and none of them could go home so all of them spent the night at our house and all of us were stuck in there for about a week! It was snowin’ and then it stopped snowin’ but then we couldn’t get out. It was icy and we started goin’ low on food ‘cause there was so many of us. My aunt lived two apartments down, so me and my cousin Gabe, we were in charge of running over to my aunt’s house, grabbing as much food as we could and bringin’ it over. So all of us stayed there for a week and we were trapped, but I think we got closer together as a family at that moment ‘cause there were some rocky relationships between everyone.
I remember just sittin’ on the steps playing cards with my granny and Gabe and Lilly. I remember my mom and my aunt singing in the kitchen while they cooked. That’s the only thing that kept them calm with all the noise. I remember all the men talking in the living room, smokin’, one of them had a cigar and a lot of them had cigarettes and they were just talking ‘bout stuff. I remember my two little brothers and my younger cousins; they were up in their room playing toy trucks and all that. I just remember all of us coming together. There was one night when the power went out and all the little kids were asleep, and Lilly was too, and it was me, Gabe and then my aunts, uncles, my granny, my pappy and all of them, we were all sittin' around in my living room and we turned on the electric little fire thing. It wasn’t really electric, it was that kerosene stuff, and I remember all of us just sittin’ around there and in the still of the night, I swear I just felt at peace. Even with the blackout.
I would have to say one of the saddest times in my life would be when my granny, her house burnt down this Christmas. It was literally Christmas Eve night, we’d all just left her place, and she went to Wal-Mart real quick and when she got back the entire place was on fire. She lost everything. She came to our place as soon as it was over and we spent Christmas there. My mom did some quick thinkin’ and she and my step-mom, Lesley, they ran out of the house and ran straight to the nearest Wal-Mart they could find open and grabbed a bunch of gifts and put them on lay-away. My grandma finally had a decent Christmas after that, but it was really sad. They finally moved all the rubble. It was sad she lost a lot of stuff from her mom and her dad, and a lot of stuff from all of us too. I had left a lot of stuff there for her to watch, and it was all gone. But of course, family comes together.
Higher Ground, where can I begin? Higher Ground is basically a non-profit organization. They have volunteers from all around the tri-state, tri-cities, actually, and we all come together to put local stories, mountain stories, normal stories into one play based on certain things. I have been in every single one, except for the first one. My mom was in the first one though. And they take stories from all these people, just random people, and they change their names of course, but we act them out based on what the theme is.
The first one was about the floods, the loss and all that. The second one, which was the one I started in, was about drugs and alcohol. It showed coal mining in its new era. It showed how many people were stuck on all that. Third one, of course, was ‘Talkin’ Dirt’ and that one was one of my favorites and it was talkin’ about the gossip of Harlan County and how everything goes around and nothing is really true. And then you’ve got ‘Fog Lights.’ ‘Fog Lights’ has to be the interesting one ‘cause I really don’t know what that theme was! It was amazing!
Each year, we get new volunteers and of course a lot of people leave. This year and, since I’m technically one of the beginners as they call us, the oldies, this year was about letting the new generation take over. Letting them step through. It was really hard for me, considering the fact that I have a bunch of friends who came in and they worked so hard on this one.
Higher Ground is basically a bunch of people who have never even met, never known anything, brought together by Robert Gipe and Theresa Osbourne and two other people. And we all grow close as like a tight knitted family, and when one of us leaves, someone else comes in. But once you leave Higher Ground, lemme scratch that, there is no way you can leave Higher Ground! I mean, you can quit the plays and stuff but you always show up to each Higher Ground thing, you always say hi to the people. Basically, once a Higher Ground member, always a Higher Ground member.
I think the reason it’s so important to me personally, is because it’s basically a family of crazy aunts and uncles, people I know will rely on me, people I know I rely on them. I trust them with my heart. I know they’d do anything for me. I think it’s really important for all of us, mostly because it brings to light everything people do not want to talk about. There are so many things people do not want to talk about nowadays. Higher Ground is so important to all of us, mostly because it’s a reflection on how people can come together in thick and thin.
During the ‘snowpocalypse’ we lost at least a month of practice but each day Maria, one of my favorite girls ever, joined in during the third one I believe, she came every day. She shoveled out everyone’s driveways and got everyone there. She tried to help shovel out the Cumberland Southeast Community Technical College driveway. She tried her hardest!
Higher Ground is basically my safe haven, I think. I know that if somethin’ were to happen I could automatically come to them and they could take me in, they could help me with everything. It’s not really my second family, it’s basically my God-family. Robert Gipe is my God-uncle, he’s the crazy uncle I never had. I’ve got bunches of cousins which are the new kids that I have to show around ‘cause they don’t know anything. I grew up at Southeast Technical Community College, mostly because of Higher Ground. If it wasn’t for Higher Ground I wouldn’t have gotten this far. Higher Ground’s taught me a lot. Higher Ground basically incorporates itself and roots itself into your life. Every day you either use quotes from Higher Ground or you think of songs when you’re sad. It’s just there.
Robert Gipe is a fun man! I mean, everything about him is just outrageous and out there! There’s a serious scene in one of the plays and he turned it into the funniest scene I’ve ever seen. In our last play, our last showtime for this one, him and the girl Elana, who is basically a girl version of him, got together instead of doing it separately like they were supposed to. And it was outrageous and funny. You can count on him, but you know you’re gonna be laughin’ while he’s taking care of you. He just wrote his new book, Trampoline, and I know I’ve watched him on Facebook and I’ve read at least half the book now and he’s more about the community than anything else. He’s one of the most selfless persons in Higher Ground.
Drugs… I think that’s one of the most important ones. Drugs and alcohol, really. I think with everything that’s going, on drugs have decreased, but it incorporates itself into everyone. There are so many people in Harlan County that have done drugs that are just going to waste. There are so many people. I can walk down the street and I’ll see so many people that have done drugs and I can see ‘em and they were once people that my family knew. Once people that I even knew. And drugs have just somehow rooted themselves into Harlan County. When you come to it you're automatically gonna know at least four things: drugs, alcohol, coal mining and each other.
There are a lot of people that say coal mining is going down so why stay? There are a lot of people that say Harlan doesn’t need coal, but I think coal mining has embedded itself and was the foundation of Harlan County. If it wasn’t for coal mining, Harlan County wouldn’t exist. Wallins and Evarts and all that wouldn’t exist because of coal mining. And now that all the jobs are losing itself there’s so many people leavin’ you don’t see as many people as there should be and it breaks my heart. But I also know that it will come back. I mean, we just gotta find a way to make it boom bigger and better than ever. Just find a way.
First thing I know is that we need to ensure more safety. There are too many that get hurt in coalmines. If we do that, more people will wanna come and work for less, if they know it’s safer for them. Then, we need to dig deeper than we ever have before, or go higher than we ever have before. Coal mining just doesn’t have to be in the ground. It can actually be up in the middle of the mountains or under lakes and streams and stuff. There has to be a way to find new ones. It’s not in just those certain areas.
My mom and my stepmom both work for tourism, and I know there’s so much to Harlan County that just hasn't been explored. I for one know it, because I’ve seen it. There are so many lakes, and the trees are beautiful and you can take nature hikes. But for those who don’t wanna come to the outdoors? I could see them, you know, seeing its rich heritage. There are so many locally grown and operated businesses nowadays. You see a lot of new stuff and there are a lot of businesses that are pushed behind the curtain that you can explore and if we can just reincorporate all these old buildings that are just getting vines all crawled all over them or any of that, if we can take that away, take it down, rebuild it and put a bunch of new people, locally owned people that have a great idea and we advertise it a little bit more, we could bring so many people to Harlan.
It could be one of those towns you want to live in, instead of one of those towns you’re afraid that, if you do live in it, you’ll have to leave eventually.