I've been out of town for a couple of days, shooting commercials in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. God but I love them. It's been a rainy summer, and the Appalachians are just verdant. I don't know if I've ever seen such greens.
It's a very different experience than the Rockies. Among the giants of the west, I felt awe: such a sense of smallness. Standing atop the peaks of Colorado, you are struck by what a tiny, insignificant speck you are in the universe. Your troubles seem to fade in comparison to the indescribable scale of a world where your eyes are not powerful enough to reach the horizon. There were times when I felt myself disappear in the Rockies, like a drop of water in the ocean.
The Kentucky mountains do not empty me. They fill me. Where the Rockies are jagged stone fingers pointing my eyes toward heaven, the Appalachians are round, soft breasts drawing my heart toward the earth.
We awoke each morning to fog that would make a claustrophobic whimper. The dew-kissed black top rolled under our vehicles as oncoming headlights glowed toward us in the opposite lane. The hollows seemed reluctant to waken, keeping their covers pulled up tight to prevent the morning light from poking in and interrupting the night's final dream.
We crossed over the dam that holds back Paintsville Lake and parked our cars in the brightening mist. Mountain Homeplace is a working farm, run as much as possible like it was when David Mackenzie and his family built it in 1860. You step over the split rail fence and cross into a world of unpainted log buildings and old wooden gates held closed with grass string. Later, guides dressed in authentic homespun will walk the grounds, sharing the history of the place with the visitors who happen by. At this early hour though, we are welcomed by the scolding goats who expect the first humans in the morning to bring breakfast, not cameras and make-up cases.
While the crew set up for the day's first shot, I wandered from pen to pen, greeting the neighbors. In the goat pen, a pair of kids butted their mothers insistently till the teat was offered, then the little ones sucked while the rest of the community eyed me suspiciously. A pair of tiny cows came to the fence curiously, and allowed me to scratch them between the ears till it became clear I had nothing more than friendship to offer. Nearby, but always out of reach, the sheep gathered close, one brave soul after another bawling out at me to either start serving some vittles or move along. Closer to the barn, a piggy couple were downright belligerent, huffing and snorting indignantly that I had interrupted their sleep for no better reason than to satisfy my own curiosity. Across the yard, the ladies in the hen house stirred nervously, and an unseen rooster crowed out a warning to anyone who might try to disturb his happy
I wish I were enough of a naturalist to tell you about the music of the mountains: the millions of insect and bird voices that join together to create an Appalachian symphony that Aaron Copeland could not even dream of. This isn't just background music, it is the heartbeat of the hollows and it fills every lonely corner of your soul with something so holy that no human artist could ever hope to imitate it. It is the rhythm of life. It is the song of Creation. There under the cedar shake porch roof, I breath it in, smiling without meaning to. Feeling welcomed into a place I've never been, and where I couldn't survive on my own for more than a week, I am filled with silent prayers of thanksgiving, even as the among the actors and crew turns toward the tasks at hand, and the work of the day begins.
Back in Lexington, I feel a kind of sadness. I'm glad to be home. Close to the Y and the people I love. But sad, too. Sad that I couldn't share those beautiful moments with Martha. Sad that as a city boy, I will never really be at home in the mountains. Mum sent me a message this morning. "Back to reality." She's right, I guess. I'm back to the reality of bills and debts and housekeeping and insurance payments. But there is also love here. Friends. The people who come to my exercise classes. The kids who run with me. The healing work that continues in my mind and soul. Reality isn't all bad.
But there is reality in the hollows, too. There is light that melts away darkness. There are fences to maintain and lives to honor and care for. And always there is the land, the rich earth that covers the mountains and feeds every living thing in them. The Appalachians are the breasts of God. They feed me and inspire me like no other place in this beautiful world. One of our actors, a beautiful young woman whom I've had the joy of watching grow up for most of her life, was leaving the shoot to board a train to move to New York City. She is following the dream that so many of us have followed. Talking with her, sharing her excitement and nervous anticipation, I remembered my own move to "The City," many years ago. When we parted, I kissed her forehead and blessed her, and before I left, I gave her my only advice.
"Hold this day in your heart. This is a special place. Sometime, you're going to need it."
I hope she has the sense to listen to a foolish old man. Days in the mountains are worth holding onto.
I know I'm sure going to try to hold onto mine.