On this lovely Monday, I’m recovering from my annual trip to the mountains of Eastern Kentucky for the 28th annual Tacky Lawn Ornament & Pink Flamingo Soiree. I camped, hiked, laughed ‘til I cried, ran around in the pouring rain and got a total of about six hours of sleep in three days.
And I can’t stop smiling about it.
The Soiree is a festival of sorts, except it’s not. In fact, it’s impossible to adequately explain its appeal to those who have never been to that area of Pine Mountain in Whitesburg, Ky., for this particular weekend event. It’s an invitation-only shindig, and admission is $25 and a tacky lawn ornament. Another $10 will get you the event’s T-shirt, which is quite possibly the best souvenir EVER.
This year’s Soiree was unique for me for a couple of reasons. One, I made the trek without my usual camping buddy for the first time — my wingman, my BFF, Whitney. And two, this is the first year in which my one and only vice was caffeinated iced tea.
See, I quit smoking on the Monday after last year’s Soiree weekend, and it’s been almost four years since I put down the bottle.
Lemme just say that literally everyone else at the Soiree always has some form of liquor and, er, other things, well in hand. I may have been the only one with a clear head AND clear lungs all weekend.
Anyhoo, I attended my first Soiree in 2004, which would have been the 19th. It’s always held on the weekend closest to the full moon in August, and that year, there happened to be a blue moon that fell on my birthday, July 31/Aug. 1.
My first Soiree was such a blissful, serene experience that I still get goose bumps when I reminisce about it. It was my first-time tent camping, and this here cosmopolitan girl was immediately hooked. (Although, truth be told, it’s more like camping “lite.” Yes, you sleep outside, but there is a working toilet and shower nearby. And a plethora of electrical outlets in the woods, but I’ll get to that in a minute.)
How does a city girl end up consorting with hillbillies and hippies in the first place, you ask?
Back in ’04, my BFF, Whitney, was dating Shane, who lives in Louisville but grew up a few miles from the mountain. Shane’s mama, Becky, is good friends with Jim Webb (pictured at left), aka Wiley, who owns a good chunk of land atop Pine Mountain. It was Jim and his cohorts who started the Soiree 28 years ago. Shane has been attending the Soiree since he was a kid, and he is always eager to initiate newcomers to this one-of-a-kind experience.
Shane and Whitney broke up soon after that first Soiree, and he has since married a fabulous chica and had two kiddos with her, but Whitney and I continued our love affair with Jim’s portion of the mountain, officially called Wiley’s Last Resort.
Whitney and I have both missed two events each. She went without me one year, and we both missed the 2011 event because of her wedding. This year, Whitney’s duties to her new baby and a new job meant I had to make the trip without her for the first time.
Me flying solo was kind of a big deal, and I’m pretty proud of myself for not only surviving, but thriving on my own.
I mentioned earlier that I am a girlie girl, so I was happy to let Whitney handle all the details of our past trips. We used her tents and other gear, and I followed her lead on what to pack and where to camp. She was the Alpha in our relationship when we were on the mountain, and I was 100 percent fine with that. Whitney’s just a badass all around — she built an outhouse a few years ago that is now named after her.
No, the Soiree wasn’t the same without Whitney, and I missed her like crazy, but I still had a phenomenal time.
I was solo, but I was not alone by any stretch. There is a loyal contingent of self-described hillbillies who come to the Soiree every year. The welcome they offer makes me feel like I’m walking into a family reunion. One that I actually want to attend.
The minute the Soiree’s Mama Bear, Marlene, found out I was on my own this year, she scooped me up under her wing. She and her husband found a perfect campsite and pitched my tent in their little section of the woods in less than 10 minutes. (Camps are set up in various areas of the “resort” to resemble little villages; it’s very cool.)
Marlene, bless her heart, fed me all weekend, too. No hotdogs or trail mix shit, either. We had bacon and hash browns for breakfast, and pork barbecue, chicken and steak for dinner. I also met a guy new to the mountain this year who roasts his own coffee, and he was happy to share with everyone around him. It was like having a rural barista on the job all weekend.
Everyone on the mountain is deliriously happy. Some of that exhilaration can be attributed to the amount of imbibing done by the vast majority of Soiree patrons, but I truly believe the environment is the main factor as to why everyone I met and spoke with seemed at peace with the world, at least for those few days. It's just so dang PRETTY up there, you can't help but marvel at the majesty.
Wiley’s Last Resort is, ahem, a unique vacation spot, to say they least. Areas are named and marked with tongue-in-cheek signs. Hiking through the woods (which is practically mandatory), you’re likely to go up Faith Hill and wander through Tiger Woods, Gump Forrest, Muhammed Alley and wind up at my favorite spot, Moot Point. You can also camp on Mars or in New York, if you are so inclined.
There is live music all weekend, impromptu as well as on a stage, boating on a paddle boat or pontoon in small pond, and plenty of random, weird and wonderful conversations. Only in Eastern Kentucky could I discuss hog gutting with a 20-year-old woman who had no front teeth and a paunch of dip in her bottom lip. Her accent was so thick I didn’t catch most of the finer points she was trying to make, but I got the gist of it. Ew.
Oh, and there are so many lights strung between trees across the mountaintop that they put the North Pole at Christmas to shame. I doubt it’s up to code, but somehow, someone managed to wire the main section of the resort for electricity. (I plugged my phone charger into a power strip hanging from a tree near my tent, for example.)
And on Sunday, I helped with the big country breakfast that’s always offered to the hungover crowd. I sliced homegrown onions and tomatoes, and helped crack the 72 eggs that were scrambled in a 3-foot skillet over an open fire.
I can’t pinpoint exactly what it is about Pine Mountain that sates my soul. I just know that I look forward to the Soiree every year. I was a little concerned that I wouldn’t enjoy it as much sober as I did when I got shitfaced along with all the other guests, but I do. It’s a totally different experience, but still a true highlight of my year.
I think my love for the Soiree comes down to the amazing friends I see only once a year, many of whom I don’t even know their last names.
Yep, they are all decent, hardworking folks with good hearts and honest souls, who enjoy nature’s beauty and each other. And I love ‘em more 'n mah luggage.
Thanks for having me, y’all. Can’t wait to see you in 2014!
About Amy Higgs
A former newspaper columnist, Amy takes her random, slice-of-life stories to the web. After 10 years, she's still just saying.