“Welcome to Whitesburg. Home of 1,534 friendly people and 2 grouches.”
That’s the sign that greeted my best friend, Whitney, and I as we drove into town for brunch this past Saturday while on our annual camping trip in Eastern Kentucky. For me, it perfectly and succinctly captures the charm of small town America.
Whit and I have been going to the Pine Mountain Tacky Lawn Ornament and Pink Flamingo Soiree for the better part of 10 years, but this was the weird little festival’s 29th event. (Actually, the T-shirts say 29rd, but that’s a whole other story; one of many inside jokes.)
The Soiree, always on the weekend closest to the full moon in August, is nearly indescribable, but I did my best to give a loyalist’s overview last year. You can read that post here.
This year, I was glad to have my wingman and travel companion back, and we stayed for three nights instead of two. It was not the worst trip I’ve ever taken to the mountains (there is no worst, actually), but it could’ve been better.
For one thing, it fucking RAINED nearly the whole weekend. We had a short break on Friday and Saturday afternoons, but even when it wasn’t pouring, everything felt damp. I mean everything. We had shelter in our rustic cabin and other covered areas on the mountain, thankyoubabyJesus, but the moisture still managed to permeate every exposed surface and all of our belongings. If we had stayed any longer, my skin would have started to mold.
As a result of the weather, the crowd was smaller and subdued. This was not entirely a bad thing. Some years, the party has gotten WAY out of hand, which brings its own pall to the festivities. But you could just tell that the mood was generally more somber than past Soirees. Even our host, Jim, who is known to let loose with the most endearing snort-laugh you have ever heard, was uncharacteristically restrained.
Add to all that, I brought my own figurative baggage with me that weighed heavy on top of the rest of the gloom. See, last week I screwed something up that cost a client money (not a lot, but enough to be upsetting). I realized this error right before I left, but decided to put off addressing it. I figured it couldn’t get any better or suck any less by Monday.
Damned if I didn’t agonize about my faux pas all weekend, much to Whitney’s chagrin. I’m sure she was ready to smack the scowl off my face more than once. I don’t think I was acting like an outright bitch, but I’m sure I was less-than-pleasant to be around. We talked about it a few times (BFF therapy), and that helped.
(Side note: Once I finally did address my fuckup this morning, the client said: “No big deal.” Further proof I should have dealt with it sooner. SIGH.)
The final straw of my marginally crapass weekend was lack of sleep. Turns out I am no good at it anymore. It wasn’t the air mattress or the tepid, sticky air that kept me awake, but rather the late-night chatter and music of other campers. Nobody was ready to go to bed at a decent hour but me, apparently. Especially not the lone mandolin player who couldn't quite stay in tune. Oy.
Once I am asleep, I am dead to the world, but getting there isn’t easy, even with total silence in my own bed. I finally downloaded a white noise app on my phone that last night, and it made a huge difference. But by then, I was already too sleep-deprived to catch up.
Anyhoo, even though this was not my favorite Soiree, there was plenty to enjoy and celebrate, usually happening right around the time I plied myself with coffee and the clouds broke for a few minutes.
First, the drive to Eastern Kentucky is one of the most beautiful trips I have even taken. Not even storms could piss on that experience. It’s a journey dotted with double-wides, Pentecostal churches and roadside motels, all set against a backdrop lifted straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. Kudzu drapes the landscape like a green, wool blanket. I have never seen anything like it anywhere else.
Next, the self-proclaimed “Hillbilly National Guard” who attends the Soiree tells some of the best stories. Mama Bear Marlene talked about her experiences working for a high-end liquor store, when she came upon shiitake mushroom sauce. She laughed as she told us about when, not having seen that word before, she hollered out to her manager, “Where do you want this shit-take sauce?”
As always, I learned a few new things this weekend. The Soiree is also known as a “swarp,” which I discovered is an Appalachian term that either means “let loose and party” or “smack,” as in “swarp somebody upside the head.”
I also got a history lesson on some of the surrounding towns, and the property Jim owns on Pine Mountain. For example, the old sand quarry now dubbed Mars was a favorite spot for teenage “parkers” back in the 1960s. Jim apparently touched a girl’s girdle for the first time up there. Heehee.
There’s a running joke among the regulars that Jim is a hoarder, but you wouldn’t know it at first glance because he has so much space. I couldn’t help but notice all his new additions since 2013: discarded furniture, sports equipment and knick-knacks, many of them neon pink. Not knowing what you'll find on Jim's land is part of the fun. I mean,
what else would you expect at a place with its own Moot Point?
There was also a dismantled log cabin up on the flat, near the campsite called New York, that had been moved from another part of the mountain. The plan was for a group of us to rebuild it during Soiree weekend, but there wasn’t a long enough break in the rain. Oh, and an enigmatic character named Donnie, who supposedly had the plans to put it back together, never showed up. Kind of hard to erect a cabin without a blueprint, rain or not.
But I digress.
No, this year’s Soiree didn’t infuse me with quite the degree of peace and love it usually does, but I’m so glad I went. And of course, I’ll be back next year.
At one point this weekend, Jim remarked, “Mars is my favorite place on Earth,” which we found funny in the context of the story he was telling at the time. But the more I think about it, the more I have to agree.
Going to Mars on Pine Mountain is almost like going to another planet because it is so far from removed my regular life here in Louisville.
It may not really be outer space, but I can say with certainty that Mars is MY favorite part of THIS planet, anyway.
About Amy Higgs
A former newspaper columnist, Amy takes her random, slice-of-life stories to the web. After nine years, she's still just saying.