I grew up on a farm in a holler in a small town called Tollesboro. As a child I explored the woods and creeks around my family home and pretended I was exploring the world. I dreamed of moving some place exciting where I could meet lots of people and have a whole bunch of sophisticated experiences. The books I read voraciously shaped what I imagined those sophisticated experiences would be.
When I left Tollesboro to attend Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Kentucky, I felt like I was on my way to making those imaginings real. I could take walks at midnight under the streetlights while enjoying the moon and the stars. There was always someone to talk to and meet on campus. Going downtown to whole streets of bars where I could dance the night away gave me a sense of what I envisioned as the city life, at least at the time.
While at Eastern, I also discovered The Pinnacles, a wonderful hiking experience in Berea, Kentucky. It’s not as famous as places like Natural Bridge or Red River Gorge, but it offers beautiful views and tends to be much less crowded. There are even little alcoves just off the trail where one can find a private moment to enjoy the view with relatively little interruption.
On a recent visit to Kentucky, my attempts for nostalgia were met with the progress time brings. While much of campus remains, much has also changed. The streets filled with bars had been converted to buildings housing family court services. The Pinnacles had changed so much I barely recognized the trail and couldn’t be sure if I found my favorite perch.
We often think everything we leave behind stays just the way we left it…
A few years ago while doing research for a novel, I visited the Kentucky Horse Park and Cumberland Falls, two popular Kentucky destinations, because my characters will visit both. I wanted to refresh my memory because it had been years since I’d visited either.
I spent a day by myself at the Kentucky Horse Park touring the grounds and looking at the history of the horse, seeing horses in shows representing myriad cultures, and reengaging with the relationship between horse and human as seen from the human perspective. As I walked around this park dedicated to celebrating the horse and looked into the eyes of horses in the pastures and the stables, I, perhaps for the first time, wondered if the horse would describe the relationship in the same way...
The next day a close friend from college and her daughters accompanied me to Cumberland Falls. Carved into the middle of a forest, Cumberland Falls stands as an undeniable example of the power of nature. I stood next to the waterfall and stared at it feeling a bit discombobulated, I barely noticed when my friend and her daughters stepped quietly away. I stared at a waterfall I’d seen a couple of times prior in my life, but it felt different somehow. I couldn’t quite figure out why it didn’t match the waterfall in my memory. As I relaxed into the moment and released the memory, I saw the beauty and heard the power of the water crashing over the fall and splashing back up.
There’s a sense every time I return to Kentucky that nothing has changed yet everything is different. I see it in the faces and the rolling hills. I recognize it in small towns clinging to yesterday and horse farms lost to new development. I feel it in relationships that have changed even though the affection remains. I hear it in the words spoken and the ones that go unspoken.
Growing up I longed to leave Kentucky, and I did, but Kentucky has a hold on my heart that never lets go. It repeatedly pulls me back and reminds me who I am at my core. My writing is informed by Kentucky more than any other place I’ve lived or visited. My descriptions of place tend to reflect my place of my birth.
I want to close with a poem I wrote several years ago when I was feeling particularly nostalgic for the Kentucky of my youth. It appears in my book of poetry, Memory in Silhouette.
Memories of Kentucky Summers
The lush green hills of Kentucky
Humidity-laced, tobacco- scented air
Sunshine casting a blue tint on grass
Fields of corn waltzing in the air
Horses grazing lazily
Tails swatting flies from their backs
Cattle wading belly deep in a cool pond
Long, hot days in the fields
Trying to look attractive in shorts and bikini tops
Sweat trickling between breasts
Picking green beans, tomatoes, and blackberries
Hoeing fields of tobacco
Preserving garden food for winter
Swimming in the local creek
Exploring the woods around the house
Softball at the old vacant red brick school
Drive-in movies with friends
Passing notes about boys during church
Sundays playing cards at Grandma and Grandpa’s house
Friends and family wandering in and out of the game
Talk of crops, rain, and gardens
Catching up on the latest news and gossip
Laughter amidst hard work
Kentucky summers growing up
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T. L. Cooper is an author and poet whose work aims to empower and inspire through an exploration of the human condition. Her poems, short stories, articles, and essays have appeared online, in books, and in magazines. Her published books include a collection of short stories, Soaring Betrayal, her Silhouette Poetry Series, and a novel, All She Ever Wanted. She grew up on a farm in Tollesboro, Kentucky. When not writing, she enjoys yoga, golf, hiking, and traveling. She currently lives in Albany, Oregon with her husband and three cats.
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