As many of you already know, I am an avid environmentalist. I love the outdoors and will do whatever it takes to protect and preserve it. When doing research before our trip, I had read a lot about the mountaintop removal mining operations taking place throughout Kentucky and West Virginia, and their negative impact on the environment and surrounding communities. After looking at our Adventure Cycling Maps, I realized that Ryan and I would be cycling though some of the largest coal sites in Eastern Kentucky. The decision was made: we would pursue a story about the negative effects of the mountaintop removal technology and recognize those working towards a solution.
It was day 32, Ryan and I had 610 miles behind us, and we were about to cross the border into Kentucky, leaving the much beloved Virginia behind. We were ecstatic to FINALLY finish our first state, but we were also a little apprehensive about the dreaded “Eastern Kentucky.”
Just about every eastbound TransAm cyclists we’ve met on the trail in Virginia has had something to say about Eastern Kentucky. None of it was pleasant. Here are a few of the most common things we heard.
WARNING #1, DOGS…Apparently “Beware of Dog” signs aren’t even enough warning for these snarling, rabid demon-hounds with no agenda but rabie-fying cyclists.
WARNING #2, PEOPLE…These meth-ed up, toothless, shotgun-wielding hill-folk will do everything they can to threaten your ability to ride a bike comfortably through them thar parts.
WARNING #3, COAL TRUCKS…Holy shit if you’re lucky enough to only get hit by 14 or 15 of these things, then you got off better than 90% of most people who encounter these rage-wagons!
That being said, Ryan and I weren’t exactly excited about crossing into Kentucky that day, but we were looking forward to learning more about the controversial and highly debated coal country.
The first town we encountered in Kentucky was Elkhorn City, population of 1,060. The town looked pretty depressing. It reminded me of a village I once visited in Guatemala. Many of the buildings were abandoned, street signs had fallen over and there were stray cats and dogs hanging around dumpsters scavenging for food. We were both starving from the ride that day and on the hunt for something to eat. I was convinced that I would be shit-out-of-luck in finding anything vegetarian in the town, but I stayed optimistic. Our first attempt was a restaurant in the middle of town, but it was mostly burgers and fried chicken. Our second attempt was a Mexican restaurant. We saw the sign, but couldn’t find the building. Apparently, it burned down last winter. Our final attempt was a small diner on the outside of town called The Gold Ring.
We arrived at the diner and were greeted by Brenda, the waitress and cook at the Gold Ring Diner. She was incredibly nice and was excited to learn about our cycling trip, so excited in fact, that she decided to start a log book for cyclists traveling through. Brenda offered to make a special vegetarian salad for me, and even filled us in on a couple of free camping spots in the town. After our meal we decided to find a campsite by the river bank where Brenda had recommended. We packed up our bikes, thanked her, and made our way to the river.
There was a storm rolling in that night, so Ryan and I were very particular about finding a safe spot away from any trees. We found a decent place right by the river and began to unload our bikes, but before we could take off our first bag a truck came speeding down toward us. It passed by us and parked right by the river in front of a large group of geese and ducks. A man quickly jumped out, grabbed something from the back seat and threw it towards the birds. Confused, Ryan and I just watched the man while he scooped and threw, what looked like cat food, down the river’s bank. My curiosity was killing me, so I decided to go ask why this guy was feeding birds in the middle of the night.
His name was David Ramey, and his is reason for feeding the ducks at 10:30 at night was “because they need something to eat.” Every single night David rides around Elkorn City and Belcher and feeds the stray cats, dogs, and geese. “I spend about $1,500 a month on cat and dog food,” he told us. David has loved animals all his life and it hurts him to see them running the streets homeless and hungry. We talked to David by the river for about 20 minutes, until he asked us where we planned on sleeping. He didn’t think camping with a storm coming through would be safe, so he offered us his vacant camper for the night, which was parked next to his welding shop a few miles outside of Elkorn City in a small town called Belcher. He then offered us a ride in his truck (don’t panic this ride took us off route, therefor it wasn’t cheating). Ryan and I were pretty set on camping that night, but for some reason we immediately liked this guy and wanted to get to know him more. “Sure, why not!”, we replied. We threw our bikes and ourselves in the bed of his truck and off we went into the darkness just as the first rain drops started falling. Ryan and I just looked at each other and laughed.
David Ramey has to be Kentucky’s sweetest mechanic. He specializes in welding and mostly works on coal and gravel trucks. Belcher lies in the heart of coal country, and just about everyone who lives there is in some way involved with the coal industry. “I just don’t know what we would do without it,” David told us. Since he was 19, David has worked in and around the coal industry. He started as a miner working inside the mine, and after ten years he grew tired of it and decided he wanted to drive the trucks. Learning just about everything there is to know about trucks, he began repairing them, which is what he continues to do today.
We decided to spend a couple days with David. We wanted to learn more about his story and watch him repair a 16-wheel Mack truck. While welding a spring underneath the truck, David began to explain, “a truck is like a human. It has blood pressure that needs to be fixed. The fun part is finding the issue and having to problem solve.”
We spent the entire day with David while he worked on the 16-wheeler. He talked about what it was like working in the mines and even drove us up to an old site outside of town. He talked a lot about coal and how much the town depends on it. He went on to talk about the negative impact the coal industry has on the environment and agreed that something needed to be done to protect the land and wildlife, but not at the expense of the peoples’ way of life. With a look of deep concern he turned to us and said, “We really need to work together and meet in the middle somewhere.” I began to understand what David was telling me, and for the first time I was able to see the coal issue from the other side.
After our quick field trip to the mine, David treated us to lunch at his favorite local spot and invited us to ride along with him while performed his nightly ritual of feeding the town’s hungry animals. It was crazy! We must have driven around for an hour to a dozen different locations, leaving cat and dog food by dumpsters, lakes, railroads and guard rails. Our last stop ended up being by the river where we first met David feeding the geese and ducks. We filmed him as he stood there with a big smile on his face, while he threw loaves of bread and cat food out to the birds. For the first time that day, David looked relaxed and truly happy.
Although I may not agree with the coal industry and the practice of mountaintop removal or coal mining, I think that it is absolutely essential to the people of Belcher and the surrounding areas. Without miners, truck drivers, and local businesses benefiting from the workers’ traffic, these people wouldn’t have homes or jobs to sustain their lives. It’s easy to see why a lot of these people continue to live and be happy working in what can be a controversial field, but I think I can say that I am glad that I was able to meet people involved with coal and put a face on the industry of which I only had a negative perspective. I’ve learned that it’s much easier to disagree with something when you don’t know anyone involved, but now that I know that there are selfless and kindhearted people like David Ramey out there who do this kind of work and rely on it, then maybe we should work together to try and come up with a solution that doesn’t harm the environment or put people out of jobs and threaten their livelihood.