Brad Paisley warbles that you’ll never leave Harlan alive. At the beginning of this March, my Alternative Spring Break service trip traveled to the area depicted on FX’s popular series, “Justified,” where jaw-dropping mountains, hard-nosed Southern charm, and rusted remains of a formerly dominant coal-mining industry meet in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains.
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We spent the school year learning about rural poverty in Appalachia, but it wasn’t until we got there that we realized the realities behind the rust.
In our short stay, we had the privilege to be welcomed by families living in the area. The Lankfords were one such family.
Danny Lankford and his wife, Rita, have been fighting cancer and bankruptcy in Harlan County, Kentucky. Ever since Danny was laid off from the coal mines, they have had a continuing string of troubles. Nine years ago a mining company bought out the couple’s previous home and they were forced to relocate their residence. A diagnosis of prostate cancer forced Danny into retirement from city work. Just two years later Rita was diagnosed with colon cancer, adding to their financial strain.
Danny lists these calamities nonchalantly, as if they are just a part of life in Harlan. Danny and Rita’s story is complex. Many members in the community share their struggles, where the remnants of a once-booming industry remain destructive to the environment and the lives of residents living in the valleys.
“The industrial revolution in America of manufacturing is over with,” Lankford said. “It’s been over with here for a long time. We’ve basically been left out, left behind. We don’t really count no more.
“We can survive. That’s what the people in Appalachia been doing before coal came, they survived.”
Despite the circumstances, Danny is perfectly content doing just that; surviving. As he looked off his deck into his own mountain ‘paradise,’ he explained that he has no desire to ever leave Harlan, alive or dead.
“At this age, you can’t make no dreams come true, just live out the ones you made,” he said.
SECOND: Danny and Rita traded home cooked meals and conversation for our work repainting and sprucing up the interior of their home.
THIRD: Danny and Rita’s daughter recently underwent a divorce from her abusive husband. Her husband was a nurse, and Danny claims the desensitization to violence might have been a factor in his actions.
FOURTH: The last day we visited, all of the puppies but the runt, Minnie, had found new homes.
FIFTH: Danny stands on his porch in front of one of the many postings of the Ten Commandments around the house.
SIXTH: Faith is heavily relied on in the region, churches were seemingly more common than grocery stores on the mountain highways.
SEVENTH: The Lankford’s dog, Chanel, unexpectedly had puppies ten weeks before our visit. The Lankford’s were taking care of seven other dogs in addition to the new puppies.
EIGTH: Danny claims that his concoction of moonshine, eucalyptus, and peppermint will knock out any sickness.
NINTH: Rita and Danny care for a house of animals as their company.