October 18, 2004: The clouds were thick and gray as I sped southwest down Interstate 64 that fall day. My entire eight-hour trip seemed to be variations on a theme, and unfortunately, the theme was gloom. Carcass-strewn roads; thick, oppressive fogs; desolate, lonely highways—I saw it all that day. But as I passed the Ashland Oil smoke stacks that line the eastern border of Kentucky, an amazing thing happened: the skies cleared up. Blue skies were finally above me, and the sun shone over the entire Kentucky landscape. Green here, autumnal accents of orange and crimson there, the rolling hills of Kentucky stretched before me for miles. And I wept. For release, for relief, for love, I sobbed.
For the first time in my life, I truly believed in Kentucky.
I moved to Pennsylvania in the summer of 2004 to begin my time as an English graduate student after living my entire twenty-four years of life in Lexington, Kentucky. At that time, I was frantic to get away—away from everything—and start my life on my own. I was determined not to stay in my hometown for the rest of my life. I had even come to resent Kentucky as an ever-present threat of self-stagnation. So I cut ties with Kentucky and moved away. Yet, now, against all odds, I believe in Kentucky.
I remember summer mornings at Pine Mountain State Park in southeastern Kentucky, where my family vacationed when I was young. The atmosphere was always heavy and calm with the still-resting mountain clouds; croaking frogs and drilling woodpeckers were the only sounds to greet me as I breathed deeply of air tinged with the earthy, slightly bitter scent of fallen beechnuts. I remember forging my way through the glossy green leaves and pinkish-white blossoms of rhododendrons to the top of the mountain where blueberries—the mountain’s treasures—awaited me.
When I took time off from school after college, my job required a thirty-minute commute to a small town called Midway. I remember taking the winding back roads to work, simply so I could pass through the scenic horse country that radiates out from Lexington on all sides. I would meander down narrow roads, bordered on both sides by Kentucky’s trademark limestone fences, a canopy of sturdy sycamore and hickory trees filtering the sun so that the asphalt below me was charged with glittering, golden movement.
These are the scenes that pass through my mind now when I think about Kentucky. But it took me time to appreciate them, to really believe they had any power.
I’ve learned a lot in my twenty-eight years. I’ve learned that growing up is hard, really hard. I’ve learned that love doesn’t always last, even when you want to think it will. I’ve learned that I’ll sometimes be lonely and that I’ll often feel out of place.
But I’ve also learned that I’m never out of place in Kentucky. I’ve learned that, aside from my loved ones who live there, Kentucky itself holds power for me. Slowly, I’ve been able to build a home for Kentucky within me, but Kentucky has always been more generous. Although it took me a while to realize it, I now know that Kentucky always did and always will offer me a home. Welcoming me back no matter how long I stay away, Kentucky gives me comfort, solace, a sense of belonging. And for this, I believe in Kentucky.
Angela Ward currently lives in State College, Pennsylvania, where she is a restaurant manager. She graduated from University of Kentucky before earning her MA in English from Pennsylvania State University. She composed this essay while teaching there—when she asked her students to write This I Believe essays for an assignment, they challenged her to do the same.
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