I have been reading again my notes from a trip I made to see Gurney Norman in mid-July of 1965—forty years ago. Gurney was living then in Hazard, working for the Hazard Herald. I had known him for about nine years.
We first met when we were both students at the University of Kentucky in the spring of 1956; I was a senior and Gurney was a freshman. I had taken part one afternoon in an English Club panel discussion of the work of T. S. Eliot, a subject on which I was perfectly unqualified to speak in public. At the end of the meeting, this young student with a bur haircut, wearing an Army R. O. T. C. uniform, came up to me and said something like “Now tell me more about this poet T. S. Eliot.”
I remember that encounter probably because of my embarrassment, for I had already said all I knew about T. S. Eliot, plus some more. It would have been gratifying to respond to Gurney’s misplaced confidence with real erudition. I don’t remember what I said, but I hope it wasn’t much.
After that, I eventually learned from our mutual teacher and friend Robert Hazel that Gurney was a promising writer; I read (and still remember) one of his early stories in the campus magazine Stylus; and in various encounters we got to know each other a little. We wrote a few letters back and forth, and in the spring of 1964, when my family and I were returning from New York to Kentucky, we stopped at Gurney’s house in Hazard and spent the night.
But our actual friendship, which is to say our actual conversation, began with that July trip of mine in 1965. I drove up to Hazard on the 15th, a Thursday, got there in the middle of the afternoon, and found Gurney at work in the Hazard Herald office. He showed me around, gave me a quick lesson in typesetting, and sent me off to read and take a nap while he finished his day’s work.
That night we attended a tent revival that was a wonder of its kind. The next day and the next we drove the mountain roads and backroads; we looked and talked. When we needed to, we stopped the car and got out and looked closer and longer, and then we drove on, still talking. We went to Four Seam, Big Creek, Chester Cornett’s place on Troublesome Creek near Dwarf, to Bulan, Hardburley, Clear Creek, Hindman, and Whitesburg.
On the mountain above Hardburley we stood and looked at the first working strip mine I ever saw. It had never occurred to me that people could destroy land with an indifference that perfectly matched the capability of their technology. The big machines were following the seam of coal around the mountain, leaving a high vertical wall like an open sore on one side and on the other the “overburden” of earth and rock thrown regardlessly down upon the forest and the streams below.
We drove through valleys where human life had grown careless and half-hearted under the influence of the coal industry and its invariable ruination. We drove through other valleys spared so far the misfortune of coal, where the modest houses were painted and there were flowers in the dooryards and excellent vegetable gardens.
On the day I arrived, as it happened, a brave old man, Dan Gibson, had gone onto a strip mine that was threatening his grandson’s land. The grandson was at that time serving in Vietnam, protecting from Communism the right of the coal companies to ravage his homeland under the then-prevailing broad form deed. Dan Gibson had turned the bulldozers back with a squirrel rifle, he being past eighty, he said, and having nothing to lose by dying. He had then been arrested by thirteen state police, a sheriff, and two deputies, jailed, and released under a $2000 bond.
In response to that episode there was a meeting of the Appalachian Group to Save the Land and the People in the courthouse at Hindman on Friday night. Gurney and I went to the meeting, where he introduced me to Harry and Anne Caudill. We listened as Leroy Martin, spokesman for the Group, told the story of Dan Gibson’s heroism and his arrest. And then we heard Harry Caudill make a great talk in which he spoke of “the gleeful yahoos who are destroying the world and the mindless oafs who abet them.”
We walked a path up a mountainside to see the Ritchie family’s small house that had been shoved down the mountainside by the sliding “spoil” off a strip mine. On Saturday we talked a long time with Harry Caudill over lunch in a restaurant in Whitesburg, and we went to see Tom Gish, editor of the Mountain Eagle, whom I met then for the first time.
Those days and nights, as I said, were the real beginning of my conversation with Gurney. And that conversation, though many times interrupted, has not stopped in the forty years since. We have traveled many other days and nights in Eastern Kentucky, Gurney always serving as my faithful guide and interpreter, my Virgil, telling me what to see and what it meant, telling me the stories,his stories, that belong to the places we have gone—as I suppose I have served as his Virgil in our travels down here at the lower end, which is my end, of the Kentucky River.
The axis of our conversation has been this river. Its headwaters gave Gurney his formative experience and have kept his allegiance and attracted his thoughts all his life. My own life was formed and has been mostly lived down here near the mouth. We have spoken to each other from opposite ends of this gathering of water, I speaking upstream to Gurney, he downstream to me. We have driven the roads and walked the paths, telling each other our stories, sending up our laughter like a ceremonial smoke. Some stories we have told again and again, trying to tell them right and to have them rightly understood. The effect has been stereoscopic.
What has this conversation been worth? Well, try imagining an upstream or a downstream writer traveling alone, talking to himself.