The Back Roads of Summer

I am looking out at the warm sun outside my window, reflecting on some words I need to write. It’s time to water the garden before the sun reaches its boiling point.

Decisions and plans are piling up and it appears that things got busy and my blog took a backseat. The autumn leaves I kicked around in my last post went on a fast-forward to harbingers of spring, miles of faraway trails, and 50-year celebrations of the river I grew up on.

I had time to pick up some new projects. After my drive to Bennington, Vermont last summer, I connected with a solar installer at Thanksgiving and wrote a couple of USDA REAP grants. Both grants were funded during the spring round and it was exciting to see my efforts make their way to the Maple Sugar state. My streak continues in Ohio, and with 8 winning awards, REAP has become a really solid niche for me. I work on these grants in partnership with Rural Action, a regional nonprofit that took over the sustainability projects started by UpGrade Ohio.

In addition to USDA projects, I also started working with a nonprofit called Live Healthy Appalachia. LHA has a unique set of programs built around plant-based nutrition education. I have witnessed the success of these efforts as they teach folks in rural areas how to eat better and live healthier lives.

The problem is, there are food deserts all across America, which the USDA defines as “no car and no food” within a mile of your home. This means a lot of people have to drive really far to find healthy food, which can happen in urban areas too. Think about all of the processed food you find at a dollar store when there is no grocery store in sight. LHA is teaching people how to eat better, despite the lack of food choices in these communities. Lots of fresh food is grown here, yet many people who don’t have a garden or farm still have a long way to drive to find fresh fruits and vegetables.

There are cultural barriers you would never even consider if you live in rich neighborhoods. Many people who live in distressed regions of the country don’t often see a doctor, due to lack of money and transportation barriers. Without the right food options, the friendly dollar store is the only place to turn. Plus, a lot of low-cost diners and small-town festivals serve up all kinds of cheap, fried foods. Here where I live, residents have a thirty-three percent chance of being diagnosed with diabetes.

This made me want to research the kind of work LHA was doing. In my effort to learn the science behind plant-based food, I gave up my Greek yogurt and most of the snacks I have eaten for more than five decades. By mid-January, I cleared my freezer of every meat product I owned and made a few lifestyle adjustments. In a couple of months, I lost more than eight pounds. I have a lot more energy and feel better than ever. I still treat myself to cake on occasion, but vegetables are now my main source of food.

I know what I eat now, thanks to the research I learned through Live Healthy Appalachia. I tell everyone I know to watch a documentary called Forks Over Knives, or read a couple of studies written by nutrition experts. I guarantee your life will be transformed.

Outside of taking better care of myself, I am taking advantage of the beautiful weather this summer and traveling the open road. I love the outdoor bluegrass festivals and river towns in Ohio. It feels like summer began here in April, we’ve had so many days of clear beautiful skies and ultra sunny days.

When I think about how I live now, I still can’t believe it’s been five years since I left my home in northeast Ohio. In 2014, I completed my master’s degree and looked for a new home in the country so I could study rural poverty and community development. I was happy to give up the busy urban highways for the snail pace of “four lanes” to travel the crooked village roads. I don’t miss my old cubicle life or the predictability of a work week. These days, I spend so much time working out of a rural office on a farm, that when I do drive into town, I take note of the changing landscape. Nothing to complain about here, even when I get stuck behind a road closure or a horse and buggy in Chesterhill. These roads are simply a far cry from the construction cones I see along I-77 or when I travel 270 into Columbus.

I’ve seen a lot of country roads this summer. To celebrate my five-year life far from the city, I packed up my car for a three-week trip to nowhere, just like I did in 2014. This time, I left Athens in mid-May and headed south into Charleston, West Virginia. I camped out with some friends near the Appalachian Trail, then checked out the annual Trail Days festival. I continued my route south, cooling off near some waterfall trails in South Carolina, then visited the final resting place of Martin Luther King, Jr. on Memorial Day. I stayed for three days near Atlanta and took a class at Emory University.

When it was time to head home, I camped my way through the Great Smoky Mountains, hiked some more sections of the AT, and found my way through the Cumberland Gap. Just before I headed east to Athens, I made an unplanned visit to Inez, Kentucky to see the place where it all began.

There is so much more to say about this trip. Until then, I added a few more photos to my album on Appalachia.