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 soon, 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 their efforts in a number of ways. They are teaching 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 good choices on their local store shelves. Think about all the processed food options. Many are forced to eat unhealthy food and growing sick because of it. LHA is teaching people how to eat healthy and make the right food choices, despite these challenges.

There are cultural barriers, too. Many people who live in distressed regions of the country hate seeing a doctor. Here where I live, residents have a thirty-three percent chance of being diagnosed with diabetes. 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.

Poor choices happen in urban areas too. Without the right food options, the friendly dollar stores are the only place to turn. Whether it was Cleveland or West Virginia, I spent a lot of time walking up and down convenience store aisles deciding what to make out of boxed pastas or canned foods. A lot of the mom-and-pop diners or small-town festivals serve up high-caloric foods with lard or saturated fats. LHA and other advocates across the country really want to change that.

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 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 at a party or on occasion, but vegetables are now the main source of nutrition for me.

I am aware of every single thing 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 to visit new areas of Appalachia. I love the outdoor bluegrass festivals and music along the Ohio River. These events really bring people together. It feels like summer began in April here in southeastern Ohio. We’ve had so many days of clear beautiful skies and ultra sunny days.

Yet the days are changing, indeed. I still can’t believe it’s been five years since I left my home in Cleveland for a different style of life. In 2014, I completed my master’s degree and looked for a new home in the country so I could study rural development. I was happy to give up the busy urban highways for the snail pace of “four lanes” and crooked village roads. I can’t say I miss my old cubicle life or being shoved into a corner office, the commutes along Route 77, or Cleveland rush hour. These days, I spend so much time working out of my office on a farm, so when I do drive, every drive is like a landscape of watercolors. There is nothing to complain about, even when I get stuck behind a horse and buggy in Chesterhill.

I’ve seen a lot of country roads this summer. To celebrate my five-year anniversary of this new life, 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. As I continued my way further south, I met up with some friends near the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, cooled off near the waterfall trails of South Carolina, and visited the final resting place of Martin Luther King, Jr. I had a chance to rest on Memorial Day before taking a three-day class at Emory University.

When it was time to head home, I camped along the Great Smoky Mountains, hiked some more sections of the AT and stumbled upon 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.