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On the Road with Barry – Jellico, TN

Day One

James walking with a white caneThe lesser airline reared its ugly head again this morning. But despite their best efforts, I still got to Knoxville well before dark just as I’d hoped. I’ve got about a two-hour drive, and I don’t like doing that kind of thing, especially in the dark and uncharted territory. I’m on the way to Jellico, Tennessee this week, a small town right on the Kentucky border, due north of Knoxville. I’m staying in Williamsburg, Kentucky, just north of the border, because I couldn’t find any positive reviews about the one hotel in Jellico.

Jellico, Williamsburg, and all surrounding areas are in the Cumberland Mountains and it’s a beautiful drive. I’m also reading a book about Daniel Boone, “Blood and Treasure” by Drury and Clavin. If you don’t already know, one of the many things Boone is famous for is leading settlers through the Cumberland Gap and expanding American territory into Kanta-ke. Kanta-ke was once a “forty-thousand-square-mile game park where all native Americans might hunt and trap, but none might erect a permanent town or village at the risk of brutal war. This included white men.” According to the authors, Boone was unaware of this unofficial pact between the native Americans, but that can be debated at another time. Regardless of the reasons for who, how, where and/or why, this is another beautiful area of the country in which I have been blessed to travel. Thanks, Leader Dog!

Day Two

I’m here to see James, a retired postal worker who has been losing his vision to a disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa, which attacks the peripheral vision first and sometimes results in total blindness. It also makes travelling in low-light situations very difficult. James’s remaining vision in the center part of his eyes is useful but blurry. Very, very frustrating to say the least.

James hasn’t had any formal training, but his mother’s husband made him a cane out of some kind of beautiful wood with a plastic tip. It’s exactly the same length as the cane I brought for him! People like James who have had no formal training just figure things out. That is if they decide to move on with their lives, as James has done.

I probably say something similar every time I write, but getting out of the house and moving around independently with limited or no vision is one of the absolute bravest things people can do. There are so many people who don’t even try. James, other clients at Leader and other people in similar institutions are motivated to the point of doing something about their situation. It’s inspiring to me. Every time.

James takes to the cane pretty quickly and he uses it to walk the road between his and his mother’s house. After we head over to Lafollette, Tennessee to work in an area in which James travels regularly. The sidewalk is pretty crowded, and James learned just how handy the cane can be. We made it down to a light-controlled intersection to talk about traffic patterns then headed back towards home.

We stopped to eat before we got all the way back and I had a fried bologna sandwich. The bologna was almost as thick as a hockey puck and fried to perfection. Perfection. They sell slices of homemade cakes in the restaurant as well, and while I didn’t partake, one of the fellas sitting close to us did. I swear, it was a quarter of a cake! This was the biggest individual piece of cake I’ve ever seen served in public. Or privately. I can’t emphasize just how large this piece of cake was.

Day Three

James’ mom baked me a cake! This is a first! I mean, birthday cakes have been made specifically for me, but she baked me a cake just to say, “thank you”. The first day I met her she made what I thought was an off-hand comment about baking me a cake. I laughed it off and said something about how I would never turn down a cake. I got to James’s house this morning and he invited me in to see the cake his mother made for me. Whatever diet I planned on keeping during my stay will now include cake! So overwhelming, really. A very gracious thing to do. So, James’ mom, thank you again. It is/was delicious!

A wall mural that says "welcome to Harland Sanders Cafe and Museum the birthplace of the original recipe"

James and I headed to Corbin, Kentucky today. Corbin is where James’ primary care doctor is, it is also where he goes to shop for clothes and shoes and the home of the original Kentucky Fried Chicken. One Harland Sanders opened a gas station in Corbin in 1930 and started serving dinner to draw in more customers as the Great Depression wore on. In 1931, he moved across the street, switched from Shell Oil to Pure Oil and built a larger dining room. This and the final rendering of those eleven herbs and spices signaled the demise of more chickens than can be counted.

James and I spent the majority of our time on Main Street in Corbin, a long, straight, busy street. Main Street is populated with local shops and every other street is controlled by a light. The remaining streets were controlled by stop signs. James picked up on the street crossing business and was crossing like a pro before we were done. Learning to evaluate intersection patterns is a key ingredient to independent travel because once you’ve determined how the intersection is controlled you can figure out the safest times to get across. James is well on his way.

On our way out of town, we stopped for a late lunch at A&W. Not the fast-food restaurant with which you might be familiar, this was a drive-in that was so busy it looked like someone kicked an anthill. After we were accosted for not parking in the right spot (by other consumers, not the staff), we found a great spot and ordered homemade root beers, hamburgers and hot dogs. A great way to end the day. I’m heading back to the hotel to eat cake.

Day Four

We spent time in Jellico today, where James does some shopping, and at Indian Mountain State Park, where James spent a lot of time as a child. Jellico rests in Elk Creek Valley, amid the Cumberland Mountains and was founded in 1873. It was originally called Smithburg but was changed to Jellico to capitalize on the high-quality bituminous coal discovered in the area. James called it “blue Jim” and said the coal itself was so black it was almost blue. The name Jellico is a derivative of the word “angelica” which is an herb that is prominent in the surrounding Jellico mountains. When I drive with the windows open there’s a sweet smell in the air. I wonder if it’s angelica.

James is getting really confident with his cane and continues to tell me how he would otherwise be all bruised up without it. He’s holding his head up so much now that I didn’t have to remind him one time about it. I’m sure I write about it often, but holding your head up is very important for straight-line travel, balance and posture. James told me on Tuesday that his neck was sore from holding his head up more than he had in a long time.

Honestly, there wasn’t much to do in downtown Jellico as far as complex street crossings go but we did get some good practice at the state park. There’s a trail around a large pond there and James was able to stride out and walk confidently. I learned that he is a baseball fan as well and we talked about his plans to see his team, the Braves, play in Cincinnati later this summer. Great American Ballpark is one I haven’t visited yet so I’m pre-emptively jealous of his upcoming trip. The walk around the pond was not challenging but still an important part of life. Getting out in good weather and walking for enjoyment or exercise is an integral part of a well-rounded life, right? Being able to do that with confidence is a really big deal.

We’re going to work later in the day tomorrow as James has an appointment. Another benefit of the home delivery option: it affords us the opportunity to work in low lighting. As I discussed earlier, RP causes night blindness so traveling in the dark can be challenging. There are no new skills to discuss for night travel but it is usually more of a confidence issue. Do you really trust that your cane and cane skills will locate obstacles in your path without being able to detect them with your remaining vision? I believe that James does possess this trust, which is why we’re doing it. I wouldn’t ask any of my clients to do something that I truly believed they couldn’t do. I betcha I’m proven right tomorrow evening.

Day Five

I took advantage of our late start time today and drove over to Middlesboro, Kentucky to see the Cumberland Gap. It was only 30-ish miles away but took over an hour as the road must have been mapped by a blind priest on a drunk mule. Or maybe the priest was drunk, and the mule was blind, I’m not sure. Anyway, the road was not straight, but it sure was pretty. Pinnacle Mountain is officially in Virginia, and this is where Cumberland Gap National Park is located. At the viewing area on top, you can see three states: Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and the actual Cumberland Gap. I was up above the clouds, and it was just a beautiful view. I saw all there was to see, as far as I know.

I had another cheeseburger at another drive-in, (Conley’s in Middlesboro. Highly recommend) and made it back to James’ house in time for the afternoon lesson.

James’ mother was there, and she showed me pictures of her visit/tour to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. It’s a museum now and is most famous for housing James Earl Ray, the man convicted of assassinating Dr. Martin Luther King. He, of course, said he didn’t do it, that some guy named Carlos actually pulled the trigger. But he also said that he did do it. His own lawyers stated that the only time they knew for sure if he wasn’t lying was if his lips weren’t moving. A real piece of work, that guy. He escaped Brushy Mountain and was caught four days later by non-barking coonhounds, which I find fascinating. He died of syphilis, probably from a blood transfusion received after getting stabbed nearly to death. Prison is a bad place. We would all do well to avoid it at all costs.

James and I did some work in downtown Williamsburg, then at the Walmart where he does the majority of his grocery shopping. We discussed shopping techniques then he practiced pulling the basket with one hand and using his cane in the other. It sounds a bit cumbersome, and maybe it is at first, but with a little practice James was doing really well. He and his mother usually do their grocery shopping together, but he feels confident enough to do it on his own now.

We practiced more street crossings downtown and got some Juno work in. Juno is working with an empty harness to simulate guide dog travel. He enjoyed it but admitted that working a dog would take a lot of work and concentration. He’s exactly right: It IS a lot of work. Some folks believe that they just hold on to the harness and the dog takes them where they want to go when in actuality, the dog will only get you lost faster if you don’t know where you’re going.

Day Six

James’ mother and her friend Gary cooked us breakfast this morning. Homemade biscuits-and-gravy, eggs, bacon, and pork chops. I may never leave here. Gary grew up in Jellico and he regaled me with story after story about the area. His mother, Gary’s mother, learned to cook chicken from Harland Sanders, Colonel Sanders himself! Now, she already knew how to fry chicken, but learned how to do it the Colonel’s way. He tried to hire her, but she chose to stay with her current employer. She did teach him how to make the coleslaw that KFC still uses today. How about that? I don’t know who taught Gary to make those biscuits, but they, alone, were enough to keep him around! Did I mention that he made homemade blackberry and strawberry jam? The area in which he collected the blackberries was shared by a bear! You gotta really want blackberries! They gifted me a jar of blackberry and strawberry jam. I’m not sure how I’m gonna get ‘em past TSA, but I’m going to try my best.

James and I, after our hearty breakfast, took a drive over to LaFollette, the city in which we started our training on Monday. I wanted to show James what a difference a week of training makes. He breezed through the narrow, crowded sidewalks that gave him some trouble on Monday. Then he crossed a street three times, one which he had declined to cross on Monday because it made him too nervous. Just a great way to finish out the week, slaying a dragon. Very nice way to wrap things up. Now, I’ve got the rest of the day to figure out how to get that jam back to Texas…

I’m headed to a couple of camps on my next two trips. One is just a day in Houston for me, talking to kids about mobility options. The other is our week-long camp on campus at Leader. It’s been March since I was there and I’m looking forward to being back on campus.