Aircraft—Big Sandy unicom…Piper…7…8…7…Bravo…Charlie…10 miles to the north…inbound for landing…
Unicom—Winds 250 at 6 knots…favoring runway 2…1…no other reported traffic…
Look to the Hills
During the start of the pandemic general aviation, like everything else, took a big hit. No one was flying, there was no where to go, even the medical flights stopped because hospitals weren’t transferring patients to save space for the possible overflow. My daughter, Lauren, had to close Cloud 9 Cafe, at the airport, and everyone had to sign-up on unemployment. I should have signed up, too, but I really didn’t want to close the airport in case it was needed for emergencies. I would sit there every day reading, cutting grass and watching the sky. It was a boring time.
One evening, my wife, Rossalene, and I drove over to Wendy’s in Paintsville to get some take-out. While eating in their parking lot, which is next to YPK Motorsports, I asked her what she thought about us buying a side-by-side. I said, “When I worked for Martin County Coal I used to like to walk in the hills for exercise. I think I would enjoy riding in the hills, do you think you would like doing that? At the very least it would be something safe to do during this pandemic.”
Rossalene said, “The gate is open, let’s go look at them, I think I would like doing that.”
We looked at several four seat side-by-sides, I didn’t think they made anything bigger, but Rossalene asked the salesman, “We have four grandchildren, do you have anything that will seat 6?”
He said, “I have a Polaris Ranger crew cab, you can take all four babies with you on this machine when you ride.”
I could tell by the look on Rossalene’s face that we would be buying the crew cab if we got one. She liked the idea of all of us riding together. I called some of my fiends who own side-by-sides and asked their advice and the following day I owned a Polaris Crew Cab.
I had never been on a side-by-side or four wheeler, I have many friends who own them and ride in the hills but I had never taken the time to go on a ride with them. After getting it home, I practiced a little, then we invited the grandkids to go for a ride. We rode to the Martiki property and then over to Wolf Creek and up Maynard Fork. We had prepared a lunch and we picnicked on Maynard Fork and let the grandkids wade in the creek.
I could quickly see why people enjoy those side-by-sides so much. You get to enjoy nature and it’s really good family fun, we were hooked after just one ride. Rossalene loved taking pictures of the wildflowers and the beautiful scenery. I enjoyed the adventure of exploring our beautiful hills and ‘hollers’, places I had never been before.
After taking a few rides I told Rossalene, “I have people who fly into Big Sandy from Ohio, Indiana and other places, just to eat at the Cloud 9, I know these same people would love to see what we are seeing. Most of these people are from ‘flat land’ they have never been ‘up a holler’, they would love the view from the tops of these mountains, and to see the beautiful creeks, timber and rock formations. We see this beautiful country every day and I think we take for granted the beauty of where we live. We do have something special in Eastern Kentucky, we are fortunate to live in such a unique place.”
To see if I was right, I got Lauren to help me make a brochure to give to people when they fly into Big Sandy. I also advertised on a couple of aviation Facebook pages about a new service offered at Big Sandy Regional Airport: Big Sandy Backroads, chauffeured side-by-side rides through the hills of Eastern Kentucky, being offered from the airport, by appointment only. Rides last approximately 4 hours, see creeks and hollows, beautiful mountain tops and wildlife. See what Eastern Kentucky has to offer. This was my advertisement.
I started doing those tours 16 months ago and yesterday I did my 42nd ride. Most all the people have been from Ohio, Indiana and Western Kentucky but I have taken some local people as well. I think everyone who has been on one of my tours has enjoyed them, even the local people who don’t get the chance to get off the ‘blacktop’ very much. One local group of four I took last summer, the youngest of who was in their 70’s, loved seeing places they hadn’t seen in a long time.
A couple from Columbus, Ohio called and scheduled a tour last summer. They said they were looking for something to do, they were bored to death, and thought one of my tours might be a safe thing to do during the pandemic. They flew into Big Sandy, ate at Cloud 9 and we loaded up for a tour. They had never been to Eastern Kentucky before and had no idea what to expect. They thoroughly enjoyed the tour, this is what they posted on the Facebook site, Fun Places to Fly your Plane:
Mike Schaffer—“Flew to KSJS on Saturday for a tour of the local mountains. Let me first say that you will not find nicer people anywhere – and I mean that for everyone we came in contact with during the day at Big Sandy. Kelly and I flew down on Saturday for a 4 hour mountain tour with Gary, who is also the airport manager and we had an absolutely amazing day. We have been looking for things to do that are COVID safe, and came across this destination on FB. It was a quick and beautiful flight from OSU with one of the most beautifully scenic approaches I’ve flown.”
“The tour itself was nothing short of amazing. If the beautiful scenery wasn’t enough, the wildlife sightings were incredible. We saw wild horses (several times), Elk (yes, in Kentucky – herds of them), free roaming cattle, and wild turkeys who gave us an encore appearance as we taxied out. So incredible all the way around.”
This is what we have to offer in Eastern Kentucky. This is what we see every day but when ‘out of towners’ see it for the first time, they are amazed. Eastern Kentucky has been looking for something to replace the coal industry, why not tourism? There was an article in the Lexington Herald (by Aaron Mudd 5-27-22) about Powell County residents collecting 5 million dollars renting cabins through Airbnb in the Red River Gorge area last year. Five million dollars! Neighboring Wolfe County took in 2 million.
Thousands of dollars could be going to individual land owners in all Eastern Kentucky counties, renting rustic or luxury cabins near trail heads to out of town guests, if we had an organized system of trails, campsites, lodges and recreational areas. Our local leaders like to talk about trails but they are very few areas where talk has become reality. I have watched trucks pulling side-by-sides through Martin County on their way to the Hatifield-McCoy trail system, that’s money waving bye to us as they go through our county.
Here is my idea of what needs to be done. The federal government built this absolutely beautiful highway through the Appalachian Mountains years ago called the Blue Ridge Parkway, speed limit 45, the road is not for someone being in a hurry. The road is for enjoying the scenic beauty of the mountains. That same idea needs to be incorporated into a trail system for Eastern Kentucky. From Martin County in the north to Letcher County in the south and all counties in between, there needs to be at least one trail that connects each county to the next. Each county should have at least one lodge and campground, a central starting place, for supplies and parking. Each county needs the trail system to follow ridge tops and valleys in areas that aren’t directly by towns, but trails could lead to towns that want the traffic. The mined out areas of Eastern Kentucky are perfect for these trails, the roads are already there. There should be areas where people could park and hike to rock formations along the trail, they should be marked with maps and steps to lead you to the tops of our majestic rock cliffs. Maybe some small dams in the creek in the many scenic areas where you could stop and swim, have a picnic lunch or just enjoy the shade of our beautiful trees. With our Eastern Kentucky mountains, the ideas for making this a special adventure are limitless.
During the depression of the 30’s the CCC (Civilian Conversation Corp) was established to put people to work and to improve the environment, why can’t something like that be started to build lodges, restrooms and picnic sites along this trail system? What is wrong with employing people and improving the environment? Sounds like a win-win to me. This trail system should make it easy for local land owners to incorporate their hollows near the system for cabins and business opportunities if they choose or limit access if they don’t want people around their properties.
I know there are people who don’t want a trail system in our area. Their biggest complaint is, “I don’t want to pay to do something I’m doing for free now.” I understand that, and I don’t think we should try to make this system profitable from our locals. To ride on the system, locals should pay a nominal yearly fee, just something to make you legal to ride. Tourist should pay a daily fee to ride. like I do when I go snow skiing or when I go golfing, I’m on vacation, I expect to pay to play. I was playing golf in Las Vegas once at the Sahara Country Club, just off the Vegas strip. My good friend, Joe Collier and I, were paired with two guys from Las Vegas, they actually worked for MGM at the Luxor Casino. They said they like to play about 3 days a week. I said, “I like to play a couple of days a week back home, too, but there’s no way I could afford to play out here, I just paid $135 dollars to play today and it’s just too expensive to play very often like that.”
My new friend said, “I just paid, $35 dollars to play today, with a Clark County driver’s liscense (the county Las Vegas is in), that’s all we have to pay. Businesses in Las Vegas make our money off you tourist, not the locals. Because of guys like you we don’t pay very high local taxes either. Again, we let the tourism taxes you pay when you check out of your hotel take care of our taxes, too. Vegas is actually a pretty cheap place to live.”
Another complaint I hear about a trail system is, “I don’t want to wear a helmet to ride.” I agree with that. If you can ride a motorcycle down the interstate without a helmet at 70 miles an hour legally, why can’t you ride a side-by-side with a rollbar and seat beats at 15 miles an hour in the hills? There is risk in everything you do from the time you get out of bed each morning, until you get back in bed at night. Maybe a four wheeler should wear a helmet but I just don’t see it with a side-by-side.
Like I said earlier in this article, Powell County residents collected 5 million dollars off lodging last year. That could be our local people cashing in on something they are probably not making a dime off of now. That’s opportunity to let someone else pay our taxes. That’s opportunity for our area to have something to be proud of, to have something to keep our children here and give them a way to make a living and invest in our area and stay home.
When I do my side-by-side tours I like to tell my tourist, things about the local culture. I like to stop at a local cemetery, like many cemeteries out in the hills, this cemetery has a shed and benches. I tell them that Eastern Kentuckians like to have family reunions at their family cemeteries, they call it ‘dinner on the ground’ and we like to show our grandchildren the graves of our ancestors and tell stories about them. I like to stop by the railroad tracks on Wolf Creek and tell them how important this single railroad track was to Martin County. I tell them that Martin County was ‘ground zero’ on President Johnson’s War on Poverty legislation, and this single track railroad gave our area 2,000 good paying coal mining jobs and Martin County went from the highest unemployment rate in the country in 1964 to the lowest unemployment rate in the country in the late 70’s.
While sitting at the railroad tracks by the head waters of Wolf Creek, I like to tell how important these hills are to Eastern Kentuckians. These hills first gave us virgin timbers that were harvested, floated down this creek during the spring rains to Cattlesburg, so the logs could be sold to the northern states for furniture and wood products. Then natural gas was discovered in these hills and gas wells were drilled and gas lines laid and gas was exported from our area to the heavier populated areas aways from here. Then coal was discovered and this very railroad was how coal was exported from these mountains to make electricity to power the homes all up and down the eastern seaboard. All those items were harvested here at pennies on the dollar and used and exploited away from here at much more profit.
These beautiful mountains have given us much and many people away from here have profited, more than us, from them, but there is one thing they can never take from us, they can never take the mountains. Maybe, if we could develop a trail system, a unique and beautiful system, that people would love to pay to be a part of, and would plan their vacations around and visit time and time again. If we had that, then these mountains that have given so much to so many, maybe these mountains, could bring back the wealth to where it came from.
There’s a verse in the Bible, Psalm 121: I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. Maybe, that verse was written for Eastern Kentucky?
Aircraft—Piper…7…8…7…Bravo…Charlie…departing runway…2…1…to the north…
Unicom—Have a safe trip and come again some time…
(Gary Wayne Cox is airport manager at Big Sandy Regional Airport owned by Floyd, Johnson, Magoffin and Martin Counties.)