We are born to leave here. The scriptures has told us that everybody won’t sleep in the grave, that there can come a time for a change. How many of you have read about the rapture of the church? How many of you have read that story over at First Thessalonians Chapter Four where it says the Lord himself shall descend from Heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and the trumpet of God? And the dead in Christ shall rise when? FIRST! Amen? Then those of us which are alive and remain shall be called up how? TOGETHER! If the Lord were to come back and the rapture of the church were to take place right now the graaaaaves would BUST OPEN! I truly believe that. I might could be a nut but I believe it. Amen? I BELIEVE THE GRAVES WILL BUST OPEN AND THE BODIES THAT DIED IN THE LORD WILL COME FORTH!
In the background a tambourine jangled and a few murmurs of agreement bubbled across the airwaves. These hyperventilating Pentecostal preachers always put my mind in a literary mode. Everything becomes a symbol for something else. I’ve left my home in Pike County and am driving southwest. The cold exposed stone of the mountains blasted away for the Hal Rogers Parkway sweats in the sun and the coal seams shine like obsidian. It makes me feel like Moses parting the Red Sea to roll between them, and I imagine them crashing together behind me, drowning my enemies. I am invincible, after all, says the preacher. Even when I die a part of me, the real me, will continue. “You are somebody somewhere forever,” is how he puts it. Which is much better. Then he screams some primal language put into him by the Holy Ghost that almost jars me into oncoming traffic. “AAAHSHAMAYA! EDJEEIT! SHAHKANAHNAHAHNA!!”
And after that he disappears, just sort of fades away into a commercial for the Gary C. Johnson Law Office.
There goes Dizzy Tire. The Zip Zone. Clipper’s Liquors. The metal roofs of old Wheelwright. There goes Softshell, Pigeon Roost, Dwarf, Rowdy and Dice.
It was a Sunday if you couldn’t tell.
I figured if I was going to a place called Hell For Certain, I might as well go on the sabbath.
My nearest point of reference was Hyden, the seat of Leslie County and it’s largest city. Population circa 350. It’s the “Redbud Capital of the World” and visitors are always intrigued by the psychedelic Victorian style of the Blue Castle Café. But it’s mostly known as the home of UK quarterback Tim Couch, the Hurricane Creek mine explosion, and the place where Nixon made his first public speech after resigning from the presidency.
Hell for Certain, or sometimes Hell-Fer-Sartin, is a few miles north of Hyden along the Middle Fork of the Kentucky River. The most common story for how it got its name involves a missionary who took a trip to the area long ago. When asked where he’d been he said something to the effect of, “I don’t know, but it was Hell for certain!”
The sign by the river said Victory Mountain Grace Brethren Chapel and in rearrangeable letters it relayed the results of the most recent Leslie County High School football game.
Up on the hill, beside the church’s red doors, was a plaque that dated the place to 1952. And above the entryway was painted, “The greatest people in the world walk through these doors every Sunday”.
I walked around the grounds. A sad and dilapidated playground called “Teddy’s Playland” sat lifeless on the south side, a forgotten El Camino rusted under a leaning carport. A pronounced bear theme revealed itself. There were bear sculptures and references all over the place. It didn’t make much sense to me until a woman in a long denim skirt eating a handful of Doritos materialized from somewhere above and introduced herself as Betty Baer, the wife of the church’s pastor. I told her what I was up to.
I could tell that she wasn’t from Kentucky, much less Hell For Certain, and I dragged a few facts out of her. She was a Pennsylvanian who’d moved here in 1979 as part of her churchly duties. That was a long time ago, but Hell For Certain is the kind of place you could live a hundred years and never belong. You have to be born there to get it. Your parents and your grandparents have to have been born there. Otherwise you’re like me. A spectator.
Betty agreed. She wasn’t the source I was looking for. But she knew just where to take me. And after a quick phone call I was following her up the steep and muddy gravel drive of Sally Jane Begley who, at 93, is the oldest living resident of Hell For Certain, Kentucky.
I was expecting a bedridden invalid. What I got, however, was a woman so spry and sharp she could easily pass for 75.
“I hope you’ll excuse this floor,” she said. “A buncha greenhorns did it.”
And then, settled into a custom wooden rocking chair with the words “Sally Jane” written across the top rail, she began to speak of her life in this place in sentences plain but poetic. Like Shaker furniture. There were hints of coalfield Kentucky in her oddly erudite accent, but mostly what I heard was the purity of the land we all stand on. It was not generic. It was timeless.
Her parents were Perry Countians, she said. They moved to Hell For Certain in a wagon before she was born. Her father and his best friend were tired of the mines. They bought adjoining property along the creek with the vision of raising their respective families and growing old on their own terms. For a short while, everything went according to plan.
But it wasn’t long before the remoteness of the area and a string of bad luck put the family in a tough spot.
“It was so hard. Living was hard back then. My mother didn’t like it. She had to do everything. But as a child I loved it and I still do. It was just a paradise for a child. I…I can’t describe it. I loved it so. There weren’t any modern conveniences, so I guess I can understand why mother didn’t like it. So we moved back to the camps. I never did like coal camps.”
Nevertheless, Sally Jane was quick to marry a young man named Ted who had himself been forced to leave school in the sixth grade to help his mother raise his eight junior siblings when his father died in the mines.
“In those days if you got hurt in the mines it was just your luck. You didn’t have anything coming to you.”
She also remembers the frequent flooding of the river and therefore the creek. It caused some inconveniences but, like those of the Nile, the floods were considered part of the natural order of things. They were a blessing, a rejuvenating force essential to agriculture. But others didn’t see it that way.
“They made you sell your property to them,” says Sheila. “They didn’t give you hardly anything. The government just said, ‘We’re building a damn. You got to move. And we’re giving you this amount for your property.’”
“It wasn’t a matter of what you wanted to do,” says Sally. “It was a matter of what you had to do.”
She’s the last of her generation around here. The few others that are left are in their 60s and 70s. Anybody younger than that is long gone. They’re doing what they can to keep the old ways going.
When her husband Ted was down sick for over a year after a stroke she put a hospital bed in the living room for him so he could watch the squirrels. His mind was able. And he’d pine for Sally Jane with the few sounds he could muster whenever she left his side, which was rarely and mostly to go blackberry picking. “I couldn’t let him go to a home. I wanted to keep him here. He was a good man. He worked hard. He was a foreman with the Department of Transportation. He helped build these nice roads around here. He left me good insurance.”
Ted left his Earthly body in the summer. He is somebody somewhere I’m sure.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with this monstrosity. It’s mine now I guess. I’m saddled with it.” And then she kind of stares into the void like people do when they dream about hitting the lottery. Except she doesn’t say anything about yachts or cars or vacations. Instead she says,
“I swear, I’d give anything to have that old house on Hell For Certain again.”
I say thank you and I leave.
I part the Red Sea again and go back from whence I came. Past Dwarf and Rowdy and all the rest. Past old Wheelwright and onto the Patty Loveless stretch of the Country Music Highway that lulls me home to Pikeville where local government is working hard to make me happy. There’s a Hobby Lobby now. A Marshall’s, an Ulta and a Ross Dress for Less, too. More are coming. All on some of the finest bottomland you’ve ever seen.
I’m told it’s a step closer to Heaven. But I’m not so certain.
Words and photos by Coleman Larkin.
Inspired by Coleman’s journey, we thought the time was right to celebrate one of Kentucky’s most mysteriously named cities, Hell for Certain, KY. We partnered with type wizard Tim Jones to create a t-shirt fit for any Kentuckian venturing out into witching hour this ghoulish season.