The wondrous back roads of Eastern Kentucky unravel in crazy-quilt complexity. Hewn from time-scarred mountains and rising and falling along creek bottoms and ancient hunting trails, they wriggle in madcap fashion through boundless forests and hidden hollows. To a motorcyclist, it's country like this that represents the finest form of intoxication there is.
The Evarts Trailhead looks like a regular dirt road. The OHV park map labels it "easy," so what's to fear, why the hesitation? I have plenty of confidence in the XR650L, though it is a bit top-heavy, loaded with five days' worth of gear, an expensive camera, and me. Inwardly goading myself to get on with it and tap into my sense of adventure, my hand twists the throttle. The big single growls and the rear tire spits gravel. I spend the next hour exploring a system of dirt roads and well-marked trails that fluctuate between the legitimately "easy" and what's steep, rock strewn, and downright "challenging." I'm all alone, wrapped in a dusty blanket of uncertainty, and all it takes is one small mistake - a run-in with a boulder in a bad spot for example - to strand me, nursing a broken bone and waiting who knows how long for the next rider to come along. Cell-phone reception? Forget it. I could barely corral a signal down in Harlan. As the rugged trail approaches the 3,300-foot summit, a new Appalachian Mountain panorama majestically unfolds around me, with summer verdure yielding here and there to the red and gold of fall.
Cloaked in powdery particulate, I emerge at the Black Mountain Recreational Park's Putney Trailhead, located on Route 119. This reclaimed strip mine, now open free of charge to OHVs, covers over 6,000 acres and features 200 miles of marked trails designated Beginner through Extreme. A dirt dabbler's disporting dream come true, the loop may prove far too enticing when your touring mount is an off-road bike at heart. But riders on large adventure bikes should use extreme caution, as many of these trails become tight, steep, and quite rocky. And you surely should think twice about attempting them if you're not experienced in the rough terrain.
Between 200 and 400 million years ago, this region of the earth was covered in swampland. As generations of vegetation died, the remains collected in a dense peaty layer. Over eons of climatic and geologic shifts, layers of sand, clay, and sedimentary rock compressed the peat, eventually transforming it into bituminous coal. There it remained until the advent of the Industrial Age when demand for the fuel brought speculators to the hills around Harlan and Cumberland, Kentucky. Calling it "black diamond," they began digging and haven't let up since.
A cool morning mist thinly veils the crawl of sooty, four-wheeled behemoths. Blackened Caterpillar loaders, with hardly any patches of yellow paint showing, struggle to keep pace with the enormous pile forming beneath the coal chunks cascading from a trundling conveyor belt high above. Grimy dump trucks queue, waiting for the huffing bucket to divvy out the next haul. Down the way, a tipple built into the hillside, gorges the bigger appetites of empty hopper cars on the rail line.
It's a gritty do-si-do that's been going on for generations, and in the former International Harvester company town of Benham, the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum puts a human face to the mechanical roundabout that calls the tune. Housed in the old commissary building, the museum depicts the history of mining camps from across the state, shedding light on the hard lives of so many men and families eking out an existence in this treacherous, subterranean business. Mining is the source of a deep and abiding pride here, and rightfully so. The men behind the grimy faces and calloused hands displayed in these exhibits are responsible for keeping the lights on.
Topping Pine Mountain on a twisting Route 119, I'm struck by another stunning view of rugged ridges stretching westward in hazy green waves that eventually merge with the distant blue. As the vistas soar, so does the quality of the ride. The narrow tarmac continues a swerving meander through small towns, many of them exposing the fickle nature of the coal business. When the seams run dry, it's time to move on. Derelict trailer homes and boarded-up shop windows are common sights among the rusting tipples and rail spurs choked with weeds.
Rolling into Pikeville, I'm still grinning from my romp on Route 122. Narrow and curvy, this road flings challenges by the shovelful and affords little room for error. A steep drop into arboreal oblivion is the price to pay for the slightest mental lapse, and setting a brisk pace rewards me with a fine adrenaline rush. However, even though the odometer indicates paltry mileage for the day, I'm not going to be caught riding after dark on the unfamiliar and demanding stretches around here. Pikeville will do for the night, being large enough to support services that for the most part are limited on these bluegrass byways.