Brad Paisley warbles that you'll never leave Harlan alive. At the beginning of this March, my Alternative Spring Break service trip traveled to the area depicted on FX’s popular series, Justified, where jaw-dropping mountains, hard-nosed southern charm and rusted remains of a formerly dominant coal-mining industry meet in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains
We spent the year learning about rural poverty in Appalachia, but it wasn’t until we got there that we realized the realities behind the rust..
.In our short stay, we had the privilege to be welcomed by families young and old living in the area. The Lankfords were one such family.
Danny Lankford and his wife, Rita, have been fighting cancer and bankruptcy in Harlan County, Kentucky. Ever since Danny was laid off from the coal mines, it has been a continuing string of troubles. Nine years ago, the couple was forced to relocate their residence because a mining company bought out their previous home. A diagnosis of prostate cancer (possibly caused by his time in the mines or from the drinking water in the area) forced Danny into retirement from city work. Just two years later, Rita was diagnosed with colon cancer, adding to their financial strain.
Danny lists the calamities nonchalantly as just a part of life in Harlan. Danny and Rita's story is complex. Many members of the community share their struggles, where the remnants of a once-booming industry remain destructive to the environment and the lives of residents living in the valleys.
“The industrial revolution in America of manufacturing is over with,” Lankford said. “It’s been over with here for a long time. We’ve basically been left out, left behind. We don’t really count no more.
“We can survive. That’s what the people in Appalachia been doing before coal came, they survived.”
Despite the circumstances, Danny is perfectly content doing just that; surviving. As he looked off his deck into his own mountain 'paradise,' he explained that he has no desire to ever leave Harlan, alive or dead.
“At this age, you can’t make no dreams come true, just live out the ones you made,” he said.