Silas House: We Paid For It, an Essay

Silas House: We Paid For It, an Essay

We Paid For It
By Silas House

Recently the Daniel Boone Parkway was renamed for the Fifth District Congressman Hal Rogers because-according to newspaper reports-Rogers has done so much for Eastern Kentucky. I feel compelled to say that renaming this road is a direct punch to the gut of Appalachian heritage.

Some people say Rogers has done a lot of good things for Eastern Kentucky. Others say that he’s simply a politician like any other, a man who line his pockets with the money of hardworking tax payers. Either argument doesn’t matter to me. The thing is that Daniel Boone opened up this territory. He’s a part of this heritage and one of the few media figures to ever come out of Eastern Kentucky that was treated with a smidgen of respect. He was the subject of a popular television show, countless books, several movies, and has a spot on the pop-culture radar of most Americans, making his way into the pantheon enough to be featured on lunch boxes of the 1950’s. The argument can be made that Boone blazed his way into Kentucky by killing and stealing from Native Americans. This is most likely true, but we ought to remember that he was also an adopted son to a Shawnee chief. Boone is a symbol of rugged, independent spirit of the Appalachian people and his name holds more integrity than any modern politician I can think of. When the parkway opened in the early 1970s it allowed people to travel in and out of the region easily (despite being saddled with toll booths). No longer did a trip from Hazard to London take more than two hours on a winding, narrow road. Instead there was a straight stretch of highway that took travelers from those two cities in half the time.

We are meant to believe that Rogers deserves this recognition because he put forth the effort to rid the Parkway of the tollbooths that had stood on the road since its opening day. Rogers allotted $13 million to his budget to close the tollbooths on the Daniel Boone and Louie B Nunn Parkways. People who travel the Boone find this laughable. We all know that the Daniel Boone Parkway has been paid for many times over by our tolls and we don’t care about  any columns of figures the politicians might want to show us. That road has been travelled by countless people who  gave up their hard-earned money to drive down a highway that was often riddled by potholes and uneven lanes, so many people that they surely paid out enough to pay for the Parkway many times over. The tollbooths should have been taken down years ago.

There are hundreds of roads in Eastern Kentucky that are falling over mountainsides, that haven’t been patched or resurfaced in ages. On one stretch of Highway 25 in Laurel County, people have become so frustrated by a huge pothole that hasn’t been patched in ages that someone bought a bright orange can of spray paint and wrote “fix this please” on the pavement around the hole. Three months after this pleading the spot has yet to be filled. Bridges are rickety, and overloaded log and coal trucks continually stamp cracks in the pavement of Eastern Kentucky roads. The money spent on making up the new “Hal Rogers Parkway” signs could have went toward these problems.

If the state highway department is adamant about renaming the Daniel Boone Parkway (they have offered no reason why the name is no longer sufficient) then it ought to be named the Workers Parkway or the Appalachian Parkway or something to pay tribute to the people who paid for it to exist in the first place. Hal Rogers didn’t pull that $13 million out of his pocket. It came from the taxes that we paid, taxes that also go to pay the salary of Politicians like Rogers. The Daniel Boone Parkway has been paid for by people who worked like jobs and drove up and down that stretch of road everyday to their jobs. They drove that road because they were going back to see families they had to leave because very few factories or workplaces exist once a driver gets past London. They drove to that road to decorate the graves of their families who were killed along that dangerous stretch of highway, who died in coal mines and after working themselves to death.

There is a sneaking suspicion that ridding the tollbooths has more to do with Roger’s determination to have Interstate 66 run along these routes when it is built in the near future than it has to do with creating a “freeway” for Appalachians. I-66 has been one of Rogers’ main priorities lately despite the fact that many people in the region have stated that they don’t want the interstate to come through and destroy forests, caves, cemeteries, historical sites, farms, and residences. Since the interstate was going to come through this route soon, the tollbooths would have been removed eventually anyway.

The tollbooth dismantling and name change were both done with much ceremony. Rogers rode on the bulldozer that tore down the tollbooths (reminding many of George W. Bush’s controversial air force carrier landing a couple of months ago). Upon the unveiling of the new signs Rogers claimed to be shocked that the highway department had decided to name the Parkway after him. This seems hard to believe for many of us. Rogers also cited that Boone was one of his heroes and that he was honored to be listed alongside him. If this is truly the case, it would have been honorable for him to refuse the name change. Then again, all that money spent on making up the new road signs bearing his name would have been wasted.

We have become a culture that makes heroes out of politicians who sometimes (but mostly don’t) do what we are paying them to do. This is one time that a lot of Kentucky Appalachians are fed up with paying tribute to politicians and many have voiced their concern that the name of the road should have never been changed. It already bore the name of a man whom we can identify with much more than any politician.

Silas House is the author of two critically-acclaimed novles, Clay’s Quilt and A Parchment of Leaves.