The Great Kentucky Adventure, Vol. I: The Jones Clan Welcomes Us

“How could you possibly think this would even be remotely OK with me?”

These were the words of my long-suffering daughter-in-law Jenny, sitting in a U-Haul on a remote Kentucky mountaintop that cold January night. That truck, and another, was loaded to the rafters with every worldly possession we owned, as well as a goat and a handful of chickens. I know we broke some U-Haul rules, but pretty sure the statute of limitations is up by now.

We all loved North Carolina (Me, my sons, my daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren all lived together-by choice.). I had a job I enjoyed in the OR at Duke University Hospital. The people there were lovely, and the local rural community was wonderful. But money was extremely tight, and we simply could not afford the 4-acre property we were renting. Months of searches for another place close to my job were fruitless. So to Craigslist I went!

A Shot In The Dark

The search went like this: I closed my eyes, put my finger down on a map, and that is how we decided on Kentucky. I started looking for rentals. Found some promising things that were affordable. I applied for a job at University of Kentucky Hospital in Lexington. Now we had a more specific area to search.

We all love the mountains, and Lexington was a 45-mile drive from the Appalachians {Due to the mountainous terrain it would end up being a 1:20 commute to work), so I began my search there. In short order I found something deceptively perfect: A 3-bedroom house way up on Furnace Mountain, vacant, and only 400.00/month! A couple texts back and forth with the owner, and soon our first month’s rent and security deposit was on its way. The new landlady informed us that when they moved out they had left some things, and we were free to “pick through them” and get rid of what we didn’t want. Yes, I rented this place sight unseen. Yes, I know about potential scams. Yes to all this. Yet here we were….

I had already landed an interview at UK, which had to be in-person. So my oldest son, Michael, and I packed up and drove to Kentucky. The plan was to stay the night at the new rental, go to the interview the next day, and then come home, pack up and move as long as I got the job. After a couple hours of TomTom trying to take us through muddy logging roads to the property, we finally arrived. And what a sight we beheld!

Those few things we were allowed to “pick through?” A veritable MOUNTAIN of trash bags full of dirty diapers, basic household trash, mounds upon mounds of clothes, broken toys, and food! We looked around and finally found the source of this mess: Apparently, the house had vomited some of it’s contents into the yard. The inside was more of the same. A knee-high sea of papers, books, dishes, clothes, and anything else you can think a trash hoarder might have laying around.

The house had no heat or water, so we spent the night frozen. When Mike fired up the little burner he had brought and made a small pot of terrible coffee, I almost cried. It was so warming and comforting. I went to the interview the next day looking like I had just got back from a weekend camping trip. Nailed the interview and got the job offer. So now what do we do?

I now have a job, and a start date. The place we rented was an absolute dump and truly uninhabitable, but there was simply not enough time nor money to begin a search for a different house. Mike and I headed home. We explained the situation to Jenny and my other son, Justin. We tried to be very forthcoming about what we were about to walk into, but honestly, words were simply inadequate, and they were sorely unprepared for what they saw when we pulled up that snowy January night.

Meet The Neighbors

Enter the Jones clan. Jill, a young widow with a couple kids and a brand-new boyfriend, was the owner of our rental house. Her dead husband was buried out back, and was apparently the adored Golden Boy of the grieving family. Unbeknownst to us, Miss Jill neglected to inform the rest of the Jones clan that we were going to be renting their dead son’s/brother’s/uncle’s house. The Joneses lived on a long, rutted, almost impassable dirt road. Our rental was 1000 feet past their house. Imagine their surprise as a couple U-Hauls and cars are delicately maneuvering around the toys and bikes scattered in the road at 10 pm!

The next morning we were all exhausted from the trip and shell-shocked by our surroundings, but it was time to dig in and start carving out a more livable situation for ourselves. I had two weeks until my job started. I was waiting for a $1,500 sign-on bonus check to carry us through till the paychecks began. We were gonna work our asses off for two weeks and then continue our homesteading dream. We were still under the impression that this was a very inconvenient, yet temporary and fully surmountable hiccup on our path. Only as the weeks unfolded would we learn how very wrong we were!

Jenny started on the refrigerator. Closed up for months, no electricity, and filled with old rotted food. Six. Hours. Justin started garbage eradication with a Bic lighter. Ten hours a day for over two weeks. Seriously. There was THAT MUCH trash.

And here comes the Jones Clan welcoming committee, asking us who the hell we were and what the hell we were doing. We tried to explain that Jill had rented the property to us, showed them our correspondence and receipts, but they were not dissuaded: We were interlopers in their dead relative’s house, and we had to go. They had no legal standing; Jill was the rightful owner of the house. So they did the next best thing: They stalked us and made our lives a living hell for the six weeks we were there.

Next morning, Jerry Jones stops by for a visit. Tries to walk in the door, which my brave Jenny blocked while holding a shotgun. Jerry is totally wasted at 10 am, and is threatening to come over with his buddies and his machine gun. So this is a fun housewarming for us.

The First Three Days

We quickly discovered that the water containment system was almost empty, and was entirely reliant on catching rainwater from gutters that were all blocked up. Even a perfectly working system would never supply the amount of water a family of seven needs, so changes had to be made. The washing machine was simply not an option, so there we were, washing our clothes by hand in the bathtub with a washboard. For SEVEN people! Then we had to get a bunch of 5-gallon water jugs and make our way halfway down the mountain to the spring for drinking and cooking water. Every day or so .

One of those water trips led to quite a serendipitous meeting. As we were filling our jugs an old Chevy Tahoe filled with tie-dye shirt-wearers went by. We looked at the occupants and exclaimed, “Hippies!” Suddenly the car slammed on its brakes and backed up to us. Apparently as they were driving by they saw us and said, “Hippies!” We met the most beautiful group of souls that day, two of which are still very dear friends.

After our warm welcome from the landlady’s family, the weather decided to come say hi. Three days after our arrival we had a storm. I am talking about tornadoes all over, thunder and lightning, rain coming down in sheets, the works. Seven of us were crouched in the laundry room, no electricity, mattresses pulled over us, listening to the roof trying to come off. Good times.

The Speakeasy

Did I mention this was a dry county? If we wanted alcohol, we had to drive 40 minutes to the next county over. Fortunately, we quickly discovered the Lion’s Den, a small speakeasy a mere 20-minute drive from the House of Horrors. Lenny was the owner of this fine establishment. Lenny was an upstanding Mountain gentleman with a liver so big he needed a wheelbarrow to carry it, along with an affinity for the nose candy and beating up his girlfriends. He had a lovely old cinder-block building with an ancient monstrosity of a wood burner and burlap marijuana seed bags on the walls for ambience. Over the years he had acquired a hodgepodge of dusty bar decor, a small bar, fridge, a couple booths and tables, and an old pool table. Ladies’ restroom was outside to the left of the building; gents’ on the right. Lenny would make the trip out to Richland every week or so and buy several cases of Bud and Bud Light, and sell them for $1.50 a can. Dine in or carry out! And if you wanted something a little stronger, the bartop was a great place to snort your drugs, and somebody always had a joint going around. Lenny, his daughter, and his clientele would frequently partake. More than one person has died there over the years.

It Can’t Get Any Worse?

I could continue to write stories about all we encountered those six weeks we were at La Maison Jones. Here are some highlights:

  1. My start date at work was pushed back 2 weeks. Well, ok. That $1,500 check should be here any time.
  2. Some crackhead stole the $1,500 check out of my mailbox and cashed it at a local used car dealership. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued before I got my money back. We were so dead broke, we took to picking clover, violets, chives, and plantain in a cemetery so we could have fresh greens with our lard-fried quick bread patties {Lovingly named “Butt-Dumplings” by my three-year old granddaughter).
  3. The Jones family would sneak up on us at night and spy while we were sitting around the campfire, discussing what we were going to do about our situation.
  4. While we were basically penniless due to the above, my landlady and landlady’s mother-in-law came over and attacked my daughter-in-law. My son stopped them. Next day we went to the sheriff’s office to try to file charges. Unfortunately, the Joneses had gotten there first and gave their messed-up version of what happened. So instead of getting help, my son was arrested and put in jail. I spent the day going to pawn shops to try to get the $300.00 needed to bail him out, but was unable to.
  5. The Joneses gave antifreeze to my son’s pet goat and killed her. That was the final straw for us, and amazingly, Mike was able to find somewhere else for us to move to immediately.

When all was said and done, we basically paid someone 800.00 to clean her house and be terrorized by her family for six weeks. We got out, which is a miraculous story in itself, but that is for another day.

And What Have We Learned?

Now we are 10 years out from this fiasco. And what have we learned? Well, first of all, avoid Craigslist for a sight-unseen rental! But seriously, my family and I have discussed the situation many, many times over the years. We are able to see things now from a bigger perspective. And for all the abject physical, mental, emotional, and financial deprivation we suffered, not one of us would trade that experience for the world.

We learned what it means to have no one but family on your side. The way we were able to come together in order to survive this ordeal was a beautiful thing to be involved in. We learned that true freedom is when you literally have nothing else to lose (See “Me and Bobby McGee:” Janis Joplin).

We learned to be a little less trusting of the intentions of others (read: naive). We learned that we have the capacity to overcome incredible obstacles. We discovered more of our inventiveness, our abilities to think outside the box, and our incredible tenacity.

And we learned that bacon and beans cooked over a fire for three days is the most delectable meal ever! Seriously. It took three days of adding water and cooking until those damn beans softened up. But they were worth the wait.

We had unfortunate encounters with a lot of scumbags on that mountain (Generational poverty, alcoholism and fetal alcohol syndrome, drug use, rampant domestic violence and inadequate educational and social services will do that. These are truly “forgotten people.”}. But we also have memories of some wonderful, inspiring people we met there: Shere and “Bird,” Phil, Jimmy and Bonnie, and Tom, who lived in the woods nearby with his wife.

Our welcome to Kentucky was definitely a memorable experience. Eventually, we ended up moving to four other different houses on that mountaintop before we finally hightailed it back to Pennsylvania to admit defeat, lick our wounds, rest a little, and regroup in order to embark on our next (and hopefully final!) journey to our current homestead in Missouri. Each of those four houses have the same underlying theme of nonstop deprivation as the above, just a slightly different twist for each of them.

I hope you enjoyed this small piece of my life. Please leave a comment below if you wish. Also, I changed the names of the participants, but everything else happened exactly as written.

Peace to you.

Next: The Great Kentucky Adventure, Vol 2, part 1: Sam’s House

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