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Solitude - Pauletta Hansel



by Pauletta Hansel

The year before we moved to Jackson, we lived in Hiner, in Perry County, now just off the Route 80 four-lane between Hazard and Hindman, but at the time it wasn’t just off anything. We moved there from Barbourville, where Dad was chaplain at Union, for a whole slew of convoluted reasons there’s no need to go into. The family story is that it was the worst year of our collective lives, except for my brother, not yet in school, who would head out each warm day having first secured Mom’s permission to come back filthy.  

I started thinking about Hiner again when the students I wrote with at Breathitt High shared their maps of the special places in their lives, the places they felt most themselves. Last time I talked about those “third places” where people go to be with others outside of their family or work/school roles. But it’s important to say that many of the students didn’t name places for socializing with others at all, but rather focused on their “alone” places—their rooms, fishing holes, favorite trees, abandoned train tracks and dirt bike trails. 

I remembered then that one impossibly long, luxurious summer out in the sticks, as we called it, the days that spiraled into night, the wide lush hollow—holler, we said—between the hills with a creek at the end that smelled inexplicably of mayonnaise; the rhubarb patch along the way, stalks red and tart with strings that caught between the too-wide gap of my front teeth; the lightening bugs that were everywhere at once no matter how many we caught in our jars; the smell of the screen door after the rain, the sun drying the metal to a pungency I could taste through my nostrils.  

Perhaps that’s another reason why our first full summer in Jackson I’d bike out of town as far as I’d dare go out Quicksand Road, and stop along the curb not just to wipe the sweat away, but to smell the honeysuckle and admire the Queen Anne’s Lace, a weed I still can’t bear to pull from my city garden. There are some among you who might remember my family’s front yard on Washington Avenue was nothing but dirt—whatever grass had been there stood not a chance against the twenty-some kids my mother cared for in Larnie’s Daycare. (And it may surprise you that after my parents’ move to Somerset, Mom was known as “the flower lady,” with her extravagant blooms even coming up between the cracks in their driveway.) 

There’s a Welsh word “hiraeth,” sometimes translated as a longing for an ancestral homeland which you have never known. I heard that longing expressed by some of the students I wrote with when they spoke of the Breathitt County that their parents and grandparents had experienced—safer, perhaps, with more opportunities for work. But many of the young people of Breathitt County know the gift of their places today. Here is a sampling of their writing: 

“The perfect place to go riding is back on top of the hill near my house.  It used to be an old strip job, so there are many logging roads.  On the way to the cabin, there is a dip in the road where it is falling off and you have to drive through the field beside it.  There’s also a persimmon tree where we eat the fruits, although they are always bitter and not ripe. (Lydia White)  

“My favorite place is farther back into the Muddy Holler.  There is a beautiful waterfall halfway through.  There are two mini waterfalls and a natural spring in the back.  Where the spring is, are two paths.  One is grassy and steep and the other is dirt and breaks into different paths.  My favorite place in the holler is the spring.  There are a few flat places to sit. I even do my homework there on warm, dry days. (Danielle Smith) 

 “Here is where I live.  Here is my homeland.  Here is the only place I have ever known.  Creeks web through it.  A forest hugs all around it.  Many different paths, forged by many generations, crawl up the forested mountain face.  One hundred acres of my Papaw’s land from mountain top to mountain top.  I will stay.  I will be buried here, in a garden holler.  I owe this place a lot.  It is a gift, not a possession.” (Dalton Holbrook) 

What are your favorite places, the ones that bring you pleasure or peace? The places that connect you to the generations before you? The places in “our Breathitt” that make you know that you are home? 

Pauletta Hansel is a poet, essayist and teacher from Jackson who was Cincinnati’s first Poet Laureate. Her parents cared for and educated Breathitt children and young adults for many years. 

This column is brought to you by Our Breathitt, a community arts and health experience bringing together artists and Breathitt Countians from across Kentucky. Project is organized with IDEAS xLab (an artist-led nonprofit), and supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. Starting in August 2019, five collaborating writers, each with their own perspectives and ties to the county, will offer weekly columns and audio stories for radio and podcasts. Contact us at 859-397-1317 to join this conversation by leaving a voicemail with your response to the questions we raise and adding thoughts of your own! You may hear your responses incorporated into future posts and narratives! You can also email at We hope you will mark your calendars and join us at the Our Breathitt Summit, October 11-12 in Jackson, Kentucky. Information at