I read in the paper this past week of the death of 93-year-old Leroy Danner, who I remembered as one of the men who helped to blaze the Jenny Wiley Trail in the 1970s.
I hadn’t thought of the trail for hikers for a long, long time, since the state decided to close it more than 20 years ago and it’s now reverted to wilderness.
Development of the trail was quite a story. It began at South Portsmouth, in Greenup County, and led for about 180 miles across mostly unbroken ridges to Jenny Wiley State Resort Park in Floyd County. Much of it was a warrior’s trail followed by Indian tribes long years ago.
It was completed in 1980 with the aid of $550,000 in state government money. The late Richard Howerton Sr. obtained 20- or 25-year easements from property owners for $1. The trail crossed their lands that were not used for pasture or growing crops.
Howerton held a paid position and hired some workers to construct overnight shelters every 10 miles, stiles for hikers to cross barbed wire fences, and here and there a footbridge to cross ravines.
Soc Clay, an outdoor writer from South Shore, worked with the Jenny Wiley Trail Conference, a group of volunteers who helped blaze the trail and lobby for continued state money for maintenance. The trail was marked by blue paint on the trunks of trees that bordered it.
Brian Mattingly and Paul Stewart were early leaders of the conference working to promote the trail.
Carl Curnutte, a 35-year-old Scoutmaster and chairman of the conference, was the first person to hike the entire trail. Or you might say to run the trail. He covered the distance in a fantastic seven days.
Clay’s dream was that such a trail would attract hiking enthusiasts from a wide area and thus promote the tourist economy in eastern Kentucky. It connected three state parks – Greenbo, Carter Caves and Jenny Wiley.
The state took over the trail from the FIVCO Area Development District in 1981. Maintenance funding was lowered from $100,000 a year to $25,000.
State naturalist Carey Tichenor, in 1987, was assigned to oversee the trail. He eventually made the decision to close it, citing lack of use, changes to the trail brought on my logging practices, and complaints from some landowners about four wheelers trespassing on property other than that covered by the footpath.
A Trail Head Park located on a hill overlooking Grant Bridge was destroyed when U.S. 23 was widened to four lanes. It was never replaced.
JOHNNY WALKER’S HIKE
In the early 1980s he was a 67-year-old retired grocery store operator from Indiana who learned of the trail in a story in a Louisville newspaper. Johnny Walker said he decided to hike the length of the JWT because it “beat sitting around on the porch” back in Connersville.
His wife drove him to Trailhead Park in South Portsmouth.
Local trail officials met him there and drove a box of his fresh supplies to the home of one of Walker’s friends on the Morgan-Elliott county line, where he would pick them up for the remainder of the journey.
Then, on the last day of August that summer, he climbed the hill to the ridgetop and started down the trail, packing his sleeping bag and a 50-pound backpack filled with mostly dehydrated food. He had allowed himself nine days to make the 180-mile distance. He followed the blue paint markings on the trees.
On his second day out the heels of his socks wore through and he soon had blisters to contend with. By mistake, he had packed all of his extra socks it the box that went on down the line.
“I was pretty much in misery,” Walker said at the time, “when I met a farmer – Hilderbrandt was his name – who was cutting tobacco sticks on the ridge. He saw the pain I was in and dropped his work, went to the house, and brought me back a pair of heavy socks. After that everything was fine.”
A little farther along, he met another landowner, who also brought him a pair of socks.
“I’ve never met better people or been treated better by people than the people I met along the way in Kentucky,” he said.
One family invited him down off the trail for supper.
At Roe’s grocery store in Elliottsville, he said, the owner gave him milk, ham and cheese, and a Pepsi.
He found one shelter where he planned to spend the night littered with beer cans and saw motorcycle tracks all around. It was Saturday and, fearing they might come back for another party that night, he hiked on and spent the night in the open.
At the end of nine days, in mostly 90-degree weather, he had just made the pickup point where his box of fresh supplies had been left at the friend’s house. He had covered 98 miles, still 82 miles to go.
He decided to end it there. He was taken back to Trailhead Park by automobile.
He said he couldn’t believe that the distance it took him nine days to cover took less than two hours by car.
Reach G. SAM PIATT at email@example.com or (606) 932-3619.