PIPPA PASSES, Ky. — Justin Johnson parks his pickup truck on a deserted stretch of gravel road off Kentucky 899 deep in the Appalachian coalfields.
One of Arch Coal’s mines used to be here. All that’s left now is a sign posted next to a once busy railroad crossing: “Worked 134 days without a reportable accident.”
The mine, once roaring with trucks and heavy equipment, was shuttered 3 years ago. There’s only silence now. In the distance, rusting railroad cars lead to a motionless conveyor belt that rises above the tree line.
The landscape around Johnson’s hometown is filled with these artifacts of a former world and a former life. All that’s left now of where he grew up are the people he loves and memories he has of the once-bustling coal industry around Pippa Passes, population: 532.
He’s driven nearly 4 hours to get here on a Friday afternoon because, while he’s been forced to earn a living in another part of the state, all that really matters to him is in Pippa Passes.
His young sons see their dad coming up the gravel drive and burst from the porch to tackle him with a hug.
Three years ago, Johnson’s commute to work was a mere 15 minutes. Today, it’s nearly 4 hours.
When Johnson finished school, he knew he wanted to go underground. It was 2006, and the coal industry was booming in the mountains of eastern Kentucky.
“Anybody could get a job and make great money,” Johnson said.
For 8 years, he worked as an electrician in the coal mines, and life was good. He made a good living, got married. He and his wife, Christy, bought a house and had two children.
But in 2011, the industry began a steady decline. Mines began closing. Companies began layoffs.
Johnson held on until September of 2013, when he was laid off from his job. He was offered a transfer to Illinois, but he didn’t want to leave Kentucky.
He wanted to stay in his hometown of Pippa Passes so his children could grow up like he did — around family. He wanted his children to experience life surrounded by extended family — aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents.
So once the mines closed, he began searching for other work in the area. He quickly realized there was nothing else for him in Knott County. In fact, half of working-age residents in the Appalachian coalfields are out of work, according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.
“There were jobs I could have gotten,” Johnson said. “But just nickel and dime stuff. Nothing I could support a family with.”
Johnson was unemployed almost a year. He exhausted his savings “just to keep afloat.”
On the Internet, he found job postings in Kentucky’s so-called Golden Triangle, a more prosperous region that lies between Louisville, Lexington and Cincinnati. He was somewhat familiar with the region because, as a child, he had spent vacations hunting with his father and grandfather in the area.
After 18 months of unemployment, he got a job at the Dow Corning Corp. plant in Carrollton, working as an electrician.
Johnson isn’t alone in leaving Kentucky's mountain region to find work. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, thousands have left eastern Kentucky to look for work elsewhere. Between 2010 and 2014, more than 7,000 people have migrated out.
Johnson sleeps four nights a week in a friend’s hunting cabin near Owenton, a short drive from the factory where he works. Every Friday, he makes the 4-hour drive back to Pippa Passes, where his wife and kids are waiting for him.
“Sometimes those four days feel like an eternity,” Christy Johnson said.
The Johnsons, certain the coal industry isn’t coming back, are looking for a permanent place to live near his northern Kentucky workplace. They see relocating themselves and their children as a sad but necessary reality.
“For them not to grow up like I grew up, having family around, it’s tough,” he said. “But you got to do what you got to do sometimes.”