As a native Kentuckian, born and raised just down the road, I’d made lots of assumptions about a massive automobile salvage site when I asked permission to take photos there the day after a beautiful Christmas snowfall.
Curled around a wooded hillside just south of Berea on U.S. 25, Kentucky Auto Parts & Sales is a striking roadside attraction, especially when the leaves fall and unveil thousands of wrecked and abandoned vehicles, so orderly and devoid of life that the site looks like a busy drive-in theater after the Rapture.
Few images more readily conjure Appalachian cliches than derelict cars lazing about a property, but this ghostly site defies easy stereotyping and invites serious reflections on energy and its consequences.
Scholars, climate activists, and policy makers call our current period the Anthropocene, a new geological designation that assumes that human activity, at least since the Industrial Revolution, has altered the planet so dramatically that only revolutionary change can avert calamity. At the center of this man-made disruption are coal, petroleum, and natural gas – the very fossil fuels that made modernity possible but imperiled the climate, environment, and much of carbon-based life in the process.
Kentucky’s notoriety in the Anthropocene era is its vast carbon seams. Once viewed as a natural bounty that gave us iron, steel, and electricity, coal’s legacy is one of shortsighted resource dependence, environmental contamination, poverty, black lung, and fierce labor disputes (see the wonderful 1976 documentary, Harlan County, USA). Novelist Silas House once wrote that Appalachian people “have always been told they are of less value than the resources they live above.”
Yet coal and cars belong to the same carbon matrix. An electrical grid is only as green as its power plants, and in the United States, fossil fuels still produce nearly 60 percent of the electricity needed for plug-in cars. In important ways, Kentucky Auto Parts is more transplant center than automobile graveyard.
Larry Todd, who founded the business with his son in 1998, estimates that about 90% of the 3,000 or so vehicles arrive as wrecks designated a total loss by insurance companies. In this de-assembly plant, a sort of reverse Henry Ford-ism, workers harvest engines, transmissions, head and tail lights, fenders, and many other reusable parts from an inventory carefully logged into a computer. Eventually, the cars are crushed and moved along for steel and iron recycling.
This is not a final resting place or hillbilly junkyard, but a necessary stage in the salvage, junking, and scrapping process in a world that went all in on internal-combustion engines.
The official address for Kentucky Auto Parts is 666 Mount Vernon Road, a number with apocalyptic resonance in this heavily evangelical and pro-Trump region. Crashes and collisions reunite the human and natural worlds, technology and the environment. Human traces infuse every corner of these 20 acres. With hoods up, doors or tires missing, and trunks ajar, most cars represent someone’s really bad day—at best an embarrassing mishap on the way to work or school, at worst a serious injury or even death.
Still and peaceful under a light dusting of snow, these automotive ruins stand as stark reminders of our ongoing petro-dependency. Though part of an important recycling process, the vehicles weren’t removed from our roads and highways in favor of plug-in cars, better public transportation, or high-speed rail. These are not quaint material artifacts relegated to a carbon museum, but place-holders for the gas-powered vehicles of future model years.
Whereas the Trump administration doubled down on carbon extraction and was hostile to climate accords and treaties, President Biden has pledged to “reinvent the American transportation system from the factory line to the electric charging station.” But achieving Biden’s net-zero emissions, even by 2035, is a daunting task.
At once apocalyptic and beautiful, the wrecks look like something from a climate fiction novel or film. In the “clifi” world, winter represents the moment when carbon dependence has damaged the planet beyond repair, when a few remaining inhabitants are forced to ride out a man-made ice age in a hell train, as envisioned in Bong Joon Ho’s film Snowpiercer (2013), or burn books to stay warm inside the New York Public Library, as Jake Gyllenhaal’s character does in The Day After Tomorrow (2004).
Reframed as aesthetic objects, the technological remains here have the potential to unsettle our carbon mindset and suggest a fierce sense of urgency. Is change possible? Are we willing to make the social, cultural, political, and scientific changes necessary to alter our current trajectory? Will we heed the “Green New Deal,” the congressional resolution that details the comprehensive changes that our Anthropocene moment calls for?
Let’s not let this be another sad chapter in a hillbilly elegy, but a blaring horn for revolutionary change.
Willie Hiatt, who was born and raised in Mount Vernon, is an Associate Professor of History at Long Island University, Post Campus. His current research on energy and the electrical grid examines the destruction of high-tension towers and blackouts during Peru’s Shining Path revolutionary movement (1980-2000). In his free time, he is a street photographer based in Queens, New York.