MOREHEAD, Ky. -- We brought home three opossums from the mountain country of Appalachia: a mother and her two babies, who are going for a ride on her tail. Miniature versions of the mother, the young ones are hanging upside down by their curled tails. The critters, of course, aren't real. They are wood carvings, beautifully executed and seemingly able to elicit a smile from even the sourest people.
In Appalachia, a region not known for its wealth, my husband I became fervent Money enthusiasts, since our opossums -- also called possums -- were carved and painted by Lonnie and Twyla Money, a husband and wife who are among the hill country's top artisans. They have formidable competition, for eastern Kentucky is justly celebrated for its splendid and irresistible crafts.
You can rent a car and go on a weekend crafts odyssey in the hills of Kentucky, but there are other things to do in what is still coal miners' country. You can visit the ultra-modest childhood home of country music superstar Loretta Lynn, perhaps with her brother showing you around. You can hike and look for elk; we were told there are 3,100 of them in the eastern region of the state.
You can stay at a lodge in one of the beautiful state parks, such as the Jenny Wiley State Resort Park, where a double room with all amenities costs $42 a night this time of year. At the park, you can play golf or fish for striped bass, bluegill, or catfish in large Dewey Lake. When the weather gets warm, you can go for a pontoon boat ride on the lake, get a lesson on resident animals -- including black bears -- from the park naturalist, or even learn to make a bluebird house or a bat house.
If you go after April 1, you can visit Mountain HomePlace, a mid-1800s farmstead with five original buildings, including a one-room schoolhouse, moved there from the surrounding area. You will meet the farm animals and learn that, in the old days, goats were considered family pets. This living-history museum will give you a good idea of the isolation and self-sufficiency of the mountain country farmers.
For my husband and me, though, the crafts -- the most beautiful we have seen in this country -- were a good enough reason for the trip. Even though we're not fond of brown gravy, an essential component in mountain country cooking, we'd go back to Appalachia any time.
Driving around the green countryside, we visited artisan cooperatives, galleries, and gift shops with the famous hand-stitched Appalachian quilts, wood carvings, and other handmade treasures. We spent the most time at the world-class museum of the Kentucky Folk Art Center, with its collection of more than 900 highly varied works by regional folk artists -- and a gift shop, of course.
In this museum store, we fell in love with the Moneys' wood carvings, especially the mother possum and her two offspring. It was unthinkable to return home without this trio, so we bought the artwork, for $130. We also loved, but didn't buy, the Moneys' larger-than-life, jaunty rooster painted fire-engine red.
Asked about the source of all this talent, Twyla Money (pronounced just like the green stuff) told us: "We're close to nature and see the animals all the time. We have lots of possums. The other morning one was eating whatever was under the bird feeder -- I leave sunflower seeds and pieces of stale bread there. It was really going to town on something."
The Moneys have a 100-acre farm in East Bernstadt "that used to be our main job," Twyla Money said. "Now we work on the crafts full time, and the farm is our hobby.
"Chickens are our largest sellers," she said, referring to the wood-carved sort, "but we do a variety of animals: a black bear with a fish in its mouth, a fox with a chicken in its mouth, a pig with an ear of corn. We've found that if they have something in their mouths, they sell better."
The Moneys don't do their artworks exclusively in wood. They also create possums, lizards, pigs, and dragons out of gourds; they grow an acre just for that purpose.
Lonnie does the carving, then Twyla takes over and paints the pieces, which she says "gradually come to life."
Josephine D'Amato Richardson, owner of the Cozy Corner Gift Shop, which sells the Moneys' works, said the skills to create quilts, carvings, and other crafts are "handed down from one generation to the next. It's something people here always did and took pride in." Some, such as retired coal worker Homer Young, now a celebrated quilter, start when they finally have some free time.
Richardson describes Young, who is 6-foot-1 and weighs 250 pounds, as "big and burly -- and yet his large hands can manipulate the tiniest needles." While quilting, he likes to watch auto racing on television.
If the people who live there define a region and its essence, Herman Webb is someone to meet. Webb is the brother of Loretta Lynn and the owner of a country store. But what makes him so popular with visitors is that he graciously shows them around Loretta's and his childhood home in Butcher Hollow (pronounced "holler"). He answers countless questions with astounding patience and courtesy.
There's no question that the family was happy there, even though they had no running water or electricity; Loretta's mother had to line the inside walls with newspapers to help keep out the cold. "My parents had eight children, four boys and four girls, and all eight of us slept in the attic, with a partition between the boys and the girls," Webb said.
A moonshine boiler is prominent in the kitchen. "Dad didn't make moonshine, but Dad's brother did," Webb said. And everywhere you look downstairs there are photographs, mostly of Loretta as a star, but also of their Cherokee and part-Cherokee ancestors. Loretta is one quarter Cherokee.
The coal miner's daughter (of book, song, and film fame) left the family home at the age of 13 to marry Oliver "Mooney" Lynn. By the time she was 18, she had four children. Asked how old Lynn is today, Webb replied, "Loretta doesn't tell her age, but she's in her late 60s."
These days Lynn, who still performs, has a huge ranch in Tennessee, which of course is home to just as many possums as Kentucky. Whether it is home to as many talented craftspeople is a question whose answer would require another trip.
Vera Vida is a freelance writer who lives in Cohasset.