Appalachia described more than a physical geography, it described a proudly self-reliant people who’d lived within these hills and hollows on their own wits for more than two centuries. I mentioned some of my perceptions after I visited Kentucky in 2013. It would be all to easy to reduce Appalachia to unfair hillbilly stereotypes, however the reality was considerably more complex as I searched for dominant themes. Multiple books have been written on each of these subjects. I wished I’d had time or space for something more than a few short paragraphs.
Coal was everywhere. We passed uncountable collections of rusting mining equipment, faded United Mine Workers of America union halls and mountains completely shorn of their tops. Coal underpinned much of the regional economy. The fortunes of Appalachia bobbed with the price of coal and it was down a deep hole as we drove through. Blame the Chinese economy. China’s slowdown dampened an insatiable hunger for coal. Think of places left behind, robbed of their middle class prosperity, and we witnessing them as we followed our twisted track. Many settlements nestled along the valleys felt downtrodden, and poverty never seemed distant even in the nicer parts of town. A slight drizzle and overcast clouds followed us for much of our drive, only heightening the effect.
Coal had to find a way out of Kentucky or Virginia or West Virginia, and that happened over rails. Every river gorge had a companion railroad line, pulling parts of Appalachia away a rail car at a time. Train whistles carried a wistful tune, a constant companion especially at night when sounds echoed down valleys on the wind. I finally made it to the Princeton Railroad Museum outside of Bluefield, West Virginia (map). I had better luck this time than my last visit about a year and a half ago when it was closed. The museum filled two floors a former depot of the Virginia Railway, a line that stretched four hundred miles during its heyday, from the Appalachian coalfields to the port of Hampton Roads near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay.
Bluegrass music got its start in the heart of Appalachia, rooted in Scottish, English and Irish folk traditions carried by immigrants who arrived in the 18th Century. The region only recently began to capitalize on this storied heritage. Virginia established The Crooked Road, as an example, a trail through the rural southwestern corner marked with waysides and venues important to this indigenous musical tradition. I’d hoped to stop at some of those places. Unfortunately we drove through on a Sunday in mid-March and they were universally unavailable either because it was too early in the season or because it was a day of rest.
We did stumble upon a political rally on the West Virginia side of the border with Kentucky completely by chance when I veered away from the highway to capture a new county. It was a pity the band played mainstream Country rather than Bluegrass. I might have stayed a little longer than a few minutes if it were Bluegrass and if we didn’t already have a long list of places we needed to see that day.
The Appalachian states roiled in conflict during the American Civil War, 1861-1865. Virginia clearly sided with the Confederacy. Part of Virginia split to form a new state, West Virginia, aligned with the Union. Kentucky became a border state and fell within Union control early in the war. Nothing was ever that simple in Appalachia, however. People picked sides regardless of residence, sometimes splitting loyalties even within families. We passed a marker in Kentucky near the Virginia border that mourned an unknown Confederate soldier (map). He passed through as the war concluded, probably on his way home, only to be ambushed on the side of the road by anonymous assassins. Local townsmen buried him at the spot and later planted a rosebush to mark his grave, although he could not be identified and his family never learned his fate.
Violence returned in the early 20th Century as exploited coal miners began to unionize, a movement called the Coal Wars or the Mine Wars. One of the more significant clashes took place in a town we visited, Matewan, West Virginia. It was best known as the site of the Matewan Massacre. Earlier it also stood at ground zero for the Hatfield and McCoy feud. An undercurrent of violence ran deep.
I considered that moonshine verged on stereotype, however the area seemed to embrace its rebellious image at nearly every museum or exhibit we encountered. Appalachia had a long history of illegal alcohol hidden in remote backwoods, of corn liquor distilled one step ahead of law enforcement, of fast cars flying down country lanes, of secret stashes and tax evasion. Often this served as a romantic metaphor for the independent nature of people who lived in isolated communities beyond the normal reach of authorities. Moonshine probably continued to trickle from the mountaintop stills for all I knew, although a bigger drug problem seemed to have pushed it aside recently.
Breaks Interstate Park had a particularly nice example of a moonshine still on exhibit. (map)
Breaks Interstate Park also featured another historical artifact of more recent vintage although it wasn’t marked and few people knew about it, probably because it didn’t really have that much significance outside of Virginia’s local politics. I remembered the details. It happened in 2006 as Senator George Allen ran for reelection. His campaign stopped at Breaks where he delivered a speech to loyal supporters. A tracker for his opponent had followed the campaign for several days, recording every move. Allen must have finally reached a breaking point because he referred to the tracker, a man of South Asian ancestry as "macaca," a derogatory slur based on a Portuguese word for monkey. The tracker captured Allen’s quote on video, and from there it hit the mainstream press, going viral. Allen lost the election to his opponent, Jim Webb, and with it his presidential ambitions. In Virginia politics this came to be known as the "Macaca Moment."
I knew the incident took place at one of the picnic pavilions at Breaks Interstate Park, although I didn’t know which one. I took a photograph of the most accessible pavilion as a proxy to memorialize this event (map).
The true salvation of modern Appalachia may be tourism. Its rich heritage and natural beauty would seem to be considerably more stable than the price of coal. It also seemed so completely untapped in many places we saw while we wandered. People would flock to these spots if they were more well known and more accessible. Efforts have been made, of course, and sometimes they showed up in unexpected places. We stopped for lunch at a scenic covered bridge in Virginia (map) and I looked up to see the letters L-O-V-E formed strategically in front of the bridge, only visible from a certain angle. It was part of a the Virginia Tourism Corporation’s highly successful Virginia is for Lovers campaign. I thought it was rather clever how a tree represented the letter V.
Appalachian Loop articles:
- Part 1 (The Quest)
- Part 2 (Vistas)
- Part 3 (Cultural Threads)
- Part 4 (Hatfield and McCoy)
- Part 5 (Bridges)
- Part 6 (Seeing is Believing)
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr