After a five-hour delay at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport – more rain, wind and lightning – we arrived in Louisville and finally made it to our hometown of Campbellsville, Kentucky a little after midnight.
Next morning, Tuesday July 3, we drove 150 miles southeast to visit family in the little mountain town of Harlan, where my father was raised.
Driving through Appalachia, I’m always struck by contrasts: beauty, blight, poverty, natural wealth, dignity, degradation. I am not well-traveled, but I suspect that the region shares these contrasts with other places where economies have been built on extraction by outside interests. Since the end of World War I, unfathomable wealth has left the region in the form of coal, oil, natural gas, and timber, and that outflow continues today. I wonder how much of that wealth ever passes through banks on the Cumberland Plateau. Notwithstanding the occasional fine new brick home perched on a ridge above hovels and wrecks along the creek, the region remains mired in poverty – and the associated problems. As we crossed a bridge over Greasy Creek, Jane pointed out a campaign sign for a local magistrate's race. It listed the candidate's winning qualities: honest, a veteran, sober.
Mountaintop removal and clear-cutting continue amid growing public outcry – mostly from outside the region, as best I can tell. The mining industry still offers the only decent wages for working-class folks. But there are signs of healing. In Harlan county, at least a few hollows now hold modest homes and churches in place of squalid mining camps. As we drove south out of Hyden, I thought of Steve Earle singing “The Mountain.”
There’s a chill in the air only miners can feel
There’s ghosts in the tunnels that the company seals
I recognize that mine is an outsider’s view, though Southern Appalachia is a place I’ve visited often. My people, the Chappells, come from the hollows along various forks of Greasy Creek, in Leslie County – still one of the most sparsely settled counties in a sparsely populated state. But in the 1950s, my father left the mountains and settled in central Kentucky, a gentler place of rolling timbered hills and fertile bottomland, the country I’ll always think of as home. I have not experienced first hand the difficulty and complexity of life in Appalachia, so I try to form my opinions very carefully. Nothing is ever quite as it appears, and it can be awfully hard to discontinue practices that feed and clothe your children – if only barely - even if those practices are killing you and defiling your home region while enriching a few stockholders and providing “affordable” energy to distant, disinterested consumers.
I have long considered Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands one of the best works on the history and culture of the Southern Highlands. But there’s no shortage of proud mountaineers who find the book insulting, even though Caudill was a Letcher County boy who earned his law degree and came back home to fight for his people and region. When I visit, I keep my opinions to myself.
Driving along shaded mountain roads while admiring swinging bridges and tiny, dignified homes and gardens of pole beans, corn, and tomatoes, I reminded myself that a 47 year-old man who misses his father terribly, a man still looking for a place and a way to truly dig in and make a life, had better beware of sentimentality.
Still, I can't help but feel that there’s something in those mountains worth knowing and keeping.