I lost sleep the night before my first trip to far eastern Kentucky. I think like a lot of northerners, my only cultural reference points for Appalachia were Beverly Hillbillies episodes and Deliverance. I didn’t know what I was going to find out there, but I was fairly certain it was going to involve bib overalls, gum boots, banjos, and scatterguns. By noon the following day I was relaxing in a sandwich shop in beautiful Whitesburg, Kentucky, so embarrassed I could barely finish my chicken salad. By the time I left town six hours later, I swore I’d one day own a house there.
The first thing you notice when you get more than an hour or so east of Lexington are how good the roads are. The highways are wide, flat and perfectly kept. WAY better than anything in or around Chicago. They were built for the coal trucks, and though you still see plenty of those now, there aren’t nearly as many as there were a decade ago. That worried a naturalist that I met in Whitesburg. He wasn’t a booster of fossil fuels per se, but he knew that the fast-declining economy of East Kentucky was going to be bad for the people living in there, and what was bad for the people would, in the end, be bad for the environment. His dream was, and I’m sure still is, for central Appalachia to become the eco-tourism hub of the Eastern United States. He claimed that the ecosystem around nearby Pine Mountain was as diverse as any in Africa. To prove it he took my business partners and me up there that afternoon. The white-knuckle ridge line drive is about all I remember from the experience unfortunately — that and the dude’s painted fingernails. Never really got an explanation for those.
The whole experience was what you might call a rolling surprise. I didn’t expect to see modern metal sculptures along town streets, much less visit a regionally famous film and recording studio, or drop in at a stone church that had been built by Italian immigrants in the 30’s. But that’s present day Appalachia for you. Jed Clampett doesn’t live there anymore.
Which is not to say that every town in the region has Whitesburg’s eclectic mountain cool. At the other end of the spectrum is Whitley City, the largest town in America’s poorest county. Whitely City is the ultimate green ghetto, with all the meth and teeth problems you’ve heard about, also a new elementary school, a great little Mexican restaurant, and a Catholic chapel housed in a converted auto repair shop. The altar sits over what was once the grease pit. Like all the other tiny Catholic parishes in Appalachia — and there are lots of them — Good Shepherd is less a conventional church than an anchor for interdenominational food aid and housing programs. Whitley City needs a lot of both. Landlocked inside the huge Daniel Boone National Forest, it’s a town that can’t grow. So even if some motivated entrepreneur did find an inexpensive way to get raw materials into Whitely City and finished goods out again (a big problem for Appalachia generally), there’s no land on which to build a factory. People have too little money to leave, nowhere to go if they could, and sick or elderly relatives that need them. So the poverty goes on.
For all that, the thing that strikes you when you’re there is how normal things feel, even hanging around the food pantry, which is in an old strip mall. It doesn’t occur to you, until you happen to glance down, that the hippie-looking guy you’re chatting amiably with about UK basketball really isn’t wearing shoes, but rather a pair of falling-apart flip-flops. Which wouldn’t be so unusual except it’s 38 degrees outside. Huh.
So it’s not as though you don’t have a lot of stereotypically “Appalachian” stuff in Appalachia, you just have an awful lot more than that. Most especially people — a wide, wide variety of people — most of whom don’t think of themselves as being Appalachian most days, but as basically usual people doing basically usual things. That’s the reason, I think, that few people I know who either live in Appalachia or spend any time there ever liked Hillbilly Elegy, the best-selling memoir that took the book world by storm about five years ago. The reason, because most Appalachians don’t like being seen as exotics, cockatoos with Kentucky accents. They know there are such things as hillbillies, sure there are. But right beside them at the town Burger King are plenty of other billies: normalbillies, nerdbillies, hipsterbillies, yuppiebillies, trekkiebillies, greenbillies, gothbillies, pastrybillies…there’s no end to it.
Of course it took my going there to really figure that out. I wish more people would. Like the near South Side of Chicago, where few people who didn’t live there ventured until about a decade ago, it’s right there, it’s waiting, and it could be fabulous if more people decided to take an interest. I recommend it to you if you have the inclination.