This ran in the Lousiville Courier-Journal on August 5, 2007. The journalist missed the real story, but that happens a lot. Good thing he’s still an intern and has plenty of time to grow in his profession.
Appalachia: beautiful, but melancholic
Mountaintop mining is jeopardizing the region
By Adam de Jong
Once you make it up to Wiley’s Last Resort, the pregnant dogs lead the rest of the way.
From the route that winds off U.S. 119, Wiley’s doesn’t seem like much—a couple of old cabins on opposite ends of a shallow pond, with a narrow dirt path that outlines the campground near the top of Pine Mountain. Toss in a few lawn chairs and a porta-John, and you are at the Mountain Justice Summer Road Show.
Your car rolls forward on a track so thinly paved that it turns into dirt right under your tires, and you feel as though you are wandering through a Tim Burton film. Pink plastic flamingos line each side of the route. Painted, cracked bowling balls sit atop a wooden fence, around the deck by the pond.
I was sent out to Whitesburg, loosely on assignment, because my editors thought it would be a good idea for their editorial intern, a Southern California native with built-in concerns about hillbilly life in Eastern Kentucky, to cover an environmental group’s weekend “conference” on mountaintop removal strip mining, a subject about which I knew very little. They helpfully supplied literature on the subject, and I read as much as I could before heading out to Appalachia, not knowing what to expect, or, rather, expecting something out of my flashbacks to the film “Deliverance.”
The last part of my four-hour drive from Louisville to Whitesburg was interrupted with occasional glimpses of double-wide trailers and, when we got far enough into the mountains, gift shops selling Confederate flags on which had been embroidered black skulls and bones. I wasn’t expecting doom, but I was relieved that a friend had decided to make the trip with me.
When we made it to the top of Pine Mountain, near Whitesburg, I thought we were lost. A German shepherd had gone into labor in a shed, right next to where we parked the car. Not until I saw a sign written in magenta spray paint, reading “Wiley’s,” did I realize we were there.
Outside the shed, checking on the newborn puppies, stood Jim Webb, a man with a crusty voice and a gray ponytail. He is the only private landowner near the top of Pine Mountain in that area. He has lived at Wiley’s for more than a decade, sprucing the place up. When he bought the land, the structures were half-missing, and they didn’t have electricity, and the pond was bone-dry. Over time, he has refilled the pond and made the cabins livable. He recently moved two old cabins to the back of the campground.
“My great-grandparents built these in 1836,” he explained. “My grandfather lived in them. Out of 10 kids, my dad left it to me and one of my brothers. He knew we would take care of them and keep them in the family.”
Webb has been an outspoken critic of mountaintop removal for years. He founded Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, a contemporary Appalachian literary anthology. Gravel adds to the artistic reputation of Letcher County, which is home to Appalshop, the nationally known arts cooperative.
Within an hour of meeting me, Webb took me into his home and sat me down. “Here. Watch this movie. It came out in 1977. It changed my life.”
We watched “In Memory of the Land and People,” Robert Gates’ documentary depicting the destruction caused by strip mining, in which monstrous machines cut into hills or cut off the tops of mountains in order to remove the slivers of coal that lay hidden.
Appalachian locals talk into the camera, some reduced to tears after rainstorms swept the loose soil through their homes and destroyed communities.
It was odd feeling, knowing what the mountains used to look like, and knowing that tens of thousands had left this part of Kentucky, and more had left the rest of Central Appalachia, in a mass exodus produced by the coming of mechanization, which had destroyed so many jobs in the underground mines.
I had come to experience “Mountain Justice Summer,” a meeting of activists who are dedicated to stopping mountaintop removal. Webb hosted the group for the weekend, letting them use his facilities—the camping areas, the porta-John, and a flashlight he loaned to a forgetful newspaper intern.
MJS comprises over 60 people, spread out from Blacksburg, Va., to Massachusetts. It’s an eclectic mix of environmental lawyers, musicians, hippie college kids and vague-talking stragglers. I was there for the monthly meeting of MJS members, at which they organized plans for rallies, sit-ins and other upcoming events. You might have seen some of them protesting on July 25 outside the convention center in Louisville, where Gov. Ernie Fletcher met with Peabody Coal officials to discuss the company’s proposed Western Kentucky coal-to-gas project.
Sitting out on the deck, hanging over the pond, on Saturday morning, MJS folks were trying to figure out how they could fight multi-billion-dollar coal companies like Peabody. Somebody announced the organization had raised $62 that weekend.
The approach these mild-tempered folks take to planning their attack on Big Coal seemed to me both painful and heartwarming. MJS disavows any sort of bureaucracy. It attempts to be an egalitarian movement.
The predictable result is a 15-minute conversation about what kinds of hand signals to use during the meeting, so as to waste as little time as possible.
Despite the heavy weight of cynicism, I couldn’t help but be impressed by such a passionate group, which seemed to include all ages and income levels. Enjoying the mountain breeze for the rest of the afternoon, I sat outside talking with different people who had made the trek. What struck me was that everyone had an understanding of the dire circumstances, but I never sensed any fatalism. But below us, in the distance, were towns that had been left behind by the technological boom, and now the land was being pillaged in new and more ambitious ways.
Once night fell, a couple of fire pits were lit, deck chairs were rearranged, and Wiley’s turned into a music festival. Locals had spotted the advertising—spray-painted signs leading the way up the mountain—and joined us for the evening. The musical ensembles were varied. Some were full-fledged bands. Others amounted to just a guy with a guitar and bottle of Wild Turkey. The music and the dancing raged against what had been done to Appalachia. In between acts, Webb would find his way to the microphone and read one of his poems.
“This one is called ‘I don’t mind living,’ “ he announced. “I don’t mind living/ in a small community/ I just wish I was taller.”
He offered another one.
“This is called ‘Original Sin,’ “ he said. “I like the idea of Original Sin/ But I can’t find anything better to do.”
The music continued all evening. Gulps of moonshine and struts on a wooden dance floor kept the event going into the early morning hours. I didn’t much care for moonshine, but I had been brandished with a new nickname. A couple of Webb’s friends kept calling me “L.A.” Then, somewhere in the early hours, I experienced my first rowdy hillbilly sighting.
A group of locals, who rode in on their four-by-four pickup truck, decided to hassle “Doc,” the MJS group’s nonviolent conflict resolution counselor.
Doc, who said he was born in New Jersey and lives in Florida, but talks with a North Carolina drawl, had tried to make peace with these guys all night. But he couldn’t do it. Word had it that, while I was sleeping, Doc was sucker-punched. In any case, he reappeared the next morning with an impressive shiner.
The festivities were nearly over on Sunday when I hiked around the campground to inspect the sandstone hills that surround Wiley’s. On the ride home, I sat in the passenger seat, listening to Randall Hylton’s “Coal Town Saturday Night,” and reading poetry out of this summer’s Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel issue.
Tracing our steps back, looking at the same double-wide trailers and Confederate flags, I was trying to work my mind through the very little sleep I’d managed.
Sunday afternoons, by their very nature, make one feel nostalgic. But this time, that nostalgia was coupled with a certain sadness that I couldn’t put my finger on. Appalachia is a beautiful place, but there’s a unique kind of melancholy that engulfs it. If you think in terms of the Beatles, it’s a place for people who prefer George rather than John or Paul, for people who like autumn more than spring. Only in Appalachia it isn’t seasonal. There, time and culture are receding, and the past can’t be replaced. The history of coal mining is slipping slowly into yesterday, and the mountains are disappearing slowly under the bulldozers.
But the folks at Wiley’s didn’t buy that sentiment. They were nostalgic, ironically, for a vanishing ideal that tomorrow somehow will be, must be, better than today.
Sitting in a stuffy van on the interstate, heading back to Louisville, there was a Bob Dylan line that kept repeating itself in the back of my head: “They say the darkest hour is right before the dawn.”
Who would have thought I would find Dylan in Whitesburg?
Adam de Jong is The Courier-Journal editorial department’s summer intern. A native of San Diego, he will be a senior this fall at UCLA.