“Take my picture, please, please, take my picture,” said the pretty blond teenager. She was with two friends, a girl and boy, and the threesome was headed into Walmart near Pineville, Kentucky. The two girls stood near one another, and the boy, wearing a baseball cap, jeans, and a light jacket over his lanky frame, drifted a few feet away. I asked him if he wanted to be in the picture, but he said no.
I took two pictures, then she wanted to see them.
“Oh, my eyes are so blue. You have a really good camera,” she said as she continued to look at herself.
“Thanks,” she said. Then they bounced away, joined their male friend and headed into the store.
She made me feel at home. Maybe I expected everything to be different in eastern Kentucky. After all, the region is distinctive. Yet these teens seemed universal.
Eastern Kentucky is coal country, and the Appalachian coal industry is suffering. The Wall Street Journal reports (Nov. 26, 2013, paywall) that across a 26-county region, coal mining and related jobs are down about 30% from 2011. The Journal says, “State officials say there are now fewer miners working in Kentucky than any other time in records dating to the 1920s—a decline largely driven by the eastern slice of the state.”
The decline has three components. President Obama has a regulatory war going on coal, writing new regulations making it more difficult for American power plants to continue using coal. Second, new natural gas production offers cheaper energy, competing very successfully with coal. Third, eastern Kentucky’s coal is some of the most expensive to mine, therefore the region suffers a disproportionate share of the impact from the first two.
In eastern Kentucky, people now feel more apart than ever, as if they are unworthy as well as poor.
Two Aspects of Appalachia
Fifty years ago Appalachia was stereotypically poor. Now Appalachia divides easily into tourist regions (richer) and traditional mountain areas (poorer). Tourist places attract people from urban areas to the east and west who visit for short periods. Visitors find bike trails, lakes and rivers for fishing and boating, deep gorges, waterfalls, plentiful parks with visitor centers, maybe ski resorts, and so on. Near the main attractions are new local businesses: arts and craft stores, upscale antique or quilt shops, quaint restaurants, new condominiums or subdivisions with modern, large living spaces.
As housing develops, some visitors become part- or full-time residents, and soon a modern infrastructure grows. Appalachia is now crisscrossed with modern highways, and people can get in and out in a few hours.
The new Appalachia is well captured in the monthly magazine and website, “Blue Ridge Country,” which are full of landscape and nature photography as well as tips on where to find popular recreational activities.
Traditional areas are poor, out-of-the-way, and often dependent on extractive industries like mining or timbering. Instead of importing tourists, they export products.
Eastern Kentucky is mostly traditional. Middlesboro, KY, near Cumberland Gap, made the news this week because a local preacher, Jamie Coots, died from a rattlesnake bite he got at last Sunday’s service. Central Appalachia has many Pentecostal and Evangelical Protestant churches, and some of them still handle poisonous snakes as a test of Christian faith.
Middlesboro appears more wealthy in part because of its proximity to the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, but also because it benefitted from the development efforts of Alexander Arthur, an engineer and entrepreneur, who took an interest in the area. In the late 1800s, he envisioned Middlesboro as a joint mining and cultural center linked to Knoxville by railroad. Although his railroad project had failed by 1893, the city continued efforts to attract visitors and culture. Now Middlesboro has more people (population 10,334), chain motels and restaurants than nearby Pineville (population 1,732) or Harlan (1,745), both of which are older and county seats.
At Home in Rural America
In Harlan, I had dinner at the Harlan Station Restaurant. The waitress, a middle-age woman with a twinkle in her eye, knew my type immediately.
“Here you are,” she said as she smiled and served a large glass of water. “The Big Duke in on special tonight for $15,” she suggested.
I looked at the menu and saw The Big Duke was an 18-ounce sirloin, with two sides. Perfect. “Okay, I’ll have The Big Duke, medium rare, steamed vegetables and baked potato,” handing her the menu.
Some minutes later she brought it out with a big smile. She knew she was hitting a home run. The Big Duke was about an inch and a half thick. It dwarfed the nearby potato and covered the plate. It was a delicious steak, and it took a long time to finish it. I knew right away that I liked Harlan.
There is more to like than The Big Duke. Harlan, Pineville and Middlesboro, like so many out-of-the-way places, are American towns well connected to their rural surroundings. Such places change slowly and offer a sense of home for people who identify with rural living. And retirement provides opportunities to go exploring.
The next post will be a gallery of photos from the region.