Appalachia Natives: The Mountains Do Not Limit Us, We Do

I recently met with a former coal and gas executive from the Midwest. He used to travel to Central Appalachia – Eastern Kentucky – to supervise mining operations. This is same section of Central Appalachia where I was raised; in fact the mines he visited were within an hour or so from my childhood home.

He shared a couple of great Central Appalachia tales with me – gun-wielding grannies and copper thieves. But the most interesting description he gave was about how he felt in the mountains. He had never been in mountains so steep or been in a place where the sun comes up before you can see it and it disappears behind a mountain before it gets dark.

He said, “I felt claustrophobic.”

This made me think about how those mountains make me feel. To me those mountains are like a warm blanket surrounding, nurturing, and protecting all who walk under them. Keeping the good in and the bad out.

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Then I thought about how the landscape of the Midwest, where I live now, made me feel when I first arrived. The word that immediately came to mind was exposed. I felt exposed by the size of the sky, the distance of vision, and the constant wind. I have never been exposed to this much sky for this length of time (thus my fixation with sunrises and sunsets). In the mountains of Central Appalachia the sky is always framed with the jagged edges of tree limbs and mountaintops like a giant living, real-time painting.

This discussion reminded me of a quote from a book I read in college – Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington. Mr. Covington writes about his drive from Alabama to and through these very mountains and my hometown of Grundy, Virginia.

All along the highways through Tennessee and southwest Virginia, the signs were everywhere: Crazy Joe’s Fireworks, Jack Daniel’s whiskey, drag racing, turkey shoots, and barbecue. The South they suggested was straight out of the movies – idiosyncratic, lazy, restless, and self-absorbed. And that was what Jim and Melissa and I talked about on the drive, the discrepancy between the South of the popular imagination and the one we lived and worked in every day. But once the road narrowed and entered the mountains, the signs disappeared, replaced by mine tipples, mantrips, and long lines of train cars filled with coal that steamed in the rain. The last motels and hospital were at Grundy, Virginia, a mining town on the lip of a winding river between mountains so steep and irrational, they must have blocked most of the sun most of the day. It is difficult to imagine how children can grow up in such a place without carrying narrowed horizons into the rest of their lives.

But Grundy was an oasis compared with the country between it and Jolo.

He, like my friend, saw the mountains as hard – hard to adjust to, hard to live in, and hard to understand. They immediately saw the limitations of the mountains.

As a child of those mountains it never occurred to me that the mountains were limiting, restrictive, or negative. It never occurred to me that the mountains were preventing me from seeing something more. When I lived in the mountains I never missed the orange and pink glow of the sun as it came up and went down along the horizon. Rather, I enjoyed the light as it slowly lowered down the hillside in the morning and as it retreated up the hillside in the evening. Neither one is limiting, only different.

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The mountains were a vast playground of trees, moss, creeks, and rocks – where the only rule was to be back before dark. All of those hills, rocks, crevices, streams, and hollers were a big classroom for learning life skills. These are a few of my favorite lessons :

  • In order to walk down the side of a hill without falling adjust your stance, turn your feet horizontally and descend slowly.
  • If you want to create an extra source of water for yard work then you dam up a section of the creek, gravity feed the water down the holler, then pump it up the hillside.
  • Always make sure your walking stick is sturdy.
  • Never kill a black snake, because it eats the rodents.
  • Be careful what you do at the head of the holler because it will show up at the mouth – it all runs downhill.
  • Respect everyone and things that are bigger, stronger, and/or more powerful than you – the mountain, weather, a loaded coal truck, bears, and water.
  • Never kill a mama bear or a deer that isn’t big enough and throw the fish back. If you kill it, then you eat it. No waste.
  • Don’t be a wimp. Play when you are hurt, work when you are tired.
  • Never forget where you came from or deny your family.

All those lessons live on and color the life we make in and out of the mountains. Just like the mountains, those lessons are timeless. And what we learned from and in the mountains can carry us far beyond and right back to where we started, if we choose to wander.

The mountains don’t narrow our horizons, only we do that.

A Christmas Wish: To Love Our Differences

I promised myself that I would not spend my holiday on my phone. But, I allowed myself one round of Facebook on Christmas Eve morning. I scrolled through the standard holiday wishes, complaints and celebrations about the unseasonably warm weather, political rhetoric of all sorts, and pictures of parties and food. But there was one post that caught my attention. I stopped and thought about the post. It made me feel both happy and sad.

A friend and colleague of mine posted a holiday wish that was different than the others. It was a sincere Christmas wish and blessing, for sure, but there was no decorated tree, nativity scene, Biblical quote about the birth of Jesus, or reminder about the “reason for the season.” All that was missing because my friend is a devout Muslim.

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This message is something very different from what I see in my social media feed, on the news, and in the world. It was lovely to see my friend support and respect his many Christian friends who don’t share his beliefs. He didn’t have to; he could have ignored Christmas like many Christians ignore or are unaware of the holidays he celebrates with his family. He clearly values his community and his friends, but even more I believe that he honors his own beliefs by honoring others. Even those who are not like him.

Ahmed’s thoughtful and loving message is a reminder that we don’t have to hate people who are different. Someone else’s beliefs are not by their mere existence an attack on my beliefs because they are different. We can love, serve, befriend, and care about those who are different from us without compromising our own values and beliefs.

My Christmas and New Year’s wish is that I and many others will make the choice to learn about and from our differences. Or at the very minimum learn to respect the different lives and beliefs of others – whether that difference is religious, political, socio-economic, a preference for Star Wars over Star Trek, or just a different accent.

That is love. And isn’t Christmas all about love? I believe it is.

 

Portland, OR: Gluten-Free Paradise

I sat down at the bar at Ground Breaker Brewing in Southeast Portland for dinner. The server approached with a menu and I immediately launched into my I-have-celiac-disease routine. She listened and promptly responded, with a smile, that they do not use gluten anywhere in their facility and that I could have anything on the menu. I was giddy. This never happens.

Next she said, “you don’t have to be afraid here.”

She got it.

Eating out for someone with celiac disease is scary. When food is what makes you sick trusting a stranger to take your condition seriously and make sure you are safe is terrifying. Eating dinner out is like rolling dice; you just never know whether you are going to be sick tomorrow or not.

In most restaurant kitchens wheat abounds and special care must be taken with my food to be sure my meal is truly gluten-free and to prevent cross contamination. This means that not only do I have limited choices of food when I go to restaurants; I have a limited choice of restaurants. In the town that I live I eat at 5 places because those are the only places where I feel safe.

I travel frequently and on occasion I happen upon a 100% gluten-free restaurant or bakery like Posana in Asheville, NC or Coffee and a Specialty Bakery in Seattle, WA. These, of course, are the exception and not the rule – unless you are in Portland.

In Portland I felt like I had been set free, at least in the culinary sense. I ate at multiple restaurants that were 100% gluten-free and others that were experienced serving patrons with celiac disease. It is such a pleasant experience to eat without fear that what you are consuming might hurt you tomorrow.

In my short stay I made the following gluten-free stops in Portland (there are others and I’ll get to them next time):

Ground Breaker Brewing – Ground Breaker is a cozy spot with super friendly staff. I had gnocchi with a venison ragout, fish tacos, and their version of Appalachian stack cake (it wasn’t so much Appalachian, but that is another post entirely).

Brooklyn House – This restaurant is in a former home and has lovely little nooks and crannies perfect for a date or small celebration. It has a 100% gluten-free kitchen with a diverse menu. I had sweet potatoes and the white fish over Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, and carrots.

Deschutes Brewery – Deschutes is a super popular Pearl District brewery with award-winning beers. They do a gluten-free beer, but more importantly they have a dedicated fryer. So, I had fries, with garlic and cheese, for the first time in forever. Worth the trip.

Prasad – This is a 100% gluten-free and vegan spot located inside Yoga Pearl, a yoga studio located in the Pearl District. They serve full meals and juices. I ate here twice for breakfast. Day one I had a green juice and a rice bowl. Day two I enjoyed the chili farmhouse scramble with tempeh, greens, and brown rice with another green juice. Both were fantastic. The space is small and is open, so you will see the yogis come and go.

Petunia’s Pies and Pastries – Petunia’s is 100% gluten-free and vegan bakery and was a two-stop spot as well. They serve breakfast, sweets, and drinks and it is lovely. They offer biscuits and gravy and while I was tempted to try I declined, I would rather remember biscuits and gravy the way my Mommy makes them (with lots of gluten). But I did have coconut yogurt with fruit and blueberry coconut pound cake. On the return trip I had a maple, pumpkin, carrot, and zucchini cupcake with maple icing. Also, worth the trip.

Verde Cocina – Also in the Pearl District, this Latin restaurant has a gluten-free kitchen and features house-made chips and tortillas from certified gluten-free masa. I had dinner and lunch here. At dinner I had a chili relleno and for lunch chilaquiles. Both were wonderful, but know these aren’t the cheesy, greasy version of Latin dishes you might expect; both entrees were light on the cheese and heavy on the vegetables. Good and good for you.

Andina – This was the event dinner of the trip. Andina is located around the corner from Verde Cocina in the Pearl District, and while not 100% gluten-free it has a robust gluten-free menu and well-trained staff. There was spicy tuna with potatoes and crab salad, marinated asparagus, paella, and espresso panna cotta. All amazing. The server was very helpful; she eats gluten-free and took the time to recommend a number of other places to visit.

I am looking forward to my next trip to Portland and hope that what is happening in the food world there quickly spreads. If keeping Portland weird means keeping it this gluten-free, then I am in.

The Oldest Thing I Own

What is the oldest thing you own and why?

I was at a dinner party recently where the hosts used a question game to keep dinner conversation moving. Everyone at the table drew a question from a basket and shared their answer with the group. My question was something about what I do on my days off. But this question – what is the oldest thing you own and why? – has stuck with me.

I thought about it on the drive home and woke up thinking about it the next morning.

I first thought of my grandmother’s ring that I wear everyday. It is old. Then I thought about my Uncle Jim’s turquoise bracelet, it is old too. On my way into the garage to leave for work I saw the oldest thing I own. It was sitting in the garage waiting to be moved into the house.

At the end of summer, my Daddy delivered a cabinet to my house that belonged to my grandmother. For as long as I can remember it lived in her bedroom. She kept lots of things in it – VHS tapes, trinkets, or blankets in the windowed shelves. In the drawers were cancelled checks, mementos from trips, scarves, and gloves. I remember waking up as a child in her bedroom and seeing that cabinet first thing in the morning. I know the feeling of the cabinet doors catching as I opened and closed them because the door frames are no longer even. This cabinet was part of her house, part of the experience of living there. It was a fixture. I used this cabinet when I moved into her house in 2006, after she was gone. I used it in the same room and in same ways, minus the cancelled checks, for the next five years.

On the way to work, I called Daddy and asked him about the age of the cabinet? It was older than I thought. It originally belonged to my great-grandmother and according to Daddy it could date back to the 1920s or 1930s.

We talked about what it is made of and whether the glass was original. It is likely that the glass has been replaced and that it wouldn’t stand up to much stress. The back is particle board and it has been stained and painted and repainted many times. He said, “That is why that cabinet is only valuable to you.”

So true.

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The cabinet’s current home in Indiana.

I thought about the why, why do I have it. It wasn’t that it was given to me, I asked for it. I wanted it more than I wanted the darkly stained regal-looking claw-foot cabinet that my sister has in her home. Comparing the two this one is not much. It is the same green color it has been for the last 40 years and lined with the same floral paper my grandmother put in it 20 years ago. And until its arrival in Indiana it probably had never left Buchanan County, Virginia.

It has stood watch in her house for many years and if it talked it could tell many stories – births, deaths, holidays, and everything in between. For many years it was positioned against the wall across from where she knelt every night to pray and was the first thing she saw every morning. It was something she touched nearly everyday and when you open the drawers today it still smells like her house. I can’t look at it and not think of her or her house on the mountain that at one time or another was home to every member of my immediate family. You can’t buy that.

I own it because it is a tangible memory – something to rekindle the memories that fade with time. A precious heirloom. Because, in the words of Hazel Dickens, “there are some things memories can’t bring home.”

Fall in the Midwest Remembers Spring at the Four Seasons in Nevis

Last week while driving through rural Indiana I caught a glimpse of a soybean field at that special moment when it is green, yellow, and brown at the same time. I immediately stopped in the middle of the road. This is one of those moments, like the turning of the leaves, that change daily. You can’t wait until tomorrow to capture that view, because by tomorrow it will have changed.

It is pretty.

But, it is also a sign. A sign that fall is upon us and that winter is coming. The combines have started to churn up dust on the horizon. At night you can see the eerie glow of the combine lights as they work. Fresh apples are everywhere and the leaves will changes colors soon. This is all part of the opening act for the Midwestern winter – first comes harvest, then the leaves disappear, the wind quickly becomes unbearable, and then the snow. Maybe it will be an easy winter, maybe it will be another harsh one – it is impossible to predict. No one knows.

I looked at those soybean fields and my mind took me right back to my 5 days on the island of Nevis, West Indies in May. It is shocking how quickly a thought of winter will prompt my amygdala to paint scenes of sandy beaches and ocean sunsets in my mind.

I realized earlier this year that I was going to need a real break. I would need a vacation that was more than a stay-cation but less than an over-scheduled-experience-everything-possible vacation. A cousin and a dear friend both recommended Nevis after taking trips there (separately – they don’t know each other). So I signed up, with much less research than I normally do before committing to a trip.

I was a bit nervous about going alone. Traveling alone on a trip with a lot of activities is easy and I do that all the time, but I wondered if I would be happy being alone with nothing much to do for 5 days. But, I went anyway.

I am glad I did.

I spent five peaceful, refreshing, and fabulous days at the Four Seasons Resort on Nevis. It was so lovely that I did not leave the resort. Why would you – there are walking trails, 4 restaurants, 3 pools, watersports, and plenty of perfect beach right there.

It was the best solo trip I have ever taken – walks, reading, laying by the ocean, and making new friends. Dinners were amazing – the two fine dining restaurants Mango and the Coral Grill, were able to create celiac-friendly meals and legitimately seemed to enjoy doing it. The staff members were lovely. They learned my name and preferences quickly and made me feel right at home – so much so that I got goodbye hugs on my last night at Mango. It was an easy place to be.

I returned like new – calm, focused, and ready to get back to life until the next break. So, this winter when I am wondering when it is going to stop snowing I am going to remember Nevis to remind me that winter isn’t all that long. That should hold me over until Hawaii in January.

Mountaineers Are Always Free: My Introduction to Roger May

When I travel I always endeavor to find something interesting to do other than the usual tourist attraction. This is especially true in places I’ve visited before.

Sometimes this involves music, like the time I happened upon a Billy Joe Shaver concert at an art opening in Houston. It was such a small event we were able to have a good long visit with Billy Joe (a national treasure). Other times it’s a museum exhibit. That is how I got to see the history of dresses (or something like that) at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

This week I was reminded of one of these experiences I had in Durham, North Carolina.

I was in Chapel Hill to see a friend and in a Google search prior to the trip I found an exhibit at a letterpress, graphic design, and print shop called Horse & Buggy Press. I had never heard of Horse & Buggy, and had no reason to, but was immediately drawn in by the name of the exhibit. It was called Testify: A Visual Love Letter to Appalachia by Roger May.

My childhood friend and I arrived at the print shop thinking this was as much an art gallery as a print shop. Not so much, but what we found was beautiful. While the majority of the first floor was a print shop there was a small lobby near the door that served as the gallery. Horse & Buggy printed Mr. May’s Testify, a limited edition, two-volume set of books featuring 50 photographs of Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky. Some of the photographs from the books were displayed in frames on the shop’s walls near the front entrance.

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Mr. May’s photographs were stunning and moving. Many of his photographs in Testify were taken less than an hour away from my childhood home. He captured with great care scenes from Central Appalachia as it is and has been for most of my life. I immediately bought the books and currently display them on my living room coffee table. I see them every day.

I recently showed the books to my father, a life-long resident of Central Appalachia, who was a bit flippant about looking at them. I imagine he was thinking that I was forcing him to appreciate some silly art or weird music (he knows his child). That changed when he realized what he was looking at and then he slowed down, his face softened and he looked with interest and more care. He saw something he knew. He said “I drove by this last month.” It is an amazing thing to see the things and places that you love captured in beautiful and respectful ways. That is what Mr. May did in Testify and does in his work. He displays the truth and beauty of Central Appalachia, including its idiosyncrasies and flaws, in a caring and respectful way.

Mr. May’s description of Testify and its meaning is as lovely as the photographs –

This is my testimony of how I came to see the importance of home and my connection to place. After moving away as a teenager, I’ve struggled to return, to latch on to something from my memory. These images are a vignette into my working through the problem of the construction of memory versus reality. My work embraces the raw beauty of the mountains while keeping at arms length the stereotypical images that have tried to define Appalachia for decades.

Mr. May’s first run of Testify went on to sell out. Currently, there are not plans for a second edition (although I bet if Horse & Buggy gets enough requests they might just do one).

I had never heard of Mr. May until I stumbled upon Horse & Buggy. He describes himself as an Appalachian American photographer and is most recently well-known for his work on the Looking at Appalachia project. You can read about it in National Geographic and the New York Times blog. He has a fun Instagram feed (@walkyourcamera) and a giant tattoo on his chest that reads Montani Semper Liberi – Mountaineers are always free, the West Virginia state motto. He is serious about Appalachian and I love that.

This week on Instagram Mr. May announced that he is selling his personal copies of Testify on a first come first serve basis. That post reminded me of what a treasure I found in an unlikely place on a random afternoon in Durham.

I am grateful for Mr. May and his work and love for Appalachia. I am also grateful for adventures that lead me to wonderful new people and things.