Top of the Bottom

Just outside the Grundy, Virginia, city limits, and not too far upstream along Slate Creek, the highway hugs the base of a small, perfectly rounded mountain, making almost a complete circle before straightening out toward downtown Grundy.

Slate Creek also bends around this small round mountain, and that section of the stream is called “Bend of Slate.”  The neighborhood on the narrow strip of land along the sandy banks at Bend of Slate–between the highway and the creek — is known locally as “the Bottom,” which I always took as “bottom of the mountain,” or “bottom of the holler,” or, for a while (before I could really read or write), some foreign word pronounced “boddum.”

I lived in and visited the Bottom throughout my childhood, and still drive through the old neighborhood whenever I’m in Grundy.  My memories include cousins, creeks, mountains, motorcycles, and walking down to the filling station to get a banana-flavored popsicle.

My fondest memories, however, cluster at the upstream end of Bend of Slate.  It was here, at the “top” of the Bottom, that Granny owned and operated Caudill’s Drive-In, with the creek on one side, a vegetable garden on the other, and a patch of trees out back casting shade over a gigantic natural sandbox, carried there by the creek, grain-by-grain over time.

I have sparse recollections of being inside Granny’s restaurant during its evening hours.  When the sun set and the small parking lot began filling up, I wasn’t allowed at the restaurant, I wasn’t allowed in the road, and sometimes I wasn’t even allowed outside of Granny’s house, which sat within sight of the restaurant a short distance “down” the Bottom.

During the day, and from as early as I can remember, I roamed the Bottom as I pleased. I spent most days chasing my older cousins, John and Jim, on their adventures; I went along on many of their outings, but got ditched on others when I was “too little” or otherwise bothersome (I spent an equal amount of time running swiftly away from John and Jim, but those are stories for a later day).  Another playmate, Harley, was closer to my own age. It seems to me now that everything Harley and I did back then resulted in one or both of us getting chased off the creek bank and switched into the house.

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Granny and 8 of her 13 grandchildren.

So, whenever John and Jim ditched me for the day (or I had escaped them, as the case may be), and poor, slow Harley couldn’t outrun his chasing, switching mother, I found myself alone, still free to roam the Bottom on my own whim and leisure. I invariably found my way to the restaurant, where I knew Granny would be back in the kitchen, cooking and cleaning, getting set for that evening’s crowd.

Granny’s restaurant was a small brick building with a sign hanging on the corner which read “Caudill’s Drive-In.”  I don’t remember whether the sign lit up (I was never there at night, remember?), but I think “Caudill’s” was spelled out vertically from top to bottom, and “Drive-In” was lettered horizontally along the bottom of the sign.

A small door led into the front room; there was a pool table and a countertop bar across the room.  I’m sure there were booths and/or tables, but the front room usually was dark when I visited.  Beyond the front room and counter was a door to the kitchen, with a service window opening up behind the counter.  Somewhere in there was a snack rack, with chips, nuts, candy, and the ever-popular Slim Jim “smoked meat stick” on display.  I loved me some Slim Jims, and Granny knew it.

What I knew was that I stood a much better chance of getting a Slim Jim from Granny if I was alone.  I don’t remember how I stumbled upon this notion, and it only occurred to me years later that she probably didn’t want to hand out whole boxes of Slim Jims to a gaggle of Bottom boys every day.  Thus, on most visits to Granny at the restaurant, I was actually sneaking up there by myself.

Sometimes I’d get straight to the point and ask Granny for a Slim Jim, sometimes I even grabbed one on the way to the kitchen, then asked if I could have it while poised to rip open the package. Most times, however, I hung at the counter and beat around the bush while Granny worked and talked to me from the kitchen; at some point, she would stop what she was doing and come out to the counter, grabbing a Slim Jim on her way. She would open the package and toss the wrapper, and I would eat the whole thing right there while we chatted.

I don’t recall ever discussing with anyone my solo visits to Granny’s restaurant, until many years later, after everybody was all grown up and could go get their own Slim Jims.

Scott Caudill

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The Bend of Slate

The Slate Creek winds down from Bradshaw Mountain along State Route 83 to Grundy, Virginia where it converges with the Levisa River and heads on into Kentucky to become the Big Sandy and then the Ohio River.

Screenshot 2018-04-06 14.33.05Just a few miles east of Grundy, situated along the shallow banks of the Slate Creek is the Bend of Slate, or as it is known to those who are from there, “The Bottom.” Between the 1940s and 1970s my father and his siblings were born and grew up in wide curve between a two-lane state road and the creek.

The curve was lined with small box houses, some of which were built onto and others that were later torn down and replaced with single or double wide trailers. Across the creek from the bottom was a one-lane road dotted with houses of a few families, some of whom you can still find there. At one end of The Bottom was “the restaurant,” official known as the Caudill’s Drive-In. My grandmother ran it for years – best hamburgers in the world I’m told.

The creek was not quite a stream or river. It could easily become swollen and forceful, quickly filling up backyards and basements. But most often it was the site of rock-skipping and swimming. Like the mountains, the river was part of the family.

The Bottom was home to a cast of unforgettable characters and the scene of a number of unbelievable stories of family, friendship, love, nonsense, and survival deep in the mountains of Central Appalachia.

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Martha, W.J., Fred, Omalee, and I.D.

In the last few years, we have lost 2 of the 5 siblings my father’s family, Omalee and Fred. In an effort to hold on to and celebrate those memories I will be posting stories from time to time about the Bend of Slate. I will start with an essay by my first cousin Scott about our Granny. His daddy Fred, who left us last month, once said that Scott and Granny had a “special understanding.” Now I know what Fred meant.

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.

 

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.

Testify

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.

App-uh-latch-uh

Appalachia is more than a place. The Appalachian Mountains are rich with customs, food and dialect that is not found anywhere else. Those mountains are at the core of the people who were raised there or have adopted it as home. The mountains become part of who we are, why we are, and how we go about what we do.

Great Smokey MountainsOne of the things that many Appalachia natives are particular about is how we say our name. This is also something that many people from elsewhere do not understand. In Central Appalachia, where I am from, it is app-uh-LATCH-uh, not app-uh-LAY-sha. I am told that there are people in Appalachia who were taught to use the latter pronunciation. Fair enough, I obviously get regional dialect. Please understand, when you say App-uh-LAY-sha in much of Appalachia people, in addition to knowing immediately that you are not a local, may think you are trying to be fancy or worse. How you say the word Appalachia matters.

As you can tell, I and many others feel strongly about this word. So, when stumbling around on the internet I found a company called Pronunciation Tees I was super excited. What do these people do? Well, they get me and my people. Pronunciation Tees produces t-shirts that proudly display the proper pronunciation of Appalachia – [app-uh-latch-uh].

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The moment I saw this shirt I had to have it. Oh, and it gets better, the mission statement of the company is to

Help raise awareness about the infection known as [app-a-lay-sha].

I encourage everyone to support these brave and creative folks. It’s cool, it’s fun, and it’s just plain right.

The Definition of Home

My Daddy says that home is wherever I am. Is it? Is home just about me?

Since I moved to the Midwest I find that trips home are bittersweet. Each visit usually ends in tears. I cry until I reach the Virginia/Kentucky state line, about twenty minutes. The difficulty leaving is directly proportional with the length of the stay. My last visit was especially rough. I cried all the way to Ferrell’s (pronounced Fur-ells) Creek, Kentucky, that is at least forty minutes. At a red light during this part of the drive I posted the following on Facebook: “I hate to leave.” And I do.

The Facebook post prompted some unexpected responses. I received a phone call from an old and beloved friend from my hometown. She thought I might be sad and she called to cheer me up, so sweet. She felt the same way when she had to leave her family in our little town. As she put it “it sucks to like your family.” Yes, it would be so much easier if I did not like my family. If I only tolerated them, as many do. Next I received a message from another dear friend who grew up two towns away from my hometown. He told a similar story – he struggled with leaving home after visits too. He described the difficulty in explaining to his parents that “it is harder on the person leaving than it is on those who stay behind.” It is. I agree. My family gets to stay there in the known, while I have to go back to a place and a thing that I haven’t completely figured out or found comfortable.

Mommy & Daddy's HouseI, like these two friends, have an intense connection to home, the place and its mountains. I feel that where I am from is very much a part of my identity. You can hear the mountains when I talk. The culture of the mountains is apparent in the music I love, the food I eat, my behavior and the choices that I make. It is more than just a place.

Sunset on the HollerI also have a remarkable relationship with my family (Mommy, Daddy, Sister, Brother-in-law, The Princess and the Benevolent Dictator). We aren’t perfect. But we do like each other, genuinely. I call it remarkable because I have had friends who are surprised that I talk with my family almost daily, we vacation together and, as one ex-boyfriend put it, “you all know a lot about each other.” And we do. We enjoy one another’s company whether it is at home watching 12 hours of nonstop college football coverage, walking around a Disney park like it’s a job or driving through California in a minivan. We have fun. We are also a fiercely loyal bunch. No matter what there are at least 6 people who will always be on my side. Where else do you find that?

Of course, I am sad to leave them. I am sad to leave a place that I know so well. A place where nearly every mile contains another story, another memory. So, when I leave I cry.

Sunrise near the state lineI never cry when I leave Fort Wayne. It is a nice place. I love my job and my little house here, but that isn’t enough to induce tears. It is not home. Home, for me, isn’t about where I am. Home is the people and place that you cannot wait to get to and cannot bear to leave.

Home isn’t something that follows me. It is something that I return to, again and again.