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.

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.”

Reminder: Most People Are Good (Save Watkins the Dog)

Most people are good.

I was reminded of this by my friend Lisa. I met Lisa when we were tweens, I think. She came on the family beach trip (the one most of us fondly remember as “the beach trip from hell”) with my cousin and she has been around the family ever since. I believe she has even made a couple of trips to family events in Grundy, Virginia. Now she lives in Boston, far from Grundy.

Several weeks ago I got a Facebook message from her asking about a horrifying report that was on local news in Grundy and was spreading around the Internet about a dog that had been abused. I told Lisa that people I knew back home seemed to be on the case. I responded like most people, probably, I thought it was sad but moved on quickly. Not Lisa. She was clearly moved by this dog’s plight. So, she did something about it, from Boston.

Eighteen days ago she started a GoFundMe page for this dog, his name is Watkins, within 2-3 days she raised $10,000 for him. The total today is at $26,862.

Lisa is busy. She has a job, family, friends, and a life (in a super cool city). But she stopped what she was doing and made time to help this critically ill dog. This dog that can’t do a thing for her. A dog she has never seen in person.

What a lovely example of passionate service.

Thank you, Lisa for being a fabulous example of love and kindness and to the kind volunteers and veterinarians who are caring for this dog.

If you are an animal lover I encourage you to check out the GoFundMe site or the Buchanan County Humane Society Facebook page to learn more about Watkins.

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.

Why Being Single During the Holidays is a Good Thing

Holiday parties, church services, gift exchanges, mistletoe, endless romantic comedies set during Christmas and New Year’s Eve and family events are all things that can make the holidays painful for single people.

It is a time when the volume of coupled people seems exaggerated due to all the festivities. Family events will inevitably present the well-meaning cousin who goes on and on about why you aren’t married. Of course, this happens just before the single family member is placed at the kid’s table for dinner or asked to run errands. Then there are the work parties where you are the only one at the table without a plus one. And it all winds up with the New Year’s Eve party where the single finds his or herself standing alone or keeping the wait staff company when everyone else is kissing in the new year.

All this can make single folks feel even more single and alone.

Needless to say, it is easy to focus on the negatives of being single at the holidays. But the truth is that it isn’t all bad. In fact, I believe there is a strong argument that it is better, or at least more fun, to be single during the holidays. I have talked to a number of married and single friends and from those discussions have compiled the following list of common responses to the question: What is the best thing about being single at the holidays?

It is all your own family or nothing: No in-laws.

Every major holiday, every year, I hear friends, colleagues and others complain about eating multiple Thanksgiving dinners and visiting several houses for Christmas celebrations. The thought of spending Thanksgiving or Christmas Day on a progressive celebration from house to house and town to town sounds exhausting and not very merry to me. As a single person I only have to participate in my family’s holiday festivities. I don’t have to see anyone but my family. Thanksgiving this year I arrived home on Wednesday afternoon and did not go outside the house again until I left Sunday morning to return to Indiana. I know my family, I like all of them and as a single going home for celebrations is one stop. This makes me happy.

I understand some people do not like their own family and for those people, being single is best because…

You can make all your own plans — no compromising.

When you are single it is much easier to skip or opt out of the holidays if you wish. Doing this will only make one family angry, your own. A friend recently reported that his colleague was trying to decide whether to go to Bali or Taiwan during Christmas. She is single.

You only buy half the gifts (or even less) than you would if you were coupled.

You only have to buy for, again, your own family and friends. No worrying about what to get your spouse’s step-mother that you see twice a year, eclectic sister or golf buddy.

No relationship gift drama.

A good friend recently starting dating someone. They like each other and are a good match, but a new relationship around the holidays can be tricky. What do you get someone for Christmas when you’ve only been dating a couple months? You don’t want to send the wrong message. If you spend too much then are you setting a precedent? If you buy something personal it might mean you are more serious than you are at this point? But, if you buy an impersonal gift, like a gift card, does that say the relationship isn’t important and that you might be just friends? Will your gifts be equal in meaning, cost and relationship implications? It is complicated stuff. Complicated stuff that singles can skip.

People expect less of you.

This is one of the societal expectations about marriage that works in favor of the singles. A single person might get parked at the kids’ table for Christmas dinner or asked to sleep on the floor, but they won’t be expected to do all the decorating, party hosting and card sending. Also, if you are living on one income people often expect less expensive gifts from you. All good things.

You still have the option to meet people at all those holiday parties.

Or as my friend Matty put it, you still have the chance to meet that “one person” while doing your last-minute shopping on Christmas Eve. Either way, whether you are shopping or working the room at a holiday party, it is a hopeful time. It is a time when there are many people out and about who are usually happy and having fun. What better environment to make new friends?

If you are single this Christmas and New Year’s then I challenge you to embrace it. Enjoy the freedom to make your own plans, be with only the people who you love, avoid all the drama and be open to whatever or whoever might cross your path.

Cheers!

Traveling: Things I Learned in London

Visiting London has been on my short list for at least three years. I needed to go, but I put it off. There are challenges that come with international travel when you are single. Well, mainly one for me, can I do an international trip alone? Should I?

I travel within North America alone regularly whether it’s a road trip to Canada, a weekend in Asheville, or a work trip to Seattle. But I have never traveled overseas by myself. I have a dear friend that I travel internationally with from time to time, but we haven’t been able to coordinate our destinations and timelines since our Ireland adventure in 2010. And she lived in London years ago and is not so hot to go there. As you have read here and elsewhere, many of my friends are married and have children. Therefore, their travel priorities and vacation time are often spoken for well in advance. My single friends, while willing are not always able. So, I was left to find another travel partner or go it alone.

I found another travel partner, sort of. Last fall I decided, Sister and my brother-in-law permitting, that I would take my oldest niece, The Princess, to London with me. She is sixteen, very smart, and has plenty of domestic travel under her belt, including 30+ trips to Disney World (true story). Also, I really feel blessed by what I have and want to share things that I enjoy with people I love. It is very charming isn’t it? Just like a movie – I am taking my niece on a trip of a lifetime so we can experience travel and a different place together. A time that will bring us back home changed for the better. Dramatic, yes, but it’s fitting or a 16-year-old.

I asked, she agreed and her parents acquiesced.

London was fabulous. We had decent weather, only a couple of days were rainy and cold. We worked the tourists experiences like they were a job: we took the Tube everywhere, saw the changing of the guard, visited Piccadilly Circus, British Museum, Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Millennium Bridge, The Globe Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, Hyde Park, Kensington Palace, Harrods, took walks through South Kensington, Chelsea, the West End, visited Bath, Stonehenge, Salisbury Cathedral, Dover, Leeds Castle, Canterbury Cathedral, had tea at Fortnum & Mason, ate fabulous meals at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay & The Ledbury, and a cruised up the Thames from Greenwich. We did not do it all, but we did a lot.

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Did we come back changed for the better?

I was told years ago, and still believe it, that we learn more from traveling than we do from anything else. So, while I cannot say that I am changed forever, I can say that I learned somethings.

I’m now tough like my parents were tough.

I remember traveling with my parents as a kid and thinking – wow, they are tough. Of course, I had good reason to think so. My parents are the kind of people who consider long-distance driving without stops or breaks a sport. My Mommy dragged, er, took Sister and I to Washington, D.C. alone and walked us like soldiers from monument to museum all day. They are the kind of people who drive from Iowa to the panhandle of Florida non-stop, just to say that they did it. I suspect my Mommy suggested stopping and my Daddy would have none of it, but either way, that is how they have always rolled. I would get tired and wonder how they continued to walk. I would get bored with the beach and wonder how my Mommy could stay out on the stand from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. (not an exaggeration). Age makes you wise and tough.

This trip reminded me of that – I spent the entire trip about three steps ahead of The Princess telling her to keep up or three steps behind making sure she got where she was going. I could not get tired, wimp out, or stay in (even if I was or wanted to) – I was in charge. I wanted her to get out of it everything she could. I became my Mommy. I get now that my parents were tough for our benefit. They were tough so we could learn, experience the world, and have fun. My enjoyment was their job. They walked longer than they wanted to so that we could see all the sights, stood up at the park all day so that we could ride all the rides, and stayed on the beach so we could swim and play for as long as it took to wear us out. I’ve haven’t given birth but I have become like my parents and for 7 days I felt like I was someone’s mama.

I am more practical than ever.

Everyday The Princess had a nicely coordinated and chic outfit to wear. She was perfectly layered, mismatched, and draped with just the right color scarf. Me, well, it wasn’t nearly as cute; I was most often wearing Keen sandals, a comfortable skirt, and a series of layered shirts that may or may not have matched. Seriously, I brought three skirts, two pairs of shoes, five shirts, and two jackets. I appreciate The Princess’s disregard for comfort, but when the limping started I was reminded that I am now old and wise – a solid color skirt, layered t-shirt/sweater, and comfortable shoes carry the day. I can be super cute at home.

I am no longer a mademoiselle.

This was a sad revelation. I am the first to accept and admit my age. I’ve always been older. According to my mother I was “30 at 15.” It is who I am. So, I get that at my age I could biologically have a 16-year-old child. In fact, I have high school classmates who have 16-year-old children. It is possible. Knowing and understanding this reality, however, is not enough to prevent the shock when someone points it out. The very fabulous and cosmopolitan host at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay approached our table and looked first at The Princess and greeted her as “madamoiselle” and then turned to me, paused, and said “madame.” Really? Madame? Yes, really. Then, at the end of the meal one of the charming, young, and handsome wait staff kept The Princess company while I was in the restroom. He politely asked her if the jacket in the coat check was “her mum’s.” Oh, yes he did. That cute little fella immediately thought I was her mother. It still hurts a little.

There is a reason that parents want to hit teenagers.

“Keep up.”

“Sit up straight.”

“Have you thought about how _____ feels, or why they did that?”

“Don’t be so negative.”

“You should go to sleep.”

“Keep up.”

“Take off your sunglasses.”

“Do you know where we are?”

“You have to talk to people.”

“Keep up.”

“You look miserable.”

“Be polite.”

“Are you having fun?”

“Speak.”

“Keep up.”

What you just read is one-side of the daily conversation during my 6.5 days with The Princess. The other side of the conversation was much simpler. It consistently included the following: “okay,” “I don’t know,” and most often silence. So, there were a lot of one-way conversations.

The good news is that I did not hit The Princess. But, I now have a better appreciation for people who must live with unimpressed, too cool, self-absorbed, scared, confused children that look like adults (i.e. teenagers). You people have my deepest sympathy. I’m told that they grow out of it.

I can travel anywhere alone.

I satisfied myself that I could have easily made the London trip alone. If I can manage 6.5 days with a minor in my charge, I can do it alone. I’ve turned the last of the traveling alone corners. It is a nice bonus to fun trip with a cool kid.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway

I enjoy a racetrack.

A Panoramic from Victory Lane

I went to my very first car race when I was 13 in Bristol Tennessee, at the time it was the Bristol International Raceway. Now it is known as the Bristol Motor Speedway, or the “world’s fastest half mile,” or “racin’ the way it oughta be.” We sat on the back straight-away on the concrete stands. For those of you who aren’t familiar, if you are in the concrete stands you are very close to the track. Like feel the wind off the car and smell the rubber close. At the end of the race I was sunburned on half my face, I smelled of exhaust, and my hair, ears and nostrils were peppered with shards of rubber from the tires.

I loved it.

My Daddy and I attended many races after that one at other tracks and back at Bristol. We have watched from the cheap seats and the luxury skyboxes. I once sat through a two-hour rain delay huddled under a poncho that was split into with my Sister. I have met Richard Petty, Adam Petty, Kyle Petty, and Dale Earnhardt. I’ve also watched the F1 cars run at the Grand Prix from a balcony of Hotel de Paris (located in the casino turn) in Monte Carlo. Later that night I danced about 5 feet from Lewis Hamilton. In all these instances I had great fun and always met kind, fun, and/or interesting people. Race fans are, for the most part, nice people, or at least entertaining.

So, when I had to go to Indianapolis recently for work I checked out what was going on at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. You know, the home of the “greatest spectacle in racing.” How could I not – people have been racing there since 1909. More than a century. It was just my luck that on the day I showed up they were conducting Grounds Tours, which are only available on special dates throughout the year. The tour offers access to the museum and access to the grounds, including walking on the track at the start/finish and touring victory lane, the infield, the press area, the scoring and security suite, and the track’s owners’ suite at the top of the pagoda. I signed up.

The Museum Entrance

We hopped on a bus and did the tour with help from a young and excited tour guide. Like any group of race fans my touring partners were nice and friendly. There was a group of bus mechanics from Washington state, a guy in town on business who had been to races at Bristol, and some retirees enjoying an afternoon out. It was a fun time.

My highlight reel for the tour includes . . .

The Richard Petty car – the car on display in the museum was the actual car that he ran at Bristol during his retirement year (the Fan Appreciation Tour). I was in attendance at that race. Very cool.

Richard Petty's Car From Bristol

IMS is family owned and the current chair of the board and leader of the organization is a woman, Mari Hulman-George. and her three daughters are also heavily involved. I love it.

IMS Chairwoman

I did not kiss the bricks or drink any milk, but being on the track and having my picture taken at the brickyard start/finish line was very cool.

Start/Finish

It was a great time and I would recommend at tour of IMS to anyone who is interested in racing, sports history, or just a cool way to spend an hour or so.