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.

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.

My Appalachian Accent: You Aren’t From Here Are You?

This week I met a woman who seemed surprised that I still have an accent after living in Northeast Indiana for nearly five years.

Her surprise made me think about the regular conversations I have about my accent and dialect. The following is an example of a typical exchange that occurs multiple times a week, still, with new colleagues, business people, clerks, tellers, and others I talk to as I go about my life (I talk a lot).

Me: Hi, how’re you?

Midwesterner: Fine. You aren’t from here are you? You sound Southern. (It really comes this quickly.)

Me: No

Midwesterner: Where are you from? (Sometimes they guess and when they do it is most often Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, or Kentucky in that order. The people who guess the last two know accents. The first two are way off).

Me: I am from Virginia.

Midwesterner: Really? What part? (As it turns out, many people do not consider Virginia Southern or Appalachian and are shocked that my accent could come from Virginia.)

Me: Southwestern Virginia in the mountains near Kentucky.

Midwesterner: Oh, yeah, West Virginia.

Me: No, but West Virginia is only about 15 minutes from my Mommy’s house.

Midwesterner (usually looking confused): When did you move?

Me: Four and a half years ago.

Midwesterner: Oh. Really? You’ve been here a while. (Looking shocked).

People assume that after five years I would talk differently, less like me and more like them. Sometimes they say it directly and others just offer a surprised “oh.”

This is the problem when you have a pronounced accent and dialect and you don’t do a lot of code switching. Code switching is defined by dictionary.com as the alternate use of two or more languages or varieties of language, especially within the same discourse. Code switching as it relates to Appalachian dialects and accents is discussed in a delightful post on The Revivalist.

My accent and dialect are pretty standard Central Appalachian. I do not have the thickest accent compared some other people from the mountains of Southwest Virginia, Southern West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, East Tennessee, and Western North Carolina. My accent and dialect have not changed much since leaving home in 1997. Although I have noticed that occasionally instead of saying r-eye-ght I will say right in a more neutral accent and ain’t slips out far less than it used to. My brother-in-law recently called me out for saying “soda” instead of “coke” or “pop.” Otherwise, my accent is pretty static.

When I moved to the Midwest I assumed that people would take note of my accent as it happens quite often in other places, even in some parts of Central and Northern Virginia. I dealt with this in college at the University of Virginia, as I have traveled through the United States and the world, and most recently and intensely in my time in the Midwest.

Most people are nice about it, even though they sometimes point out my accent as though they are pointing out a pimple or a gray hair. They say that they think it is cute or charming. Sometimes this goes too far when I am asked to “talk some more” as though I am a performer. While others, not realizing how personally I take the way I talk, might crack a joke about my family tree or being a hillbilly or redneck, but they are not the worst. There is a small group that I encounter from time to time who judge me immediately as ignorant, racist, or wrong.

My accent immediately gives people information about me and it is always filtered through the listener’s opinions of Southerners, and more specifically Appalachians. Recently, I’ve heard “maybe if you stay here long enough you’ll learn how to talk.” This Midwesterner was teasing when she said it, but I believe, as it has often been said, that there is an ounce of truth in all teasing. Then there was “it’s because you sound so different,” offered as a reason for the people not being welcoming. Right or wrong, it is clear that people have a hard time ignoring or accepting a different accent without question or comment.

When I moved to the Midwest I realized that I could hear my own accent. Everyone else sounds different and it makes my accent audible to me, which was a first. At home I don’t notice, because everyone sounds similar. So, I know what my accent sounds like and I am okay with it. In fact, I love it. I love it because I hear the mountains in my voice. I hear words and sayings that my parents use and things my grandmother said. There is history, heritage, and culture in my accent and dialect. I think it is interesting and special. As the writer in The Revivalist post noted “Appalachian accents are like no other.”

But I have noticed that I am a bit weary of explaining the way I talk. There is a kind of lonely in living in a place where no one talks the way I do. It certainly draws people in and creates conversation, but not always in a comfortable way. And there is a fear that those that ask about it and some who don’t are assuming the worst about me.

Over the years I have heard friends from home say that they hate our accent. Many of those friends moved away and made a conscious effort to change the way they talk. While I will never consciously change my accent or dialect, I understand better now why others do. I will work hard to keep my accent, but my experience in the last five years makes me empathetic for my Appalachian friends and family who made those changes. I get why they did it.

It can be tough living in a place where no one sounds like you.

Fort Wayne Music: The B-Side

Have you ever wanted to hear your favorite band play in your living room? Just an evening with your closest friends and some live music.

You probably can’t make that happen, but seeing a show at One Lucky Guitar’s (OLG) B-Side is your next best option.

IMG_1769The B-Side space is located within the OLG design and marketing boutique. It is self-described as super intimate and urban, seating around 60 people. The mirrored fireplace and generous windows balance the exposed brick and open ceiling to give you the effect of being at home or in the coolest venue in the city.

My first B-Side experience was the most recent show – Rayland Baxter. The show was electric and the acoustics were great. The space, which is lovely, is set up to allow the artist to be as casual and comfortable as possible. There is no stage so the artist is amongst the crowd, which allows for an unusual visual perspective. This and the small size let’s the artist interact with the audience in personal and unusual ways – like a living room gathering of your closest friends.

The B-Side is a unique space featuring high quality acts, including Lloyd Cole later this month. Can you imagine, Lloyd Cole in your living room?

If you are a music lover in Northeast Indiana you should make seeing a show at the B-Side a priority.

What I’ve Learned from the Sun

I have always loved a sunset, but since moving to the Midwest I have fallen in love with the movements of the sky. I have try to watch as many sunsets and sunrises as possible; in four years I have seen hundreds. I make a special effort to watch them on certain days ­– my birthday, the new year, or when I need a reminder of just what a little speck that I am in this universe or how I am part of a large, unknowable plan.

The first thing I did on the first day of this year was get in my car and drive to my spot, a church parking lot at the edge of my subdivision, to watch the sun come up. In the silence I watched the light glow above the horizon and tree line. Then the sun slowly inched across the sky. As I did I made a list of the things I want to do and do better this year (no resolutions, just observations and promises to myself).

New Years Sunrise

When my list was long enough I stopped and put my phone down. I thought about how long I’ve been walking or driving to this spot to observe the sun. What have I learned from it? Is there anything to be taken from watching the two most physically beautiful parts of the day? It did not take long to realize the lessons and reminders that I can take from observing the sun.

The earth, the divine, speaks lessons and reminders, if we will listen. As I sat in the car, window down and seat heater on, a list of these lessons and reminders came quickly to mind.

Always look behind you.

RainbowsThe sun rises in the east and it does amazing things. But, that is not where all the action is. Look west. There is often something just as beautiful behind me. During a sunrise it is a pale pink glow on a clear day, other times the reflection of the sun’s glow on clouds, and if I am lucky, it’s a rainbow inspired by the morning dew. At sunset it’s the ombre of blue to purple to black layered from west to east. In the morning and night I look to the north and south and see more of that pink glow, carbon trails drawing pictures in sky reflecting the light in different ways, or long flat clouds that seem to go on forever.

I spend so much time looking in one direction – what I want, need, or where I am going down the road. If I’m not careful my laser focus causes me to miss things just as lovely, and important, that are happening in and around me. It is never just about what is in front of me. Situations look different depending on the point of view; sometimes I have to change my perspective to get to where I’m going.

Be patient.

Stalking sunsets and sunrises takes effort. It also takes practice. I can’t just show up at the exact time the weather channel says that the sun will set. I’ll miss it. This is especially true of ocean sunsets, if I look away for a second or stop watching for a moment to mess with my camera I’ll miss it. I have to find my spot and get there early. This might mean getting up early or staying late. It makes me work for it.

Pacific

Don’t all things worth having, seeing, or keeping take a little (or a lot) of work? The sun might be free, but it isn’t easy.

Embrace silence.

I like to talk. Frankly, I need to talk (my poor mother used to pray for 5 minutes of silence when I was a child).  If I am not talking I am playing music or running the television in the background. The sun, though, does all its work silently. Most of the year it does its work when the world is quiet – no traffic, little work, and before or after most people have gone inside.

The sun in some ways demands silence. I have watched sunsets with people and 100% of the time everyone becomes quiet as we watch. No one says, be quiet or shhhh. Your spirit just knows to quiet itself – to embrace the peace of it, to stand in awe and reverence of the divine.

It is a lovely time – a new day or the end of one – to think, pray, reflect, or whatever I need to do. A time to be quiet and still. A time to listen to that still small voice.

Summer Sunset

I can’t always see what is next, but I trust it will be good.

Recently a friend died unexpectedly. I found out on a Friday. As it goes with these things, I spent much of the day trying to understand and thinking about my life and its fragility. Understanding did not come, nor did I expect it. That understanding will only come, as Dolly would sing, “farther along.” But the lack of understanding hung there reminding me that I am not in control and I don’t know what will happen tomorrow.

LorinThe next morning I woke up, threw on my slippers and a jacket over my night-clothes. I drove to my spot to watch the sunrise. It was late fall and the sun had shifted behind a cluster of trees. I would not be able to see the sun itself until it was up and clear of the woods, a quarter of the way up. I waited and watched the light start to glow through and then above the trees. I knew what was coming but I couldn’t see it yet. As I waited I was reminded that just because I can’t see what’s next doesn’t mean it isn’t going to be wonderful. It is so easy to feel like things are not moving fast enough or going where I want them to go. But no matter how I feel, I believe there is something good ahead, just beyond what I can see. I believe it because I’ve seen it before.

Sometimes a memory is all I get to take with me.

My sister is great fun. Once when I was a teenager and she was living at home we had a particularly fun weekend. The following week I told her that I’d like to do it again. She told me it was fun but “those times are like bubbles, they last for a little while and then they pop. You can’t repeat them.” She was right.

Sunset and sunrises are beautiful, sometimes so much so that I can’t capture them in a picture. Even when I try the picture is so disappointing that I just delete it. There is a level of pretty that just doesn’t translate (at least not with an iPhone camera).

There are some things that so are beautiful that I can’t capture with anything but my mind, my memories. I get frustrated with the limits of my equipment and ability to share what I have seen, but that reminds me that some things, people, and experiences are meant just for me, not to be shared. The things that I keep for myself are the most precious.

Pink

I try to find something beautiful in every day. On days when I can’t accept beauty in myself, in others, or in the events of the day, I can find it in the sky. Even on a cloudy day. So, as the sun demands, I will stop and listen to what it has to say in its beautiful silence.

Summer Sunsets

I can’t deny it any longer.

Last week I turned off the air conditioning and haven’t turned on the heat. I do my very best to delay turning on the heat. I am not yet sure whether that is stubbornness, denial or both. But today there is a chill in the air inside the house.

Suddenly, every Saturday morning I regret my choice to not have cable. It is that one time a year when I miss ESPN, or maybe it’s just Kirk Herbstreit.

My white shoes, linen blazer and seersucker suits are dry cleaned and packed away, sadly, for months.

As I type, it is 42 degrees in Fort Wayne. Today’s high is 46 degrees.

It is fall.

In an effort to further my stubbornness and/or denial, I want so share my best of the summer sunsets.

There is not much better than a warm/hot/sweltering walk in the glow of the setting sun in bare legs and short sleeves. I am afraid that there won’t be any more of those until spring.

Indiana Sunsets:

Alaska, Arizona and Washington Sunsets:

The Polar Vortex of 2014

I came to Fort Wayne for the first time in November 2010 for an interview. On the drive to town I became convinced that it was too far from home, too weirdly flat and not easily accessed. The weather was chilly but sunny. There was talk about what the weather would be like but in this two-day visit I fell in love with the academic community and small college campus I was going to join. I left Fort Wayne trying to decide how I was going to explain this move to my family and friends.

I returned in February 2011 to find a place to live. I flew this time and found myself in the midst of the Groundhog Day blizzard. It was cold, roads were snow-covered and at some point prior to my arrival there had been a travel warning prohibiting non-emergency travel. During that visit it all seemed manageable. My realtor drive me around in her minivan. I drove myself around in a rented Ford Explorer. It was an adventure and surely would not happen all the time.

My assessment of the Indiana winter weather was true for the first two winters I was here. The winter of 2011-2012 was barely existent. It kind of snowed once. The winter of 2012-2013 was a bit more serious, it snowed twice and I learned how to shovel (there are strategies and techniques for shoveling snow). That was manageable and I learned something.

Now we have the winter of 2013-2014. This one is not like the others.

Since December it has snowed over a 12 inches. In the last week we have lived in the snow globe that was early January 2014. Thanks, polar vortex. This has been an unwelcome introduction to the other extreme of Indiana winters. On day one of the storm I shoveled 5 times to keep up with the snowfall.

A state of emergency was declared, the National Guard was called out and a non-emergency travel was prohibited. On day two the temperature and windchill was frightening. The temperature was around -20 with windchills as low as -40 and wind speeds of 20 mph. I did not venture out that day.

IMG_6041On day three the temperature got up to 5 but the roads remained nasty with snow drifts and layers of ice. On day 7 we got a break, it reached nearly 40 but it rained (yes, that is nearly a 60 degree change in 3 days).

Now roads, yards and fields are slush-filled ponds. Yesterday on a dog walk I stepped into an area with shin-deep slush on the sidewalk.

I’ve never seen anything like it. It is only January.

I’m told that this kind of weather builds character and stamina. I appreciate that and while I’d prefer to do that voluntarily and in the sun it is rewarding to know that I can handle it – I can live in an extreme weather event by myself (I was in the house for 3 days without any face to face human contact). One day when I live or am vacationing somewhere very warm I’ll say something like “I remember the Blizzard/Polar Vortex of 2014 and it was a mess, but Scout and I had fun.”

Also, snow in large quantities is pretty.