Thursday, August 15, 2013 Blacksburg, VA
We drove in the dark from Memphis to Nashville. The morning drive to Louisville followed the Bourbon trail through horse country. Louisville seemed happier than Memphis and the Lorraine Motel. The ride from Louisville to Prestonsburg was something else. We moved through horse country (and the end of the Bourbon trail) into Appalachia. I was traveling with my historian friend David Cline, videotaping oral histories for the Smithsonian and Library of Congress.
John and Jen Rosenberg had been married 46 years, the last forty doing local environmental law, community building, and such in the mountain hamlet of Prestonsburg. He had been an attorney with the Justice Department for eight years working in the Civil Rights Division, establishing a legal proof of voter discrimination and failure to enfranchise Black voters, and tried the case against the men who murdered the three Freedom Summer Civil Rights workers (Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney) in 1964. [You can read the transcript or stream the video at https://www.loc.gov/item/afc2010039_crhp0100/]
We headed east on Virginia HWY 460 along creeks, up narrow valleys, over little passes, looking up hollers. It was a fascinating road, tight and winding, small houses and trailers hugging the roadside, and both sides of the creeks. I recognized the country from its music and folklore, from stories of unionizing coal mines, the sudden tragedy of mine accidents and the lingering black lung, from images of the farms—part of the iconography of America. Most amazing was the number of small churches, at least one on every bend in the road that had a house, and often 3-4 in a stretch that had no more than 20 houses. Christians must ooze out of the hills to fill them. But we were not driving through a romanticized past. Most businesses were boarded up, kudzu had taken over the landscape, and poverty was palpable.
In the gloaming we rounded the corner on an immense coal mine—ventilation shafts and elevator shafts over a hundred feet high and a web of conveyor belts and other structures over the side of the mountain. And between two mountains, the space was filled with what I assume were decades of mine tailings, though it might have been an artifact of a strip mine on the other side. [I found it on Google earth, a bunch of strip mines.] A few miles down the road we spotted a train of loaded coal cars in a long narrow switching yard of about a dozen tracks, most holding long rows of full coal cars. It occupied all the flat land that could be graded for the purpose along the riverbank. Poor as the people who lived on the road might be, immense wealth is still being extracted from those mountains. Mr. Peabody’s coal trains have hauled it away…
Farther along, the valley opened out to a new shopping center in Grundy, VA, built on a plateau created by leveling a mountain. It was part of post flood development, since the river destroyed much of the town in the 1970s. We dinned at Al Sombrero, a large Mexican restaurant, so new its liquor license was still pending. All the tables were painted with bright Mexican scenes with a polyurethane coating, and the fronts and backs of chairs were carved and the whole chairs garishly painted with people and scenes. It was run by four young Mexican men who told me that they had commissioned the furniture, maybe forty tables plus accompanying chairs, and the artists were coming from Mexico next week to do a similar treatment on the walls. It is almost worth going back to witness the result.
Not far along 460, on a desolate stretch of road, I noticed a billowing cloud. Hellish fire burned from dozens of towers. It was a processing facility, the Jewel Smokeless Coke Ovens stretching up Dismal Creek. I took a picture, but it didn’t capture the enormity.