Friday, April 13, 2012

Day 3: Pt 1 - Small Town Appalachia

In the title, I almost said "Small Town America";  no doubt, much of what I'm about to cover applies to undersized hamlets across America, but I didn't because I don't want to under-emphasis that Appalachia is a place unto itself.  It is unique in many things; not the least of which is it's history of cloistered resistance to outside change and influence fostered by a rugged landscape that resists penetration of news and ideology, to say the least of physical persons, from the outside world (the rural location used in the movie The Hunger Games is a real place not too far from Wise, Va, where I live).  But it is equally and paradoxically an area in America that has some of the fastest fiber optic Internet connections (put in using government grants to stimulate growth in the area) and it's being willingly and unwillingly dragged into the 21st century.

To say that I'm an outsider here is both an understatement and an overstatement.  Originally I'm from Decatur, Alabama.  Alabama is not a place well known for possessing large cities within its borders and so when I say that Decatur was, at the time, around the 10th largest city in Alabama, you'll know that doesn't mean anything in terms of metropolitan America.  Still, the population there hovers around the 55,000 mark.  It's still culturally considered Appalachia.  The  Appalachian mountain chain stretches all the way down to Birmingham, in the middle of Alabama, before petering out.  Just like in Southwest Virginia, a major industry revolves around gouging out the coal from the earth.  These are facts that are largely discounted.  It's sometimes easy to see why.

Lower Appalachia is much different from the heart of Appalachia.  Even the very pronunciation of the word is different.  Growing up in Alabama is was always pronounced "App-uh-LAY-shuh".  It was a shock to see the faces of disgust on people when I used that pronunciation, instead of the "correct" pronunciation, "App-uh-LATCH-uh".  I had assumed my use of the word would come naturally and place me immediately as part of the tribe, it had the drastically opposite effect.  People who actually live in the heart of Appalachia are keenly aware of the differences between them and the rest of America, and any fool who goes about saying "app-uh-LAY-shuh" is not suffered lightly and is immediately branded an outsider.  Thus was I branded, and though now I've intentionally re-mapped my lexicon to fit the prevailing local standard and am always SURE to say "App-uh-LATCH-uh" (not least of all because I believe that the people who actually LIVE in a region should best know how to pronounce the name of the place), I'm sure I'm still obviously an outsider to the highly-tuned senses of those natives around me in a great many more subtle ways; (most of which I'm not even aware of).  The passing of five years residence has not changed this, and I expect that no amount of time passage will have any more than a marginal affect. 

For example, when I say I want a "hot dog" what I really want (a bun, with the meat "dog", left bare in anticipation of the application of a la carte toppings) is locally called a "weenie bun".  The term "hot dog" means a bun, a dog and chilli on top (thus, the result of asking for a "hot dog with ketchup and mustard" is to receive an all together less than appetising concoction).  Locally, when you get a hamburger, it comes with a SLICE from an onion (same as if you were receiving a slice of tomato).  It is not "pouring" outside; instead it is "pouring the rain".  Incidentally, it is just as often, "pouring the snow".  The town name "Dante" is pronounce "daint".

Appalachia is really a state of mind.  I've found that, in particular, the distance one has to travel before the trip becomes an arduous undertaking has shrunk for me.  I think this happens because though the several small towns that you might need to travel to in the same local 10 mile radius (locally part of the "mountain empire", a small "empire" indeed) are very close together (relatively speaking). The fact that they are so small leaves plenty of room for noticeably "rural" driving where civilisation seems to recede back into the forest rather than making the land it's master, as it does "in town".  As a result, a trip which really doesn't cover that much distance can seem much farther.   

In many ways, living here is like living anywhere else, but with fewer options; and as a person whose used to having options, who likes having options and choices, this is a hard fact to swallow.  As for consumer goods, if the Super Wal-mart in town doesn't have it, then you won't get it locally.  There are 2 decently-sized grocery stores in addition to what Wal-mart offers and there are several small-sized versions of national retailers for clothes and shoes.  As far as dining is concerned there are approximately 15 to 20 eateries within 10 to 15 minutes of where I live in the middle of the town of Wise (both national chains and local establishments).  This seems like a lot at first, but the lack of choice begins to grind on you, especially considering that many of these establishments (McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King, etc) are often fast on food and low on taste and are essentially clones of one another.

To break the doldrums you have but a few options.  You can drive to Northeast Tennessee, where the population spikes in the "tri-cities" area of Kingsport, Johnson City, and Bristol each of which is between an hour to an hour and a half's drive away.  Or, you can eat at home (a choice made by most, including my family, just to save money if nothing else).

The nigh tlife?  Absolutely non-existent (I've never been much for that kind of thing, but socialization IS nice).  The towns around here roll up the side walks around dusk.  Entertainment?  One movie theatre with 9 screens and one drive-in with, well, 1 screen (usually 2-3 movies a night on summer weekends).  That's fairly nice, except I'm a geek and most of what is offered by the mass-media I will not be consuming, and mass-media is all there's room for.

So, what does that leave?  Well, the Internet.  The saving grace for most of this.  Amazon prime?  Godsend.  On demand media?  priceless.  Shipping goods? painfully slow, but better than nothing.

I paint a bleak picture here, I guess, but I don't want you to get me wrong.  The natural beauty at our back door is unparalleled and its a really nice, inexpensive place to live, and my job is a high-tech haven of academia, but it has been hard and continues to be hard to adjust (I think even more so for my wife, in certain ways).  And as for academic concerns, it is the goal of The University of Virginia's College at Wise to bring a world-class education to extreme rural Virginia, a lofty and laudable goal, but the area I've described is hard scrabble for the growth of technological innovation.  We've worked hard to build up a program in computer science and software engineering, but the issue is in doubt, and the going is tough. 

What's most aggravating is the persistence that people have here in frustrating any efforts to figure out ways to slough off the Mayberry (the Dukes of Hazard namesake Hazard, KY is literally just over the border into Kentucky from here) and put on the Asheville.  To keep the good parts, and to still build for the future; cutting away the old albatrosses.  If there is any fault in the character of the people here, it is that they do love the old albatrosses around their necks, even if they are dragged down by them.  They love them even more if an outsider (perceived or actual) would try to help them remove them.

--See Part 2 Tomorrow--


  1. Yay for Daint! I love town names and the way they are said vs. the way they are often read by outsiders. It's like a lingual trap.