by Frank Kilgore
Photos by Frank Kilgore except where noted
During the last presidential race, the stereotype of Appalachia once again reared its ugly head. The national media could not resist taking repeated potshots at the last place they can slander without penalty. The region’s embracement of Hillary Clinton over Barrack Obama in the Democrat primaries had to be based upon racism, the media conclusion went, although many northern state and city polls showed that race was a determining factor at a higher rate there than in the mountains. The media tended to ignore the fact that whether black or white, if a voter primarily chooses a candidate based on race, that is racism. Candidate Obama’s biggest difficulty in Appalachia tended to be his liberal views about gun rights, questions about religion and Reverend Wright, and lingering doubts in the mountains that government can fix anything. In fact, our region has embraced many government interventions and programs, including Roosevelt’s New Deal, federal labor rights, and national mine safety and reclamation laws, to name a few. Like most Americans though, we are generally opposed to federal intervention and pork unless it helps us directly.
The media also tended to ignore post-election statistics that do not lie. In Virginia’s Ninth Congressional District, encompassing all of the mountainous area known as Southwest Virginia from Salem to Cumberland Gap, President Obama garnered 39% of the vote, almost exactly the same percentages accomplished by Al Gore and John Kerry during their unsuccessful White House bids. If two whiter people than Al and John exist I do not know them, and they fared no better in the “Fightin Ninth” than America’s first black president. That alone should rest the exaggerated case of racism against Appalachia.
What all three presidential candidates do have in common is that they are much more liberal than the average Southwest Virginia and Appalachian voter. To say that President Obama is more articulate, charismatic, and engaging than Al and John is also an understatement, but making a choice based upon those characteristics alone is not particularly smart. Issues still matter in the mountains.
One other thing lost upon the media snobs that keep taking potshots at our mountain home is that when it comes to just plain old living, Appalachia has a lot to offer not found in Washington, D.C. or New York City. Even the coal mining portion of our region is making headway toward remining and reclaiming old abandoned mine sites and creating parks, development sites, and reforestation projects where land once laid wasted from past abuses. Wildlife abounds here, and soon elk may again thrive in the most western reaches of Virginia, replacing the native herd our ancestors drove to extinction. The most biologically diverse ecosystem in continental North America, Virginia’s Clinch River Valley, still thrives in a watershed that is heavily mined and timbered. Although we have an under-appreciated natural paradise, open spaces are a good start toward quality living.
What are the other advantages of living in the world’s oldest major mountain chain other than its stark natural beauty and wide expanses of open spaces? Let us tick off just a few. Unlike the beautiful coast of Southern California, we do not suffer raging forest fires, earthquakes, mudslides, and overcrowding. Unlike the eastern seaboard, we have little fear of rising sea levels, tsunamis, terrorists, and violent gangs. Unlike the Midwest, we suffer very few killer winds, regional flooding, and early presidential primaries. Unlike the Southern Flatlands, we have fewer disease-carrying bugs that aggravate humans and livestock to distraction and none of those pesky hurricanes that periodically foist Shermanesque urban renewal upon helpless citizens.
Our temperate climate does not roast people to death in their apartments in the summer or freeze solid the udders of cows in the winter. Our hardwood forests are varied and abundant, providing shade from the sun and rapturous beauty in the spring and fall. And unlike almost all points north, south, east, and west of our mountain retreat, we do not suffer unbearable traffic congestion and sprawl.
Just to prove my point, I counted the vehicles encountered on the four-lane road to my law office over a fourteen-mile trip through Russell County, Virginia, and its verdant farms and forests. I navigated through four traffic lights and encountered approximately one hundred oncoming vehicles before reaching work in twenty minutes, start to finish. While at work on the same day, I had buddies stop by just to chat about local politics and deer hunting, and an elderly cousin brought fresh cornbread, soup beans, and potato salad by to thank me for some legal work. Then my teen-aged grandson dropped by after school to hug me and my granddaughter came in to tell me about her day, my clients patiently smiling and benefiting from the interruptions.
Things are not perfect here by any means, and the tough issues we face are numerous, with self-inflicted health problems and prescription drug addictions being paramount. But those problems, found around the world, do not justify the media majority that continues to use our region as the last politically correct place to browbeat. Their brand of cultural bigotry, a very close cousin to racism, is becoming very annoying. In fact, I think I am speaking for all native Appalachians when I say we are sick of it.
The bottom line is that our mountain citizenry makes up one of the most nurturing and patriotic cultures in America, and if time has passed us by a click or two, that is not all bad.
Note: The author’s Scots-Irish ancestors settled in Southwest Virginia prior to the Revolutionary War, and he is active in conservation, education, and health care issues in the Virginia coalfields.