I was in Charlie’s Bar when my cell phone rang. It was Floyd, and he wanted me to come down to Alabama so we could drive up and see Ed and Debby over the forth of July in West Virginia. Since summer is no time to be in the Rocky Mountains, and as July in central Alabama is known to be glorious, and just starting to get hot and sticky, I just couldn’t resist Floyds invitation to drive down to Birmingham in my brand new 1992 Honda station wagon.
When we got to Ed’s there wasn’t much going on. Debby was gone and Bobby and Joe were there from up the road and they were busy putting a full beer inside a chicken, can and all. This they wrapped with foil and perched on the smoker ass down. I had never seen anything like this done before, but after two hours the meat fell right off the bone. The beer, on the other hand, was not only flat and greasy, it burnt my lips.
On the fifth we went up to Larry Gibson’s place. Larry lives on what’s left of Kayford Mountain, right smack dab in the middle of coalfields of West Virginia. All around him mountains are being blown up and dumped in the creeks in order to extract a thin seam of coal that underlay’s the entire region. Every year Larry throws one of the best party’s of the summer on the mountain, so people can come up and celebrate both the beauty of the Mountain get as peed off about Mountain Top Removal as he is.
It works pretty well. If you stand and look in one direction, you see the mountain. If you look in another, you see a drag line literally flattening the mountain and dumping it in the creek. It makes you so mad that you want to walk right over there and start shouting at the people running those dam machines. It’s no wonder he doesn’t let anyone drink liquor up there.
I sat down at the table and talked to Larry for a bit. He has been trying to get his neighbors off the coal habit for most of his sixty some odd years. Larry has been fighting to save his mountain for a quarter of a century, and thousands of people have made the trip up here and listened to him just the way I am.
Larry has had many threats to his life, but is unafraid. Both his hat and tee shirt are bright florescent green, with anti strip mining slogans printed in bold face type. “Larry” I said, “Doesn’t that shirt make you a better target?” “Well yes”, he responds, “It does…” he paused, “But if I won’t do it, how can I ask anyone else to?”
Everyone up here today feels this way. By coming up to Kayford Mountian you are not just making a statement. If you live in the Coal River Valley you are taking a risk. In the city, its easy to be a protestor. Here you can feel the danger in the air. Yet everyone is calm, a band is playing Appalachian Music, a pig was bar-b-qued and somewhere Floyd had found something called “Apple Pie”. It was in a glass jar and contained no pie. It gave you courage, which is what you need up here.
Larry was getting edgy. He wanted everyone to leave and be off the mountain before dark. Previous years had seen violence, and it was safer to travel together. We drove back to Ed’s house on the Creek. Ed was going up to New York City in a rented van with eight other West Virginians to attend New York Loves Mountains, a multi media festival about mountain top removal and a fundraiser for the grassroots effort. There were two seats left in the van so Floyd and I decided to join them. By the time we left, we had two vans full.
It is four lane asphalt super highway from Beckley West Virginia all the way to Brooklyn. If you drove through Beckley you might even think that coal mining doesn’t look so bad. You can’t see anything like what you would see from Kayford Mountain. You don’t see the poverty, or what are fast becoming ghost towns as people are forced to flee because the mountains are literally being torn from beneath them. You can get sushi up in Charlotte, but in towns like Whitesville and other towns in the region restaurants and groceries stores are closing up, houses are abandoned, the paint flaking, the porches rotting, and the only thing for sale at the corner store is beer, gas and chips. Hanging on, fighting, means also watching these towns, these communities, many which were established at the dawn of the industrial revolution, die.
But the four-lane also reveals another truth about Appalachia; it is no longer isolated from the rest of the world as it once was. The children know how to use a computer, they watch cooking shows on TV and listen to many of the same bands that children do everywhere. Most of them I suspect have higher aspirations than going to work in a coal mine as their relatives have done for generations. The lack of real opportunities for these children, and their constant exposure to toxic dust, water and air is the real tragedy of mountain top removal. While they four-lane brings in tourists and produce, and all of the amenities of modern life, for many of these children, it will be a one way road leading beyond the hollers and ridges of West Virginia, because not only is West Virginia exporting coal, it is exporting it’s people, a vast Hillbilly Diaspora, and one can not travel far in this country without meeting them and hearing their stories. No one is ever as homesick as a Hillbilly.
Arriving in New York I am surprised. Maria and Ed have been here before and have made many friends. Ed knows the subway, where to get the good pizza and the cheapest breakfast. Maria children are adventurous and curious and can navigate both the streets and the menus with ease. We settle in Brooklyn as easily as if we had just arrived in Ashville or Chattanooga. Its Thursday night after a ten hour drive and everything begins on Friday. Antrim, our guide and host, takes us to her favorite sushi joint, where the food is cheap and served in large quantities. “I thought you said this was sea food” grumbles Ed; “I don’t SEE anything I can eat”, and he set out to find a restaurant with a stove in it.
Friday everybody scatters, each with a list of appointments, meetings and social visits. We rendezvous later at Jalopy, which is a performance space that sells beer, but is not a bar. With all the Hillbilly music coming from the stage, and the crowd getting pumped up and slightly liquored, you could have fooled me. I have been to many “performances spaces” in San Francisco and I had never seen anything like this.
The best performance of the evening, as it turned out, would belong to Ed Wiley. He took to the stage to a big round of applause, from the New Yorkers, the Hillbillies, from the whole audience. Those who had not met him on his previous visits to the city had certainly met him by the time began to speak. Ed knows how to work a crowd. Most of them were already holding pamphlets in their hand that he had given them when he introduced himself shortly after they walked in the door.
I could not do justice to Ed’s story. It is a story of a journey he made from being a coal miner, not just a coal miner, but a mountain top remover, and a toxic waste dumper who even pumped a bunch of sludge into vacant mine shafts behind Maria’s house. “Now she’s my best friend.” he says. What got him thinking was his granddaughter, Kayla. It was not what was happening to her; she had been sick a lot. It was that he realized that he was doing it to her. It was as if he were struck down by lightning.
Since then both Ed and Maria have been on the road, often together, often separately, always taking advantage of every opportunity to talk about the harm that comes from burning coal. It is not some abstract harm. It is harm that they can see every day, in their communities, in their mountains, in their children. Leaving New York City with ten weary Hillbillies after the long weekend, I felt proud to have had the two of them take me around town and show me how shit gets done.
Note: Ed and Debbie Wiley working hard and I want them to go on the Salmon River with us in August. I have arranged a free six day trip down this wonderful river, but they will need some financial help in order to travel.
I think Ed and Debbie deserve a vacation. If you can help, please let me know. Preferably they’d want to take AMTRAK to Whitefish Montana where I would pick them up. You can also use the PAYPAL on the Lowbagger.org website, go to LBF (lowbagger foundation). We are tax deductible. Our goal is two thousand dollars so every little bit helps.
This is not a fundraising request. I want them on my boat.–MR
MIKE ROSELLE can be reached at: email@example.com