Rural American Vignettes

Photo by William Garrett | CC by 2.0

Until just over a couple of decades ago I was a fairly serious mountaineer.  I liked to do this on my own– I went to an Outward Bound school and have a Red Cross first aid certificate, as well as considerable experience– and besides, I’m highly risk averse.  So, no real danger here (though of course you can’t discount such things as an avalanche).

Nearly every university winter break in those days I would pack my car with snow shoes, tent, and other equipment, and head to Colorado from North Carolina.  Flying with all this stuff would be a hassle, and besides camping outside each night as I drove north got me used to being in the cold.

I would also take a cool box, stuffed with Tupperware containers of tuna salad I’d made, pita bread, power bars, etc.  Once in the Rockies I’d eat freeze-dried food cooked on my portable primus stove.

Half-way across the country I’d need a new supply of pita bread.  One year I stopped in a tiny town in Oklahoma, let’s call it Mooseville (population 360).  I went to the general store in Mooseville, wearing my customary bandana and outdoor gear, looking dishevelled from camping out for several days.  A burly fellow in his mid-60s, in a plaid shirt and blue jeans, was at the counter.  I asked him where the pita bread was.  He gave me a strange look, nodded in the direction of a shelf with bread, and in a slow, deep, cavernous baritone said, “ther bread is over thaare”.

The shelf only had generic white bread, which is not to my taste, so I bought the smallest loaf in the store.  As I was paying, I asked Mr Cavernous Baritone if there was a restaurant nearby.  He told me there was a good diner across the road.  Mr Cavernous Baritone was right about the establishment across the road.

The menu was posted outside, and it was classic American diner fare: ham steaks, sausage, and bacon, eggs every which way, and toast and jam, plus all the coffee you want.  I enjoy such food, so I went in and had a delicious meal.

There were a handful of other customers, all men, mostly discussing the Bowl prospects of the scandal-ridden University of Oklahoma’s (American) football team, a college powerhouse, coached until just before that time by Barry Switzer, renowned for letting his players do as they pleased off the field as long as they won championships for him.  One of his better-known players, the insufferably arrogant Brian Bosworth, used to say, “the Oklahoma Sooners’ football team needs a university it can be proud of”.

My meal over, it was time to head to the next camping stop.

I’ve lived in a small college town in rural southwest Virginia for the last 18 years.  The town itself is progressive in its politics, but once you go beyond the town limits, it soon becomes obvious that these parts of Virginia are the domain of the dotard-in-chief.

The mountain people here have a hard time understanding my English accent, and I them.  Even Americans not from these parts can struggle to understand the local dialect, so if, say, I have to take the lawn-mower or chain-saw to be repaired in the excellent nearby small place that does such things, my American spouse, J, has to come along to interpret– at least they can understand what she says.  One day I took the chain-saw in because I couldn’t make it work.  The man at the counter, obviously the boss, took a look at it and shouted out to the mechanic in the workshop at the back: “Bert, cain you fix this– it hain’t turnin’?”.

Bert comes over and takes off the engine casing, pokes around the engine, and says, “Dirt in carburetor, you cain clean it out at home, easy and saves yerself money”.  I told Bert this would be utterly beyond me, and he gave me a pitying look as he took the saw to the back for the elementary repair job (in his eyes, at any rate).

Another time I had to take in our weed-trimmer.  After Bert had inspected the weed-trimmer for several minutes and tried mightily to start it while making several adjustments here and there, he said it was “deaad, gawn, youser needs a new one”.  Mr Hain’t Turnin, an affable fellow, asked me if I hunted (you aren’t considered a real man in these parts if you don’t hunt).  I told him I had just bought a cross-bow because deer were eating everything in our garden.  He beamed and said: “I cain’t fix yours trimmer, but I sure cain learn you how to use yer cross-bow”.  Such individuals—aka “good old boys”—are absolutely indispensable if you live in a small rural Virginian town.

In my experience the best retrievers of everyday salvage live in Shanghai and my town in Appalachian Virginia.

In Shanghai, where there is no official recycling system, men in bicycles or tricycles towing a cart, cycle around their part of the city looking for everything that can be recycled or salvaged.  What they find is piled to a great height on the cart, and taken to a private recycling business that pays them for what they have collected.

In my Appalachian town there are two times a year when discarded items of the appropriate type placed on the street outside your property will be picked up by the town council (at other times you these items can be taken to a town recycling facility).

At these designated times of the year, leaves and brush can be placed street side, along with a whole range of obviously unwanted items– furniture (mostly broken), tools and electrical equipment no longer working, empty containers of any kind no longer useful, broken toys no longer needed, discarded plastic flower pots, wheelbarrows without wheels, suitcases with broken straps and hosepipes with holes in them, and so on– the reader will get the gist.

For days before the designated pick-up date, men from the surrounding mountain areas (we call them “mountain men”) will drive around in their rusty trucks and salvage what they see on the side of the road, before the town council picks up these items.

The town does a splendid job recycling this material, but it is obvious that the mountain men will be repairing and repurposing what they find, and not just recycling these items.

When it snows in the winter, the same mountain men will get in their trucks and show up at our front door, offering to shovel the snow from our steep driveway for 20 bucks.  The job is usually done by two or three or them, aged between forty and fifteen, all with cigarettes dangling from their mouths as they shovel.  The effort is backbreaking and lung bursting for the two of us, with a combined age approaching 130 years, so we pay them 20 bucks each.

It is customary for us to drive to Texas to spend Christmas with J’s family.  When first making this journey, in the mid-1990s, I was able, with J spelling me for a short rest or two, to do the 1000 or so miles in one day.  Today, older and perhaps wiser, we make one or even two stops on the way.

One year I needed an emergency root canal the day before we left.  Snow was forecast in Tennessee, but we left in any case, somewhat confident that our four-wheel drive vehicle would make it.  Once we crossed the state-line from Virginia into Tennessee, the snowfall got heavier on Interstate 40.  Just outside Knoxville, in the middle of nowhere, cars were sliding off the road, and the 18-wheeler trucks couldn’t make it up the slightest slope.  Our car could just about manage the conditions, but the stalled traffic was starting to impede us.

After a while we were caught in a huge traffic jam.  Bored with sitting in the car, I decided, despite feeling groggy from painkillers, to go outside and help push cars that had slid off the road.  Wearing indoor clothing for the journey, I was soaked through in about 20 minutes. But the exertion kept me warm.

The cold got to me once I started slowing down from the physical effort, and couldn’t push any more cars.  An 18-wheeler driver, who had been pushing stuck cars with me, said J and I could spend the night in his truck’s (heated) cabin if we were immobilized by the traffic jam.  He didn’t have to do this, so his was an immensely generous gesture, which sticks in my mind to this day.

However, J had been on her mobile phone, and found a motel a few miles down the road that had one room left, though the desk clerk warned her the heater in the room was having “problems”.  Desperate, we reserved the room, and our 4-wheel drive car negotiated the couple or so miles to the motel by driving in the emergency lane.

Our motel-room heater was only blowing out tepid air, and I was starting to shiver uncontrollably.  J got the brainwave of warming me up with the hair-dryer that was in the bathroom.  It did the job (especially when it came to my toes and fingers, which were like blocks of ice), and we fell asleep, eventually, wearing several sweaters each.

We made it to Texas in time for Christmas.

Such vignettes about rural America, unavoidably, tell a highly incomplete story.  A fuller story has to take the structures of southern US rural capitalism into account, and the effects of these structures are usually overlooked in these accounts (though less so in the last couple years as more attention is given to the massive opioid crisis afflicting southern rural America).

The lineaments of almost all accounts of US capitalism tend to focus overwhelmingly on manufacturing (in long-term decline), finance (overpoweringly influential though exercising an overall drag effect on real US economic productivity), tech and services (growing exponentially, but only providing jobs for the well-qualified), agriculture (invariably agribusiness, with struggling small farms consistently disregarded).

The overwhelming American economic-policy emphasis is on big business and the politicians who are in its pockets.

The Democrats, by throwing their weight behind the Wall Street-Hollywood nexus, have effectively abandoned rural America, as have the Republicans economically but not culturally.

The Republican “southern strategy” has required it to fight the culture wars to secure its southern base, and so the Republican guiding principle here has been the 4 G’s: “God and guns (both good), gays and gummint (both bad)”.

And of course, there is America’s deeply ingrained racism.

Southerners, in the main not as well-educated as their counterparts in the rest of the US, have espoused these culture wars as an ostensible defence-mechanism, and in effect have therefore been willing to vote against their own interests.

Southerners have absolutely no incentive to vote for the Democrats (thanks to the unrelentingly neoliberal pro- big business policies of the latter), so, in their eyes, they might as well throw their lot in with the Republicans—the Republicans will at least assuage, cosmetically, the real economic pains of poorer southerners with the soothing balm of support for their supposedly threatened cultural values.  All the time, however, less well-off southern Republican voters are sold down the river financially.

Neither US main party is prepared to “drain” the deeply corrupt plutocratic swamp visible to poor southerners, albeit in a somewhat unfocussed way– poll after poll shows that large numbers of Americans of all classes (except for the 1% itself!) massively underestimate the wealth of the 1%.

The billionaire rip-off artist who currently resides in the White House got the votes of poorer Americans by conning them on this and other issues.

All else being equal, it is unlikely that someone will improve their personal situation and that of their country by voting for a con man serving only his own interests and that of his immediate family.

Along with the pledge of allegiance, at least, such lessons informing children how this kind of con man succeeds have to be taught in elementary school.   OK, I’m setting the bar extremely low here.

Or maybe my bar is not so low, because these children would have to learn a little bit about how capitalism really works, which is of course a very tall order in the US.

It is so much easier to get America’s children to salute the flag.


Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.