When Social Justice Warriors from the urban conurbation of northern Virginia and Maryland decide to visit West Virginia and Kentucky, they leave their work behind and travel to vacation homes or visit whiskey distilleries. In Hodgenville, Kentucky, sometimes they stop by the birthplace of the “Great Emancipator,” Abraham Lincoln, for a cone of ice cream (“dry” county!) and a quick refresher on how great is our indivisible nation.
In West Virginia, they listen to, and perhaps even sing John Denver songs and talk about how coal mining has destroyed the air quality and otherwise pristine landscape. Equality and justice, they feel, should be reserved for everyone, not only the privileged capitalists. Upon return home, refreshed with new energy and ideas, they resume the fight for the common good in inner cities.
Figure 1. Smoke rising from tall chimneys in West Virginia landscape; a symbol of environmental degradation to some and jobs and progress to others. (All photos were taken by the author.)
Left behind are Appalachian hollows (hollers in local vernacular), veins and arteries of the once-prosperous region hoping to bounce back from obscurity and isolation. Yet, to notice life in a holler, travelers must leave the Interstate Highway System and drive on two-lane highways. The roads twist through seemingly never-ending hollers and a cultural landscape that consists of three integral features: A creek or a small river, a trailer with an occasional American flag posted, and a pile of trash in the front yard. In the backyard is a mountain.
Figure 2. Double single-wide trailer deep in a West Virginia holler.
Less adventurous travelers can remain on two-line roads of higher ranking and still achieve a similar experience. Take the right exit on the Country Music Highway in Williamson, West Virginia, arriving from Pikeville, Kentucky, and continue on the U.S. Highway 52 to Bluefield. An experience of observing the landscape on this 95-mile stretch may, perhaps, just lead to a moment of pause and reflection upon the topic of inherited privilege in contemporary America.
For other people, unfazed by surrounding cultural landscape and appalled with the apparent absence of recycling, comments such as “How can people live like this?” and “Why don’t they do something about it?” may cross their mind. They ask questions, yet provide no answers or solutions, particularly solutions that would require their own participation. And it is exactly the lack of comprehensive participation that has contributed to the current state of an Appalachian holler, making it arguably the most culturally isolated space in the United States.
Physical and Cultural Isolation, Dependence
By definition, isolation is not a physical but cultural characteristic of a place. The South Pole is in the same area it was prior to Roald Amundsen’s arrival there on 14 December, 1911. Today, we can fly to the South Pole in one afternoon from South America or Australia. Mount Everest is still not much taller than was in 1953, when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached its summit, but note the number of climbers doing the same thing today. In these two and many other instances, it was the cultural factor that made the difference. It was the cultural factor that made an Appalachian holler such an isolated, remote space, not its physical distance to other places.
Unlike its urban equivalent in terms of lack of fortune, such as Detroit—whose current deplorable situation stems from a sad history of chronic mismanagement—an Appalachian holler’s main reason for lack of fortune was the region’s lack of skilled management. [Cynics would say that even mismanagement from outside would mean that someone cared to do something.] Since the beginning of the War on Poverty, championed by the President Johnson’s administration in 1964, a comprehensively-designed and successfully implemented economic development of an Appalachian holler in Kentucky/West Virginia borderlands is yet to surface.
Meanwhile, the War on Poverty has contributed to establishing a generation of welfare-dependent population with very little potential of making it out of its socioeconomic rut. The casualties from the battles in the War on Poverty are visible in the landscape described above. Well-being of the local population has been stagnating for decades. Eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia face a plethora of economic and social problems that have relegated them to the least prosperous area in the country. Compared to the growth of other regions, prospects for improving their condition are limited to non-existent.
Access to an Appalachian holler has always been one-directional—from outside in. This has prevented self-sustainability and further contributed to socioeconomic stagnation. Coal mining, a backbone of local economy, revolved around forces that the local population could not influence and change. Miners, who depend on outside factors in times of good and in times of bad (e.g., decision making on global and national environmental policies), live in a cultural system that keeps them sidelined. They do not have autonomy in creating their own productive socioeconomic alternatives and, in a way, live in a parallel society.
A New Stage in Access versus Isolation Dichotomy
“Re-discovery” of the Appalachian’s mountains, hills, and lakes (but no hollers!) in more recent years has brought a significant level of transformation to the region. Affordable land and great vistas have attracted many property buyers and developers. Construction of new roads, hotels, boat launches, and restaurants that are not just McDonald’s or KFC has increased in pace, leaving an impression of the land of opportunity.
Figure 3. Owners of million-dollar properties in the Appalachian region enjoy much better views than the owners of properties similar to that depicted in Figure 2.
Unfortunately, few opportunities are being built from within, and for people from within. As in the case of coal mining, this new access is again one-directional. It further contributes to the stratification of an existing cultural system. It may sound counter-intuitive that the development is contributing to stagnation of the local population, but consider who benefits from this development. By-and-large, it is not the segment of population who need the basic improvement the most. Employment opportunities revolve around the service sector, and are largely limited to low-paying jobs and with wages often barely above the poverty rate.
Meanwhile, the property and numerous other taxes are increasing, as are consumer prices. With each passing year, a dollar stretches less and less, which increases the burden even more. Obesity and diabetes epidemics show no indication of diminishing.
Million-dollar vacation homes scattered across the mountains are symbols of recent development. They display a trait of economic reality similar to that of a Caribbean island were impoverished locals serve foreigners during tourist season. There, too, exist two parallel societies that are unlikely to merge in foreseeable future.
Return of Dignity
One of the main problems in American society is the belief that a better quality of life can be achieved solely with continuous financial stimulus; in other words, fix something by pumping endless amounts of money into it. Even where staggering amounts of money have been spent, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, they produced unsatisfactory results. The main reason? The absence of clear goals, combined with the inefficiency in delivery and implementation. No financial stimulus can elevate a region from peril without a comprehensive yet realistic developmental framework, regardless if that region is in Kentucky and West Virginia or around Kabul, Afghanistan.
[For the reconstruction debacle in Afghanistan, a bottomless money pit, please read about my own experience there in Tears-Soaked Afghan Roads: Reconstruction Potholes and Utter Incompetence.]
Furthermore, for an Appalachian holler’s residents low self-esteem is a major obstacle. A widely held perception, particularly among young people, is that the only route to prosperity is a highway leaving the region. This belief severely limits residents’ enthusiasm for improving regional well-being. Low expectations ultimately produce low results. After several decades of life in such a restrictive social environment, people’s collective memory tends to be one of passivity and pessimism, which overshadows any potential for change and improvements.
On the other hand, to leave the region for some distant (and perhaps overly challenging) location can be difficult for many people regardless of age. It is not easy to leave the supporting environment of family and friends behind and venture on one’s own (a situation no different than leaving an inner city neighborhood for the same reason). Thus, the majority always chooses to remain in their area of birth, thus perpetuating the existing social conditions.
Although there are not too many lights currently shining over an Appalachian holler, surrendering is not the only option. People—as individuals and together as a community—can overcome their collective lethargy. They just need to have a reason and ideals for it.
Holistic Geographic Approach
A framework for improvement of conditions should not be in the form of an infusion of resources into a patchwork of disjointed projects [This, too, was a signature approach to reconstruction projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, i.e., limiting a positive impact to a small area and population, while drowning it in a sea of failures from unsuccessful projects.]. Receiving medical care, for example, has a purpose of eventually healing an entire body—all the veins, arteries, and organs to work properly—not just small sections independent from each other. Otherwise, the symptoms will reoccur.