Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Travels in Virginia's Appalachia (April 2016)

April was spent in the far western part of Virginia; in Abingdon to be exact.  I have either had people who expressed their sorrow when I told them this, or their envy.  For example my buddy Ben at the yacht club told me that if Abingdon was on or near the ocean and he could sail there he would move at an instance and I think I would too (but I guess and hope ocean level rise will never make it there).

I tend to stay away from selfies on my blog, but ok, I took this picture on the very first day in April that I arrived in Abingdon at the beginning of the Virginia Creeper Trail.  Amazing that people who take selfies have these terrible grins.
I spent three weeks of April in Abingdon, and yes it could be lonely living in a motel room, away from home, but the first day of each week was with someone from my office, so that was great (most of the time).  On Wednesdays the Wolf Hills Brewery (the local brewery in Abingdon) has trivia night and the first night I was there, two young couples adopted me and I played trivia with them.  We actually won and they got a $25 gift certificate for the tasting room.  So you guessed it, I was adopted by them the two following weeks as well, and every time they saw me I was greeted by them as a long lost friend.  Nothing better than getting a hug from two mid-20-ish (female) school teachers and handshakes from their hubbies, while being away from home.  I don't think you see that happen in a big town.  Abingdon is just fun small town living.

Tasting room at the Wolf Hills Brewery
It was there that I learned that one of the teachers had a run in with the police the weekend that the NASCAR race came to Bristol that weekend in April.  She was tased and cuffed; truthfully not something I would have expected to see happen to this small (5'4" maybe 130 lbs maybe) school teacher.  The three cops let her go once they figured out who she was and what her profession was.  But she had the bruises and the taser mark to show for it.  This well educated and what appeared to me well mannered girl was somewhat proud talking about it, that it took three cops and a taser to take her down.

I am definitively not planning to make this a travelogue, but want to highlight some commonalities I experienced during all three visits.  I felt at home and accepted.  Naturally, Abingdon is not off the beaten track, and Damascus is on the Appalachian and the Virginia Creeper Trails.  So they get a lot of influx from people who are from the outside, but still there is a difference between being tolerated or almost accepted.  I can feel that.  I travel so much that even in local restaurants or so the ambiance or the friendliness of the local waitstaff give you that feeling.  Some people just give you the feeling they really care, others just fake it or don't even do that.  Only once did I feel alienated when traveling out in the mountains of Virginia, but that was only the result of listening to conservative talk radio, which is difficult to escape on the AM when you drive through the area, and so are the religious stations.  I wrote about it on March 4, 2015 in my blog.  Yes people are more conservative and you notice that on the radio.  I sometimes use that as a learning moment, as long as it does not become hate speech and intolerant; anyway NPR almost reaches everywhere.  Otherwise, best to download a book or a podcast.

Walking back along Main street from the restaurant to my motel in Abingdon.  It would great to have sidewalks, but we don't even have those in York County.
The Appalachian region has been in an economic downturn for a long time.  Driving through towns like Pulaski you can see the empty furniture factories and other industrial area.  On top of that you hear about coal mines shutting down and that the area has not really returned from the depression that started at the end of the Bush presidency.  National Public Radio Morning Edition had a whole special on it; click <here> for the link to that program, you can actually listen to it.  It played one Thursday morning when I was sitting in the car and just leaving town on my way back home.  I swore that the next week I would bike part of the Virginia Creeper Trail and somehow end up at the Damascus Brewery that is mentioned in the piece to have a beer.

The Damascus Brewery serves the best Dam(ascus) beer!
Well I did it the next week.  The bike ride was wonderful, I left town and went left as recommended by the bike shop owner, away from town.  Biking through the national forest along a creek was a great experience, but you know my need for nature and my battles with nature deficit disorder.  While I only biked 3 miles out (total ride was 6 miles) it was an easy ride and the beer tasted extra good afterwards.  There I got in a long and very pleasant discussion with a through hiker on the Appalachian trail who stopped over for a few days to recharge his system.  Again, what great experiences to be had, to get off the main road and just take your time to explore and interact with people.  Books can be written about these experiences.

Along the Virginia Creeper Trail, this photo and the first photo are the two bookends of my experiences along the trail.
What did I learn or what stood out?  I did not encounter many African Americans or Hispanic during my stay in the area.  I am sure they are there, but I had none in my classes; I saw none in restaurants not even as waitstaff or cleanup staff, not even at Wendy's, but I did not eat in any Mexican restaurants this time; none of the household staff at the motel was black or Hispanic.  I think I saw one, who appeared local, African American gentleman putting gas in his vehicle when I was doing the same one morning, but that was all.  I don't want to conclude that the area does not have any minorities, but it seems much more segregated.  I also learned that it still is economically depressed, but people in generally seem to have a positive outlook on life.  The people out there are like everywhere else, they genuinely care about their fellow human beings.  But they have an edge, like my school teacher who did not think twice about taking on three cops and getting tased as a result of it (and she was not ashamed of it, to say the least).  They live in a beautiful part of the state, that they should be proud of.

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