In looking at Appalachia—not just from the outside, but from within as well—we reveal more about ourselves as observers than the region objectively. The subjects show us shades of our own individuality. That’s not easy to unpack, or even admit to, but I think it is why some depictions of Appalachia make us uncomfortable.
5 A.M. I wake up at home in Hampshire County and start driving in the still, quiet morning. I’m heading toward Fayette County in my faded red pickup with a loud, broken exhaust pipe. To the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel, it’s a four-hour drive, a pile of cassette tapes in my passenger seat, and a lot of coffee and cigarettes. My first day is scouting, finding the points on the map, seeking out the light.
An installment in our weekly story series, The By and By.
Beneath all I’m a low-church Protestant, splinter spit from the door when Martin Luther nailed up his paper at Wittenberg. I remember being warned as a child not to attend a church with cushioned pews: insufficiently austere.
A feature essay from the Spring 2019 issue.
Kris’s threat to leave was a loaded one. No West Virginian makes that decision lightly, and to be the cause of someone’s leaving is a terrible thing. I personally knew the weight of missing home. During all my years away, even as I enjoyed the freedom of living in a community where I felt completely comfortable talking about my sexuality, I kept my eye on returning to West Virginia. I had never found a place that felt as good to me, both in terms of the natural beauty and also the sense of a close-knit community—that feeling of being a part of something unique and true. Ever since I left I’d had a hope that someday I could return and my queer self and my Appalachian self wouldn’t have to be so split.
I live five miles from where the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel tragedy unfolded, along the New River Gorge in Fayette County. Hawk’s Nest is an extreme in a class of extremes—the disaster where truly nothing seemed to survive, even in memory—and I have made a home in its catacombs. The historical record is disgracefully neglectful of the event, and only a handful of the workers’ names were ever made known. What’s more, any understanding of Hawk’s Nest involves the discomfort of the acute race divide in West Virginia, seldom acknowledged or discussed. Indeed, race is still downplayed in official accounts. Disaster binds our people, maybe. But what if you’re one of those deemed unworthy of memory?
Photographs from the Summer 2014 issue.
Drawing from the famous nineteenth century portraits made by Doris Ulmann, Lisa Elmaleh’s project American Folk documents the contemporary development of traditional arts throughout the Appalachian Mountains.
In West Virginia, a state where most everything comes at a cost, there are no simple solutions, and in his new story collection, Allegheny Front, Matthew Neill Null does not shy away from the contradictions and complexities that make this region both so troubled and so extraordinary.