This is a hard place. And we are hard people. All of us know that hardness, even those who have escaped into the rest of the world. We are proud of it. It’s a birthright. A certain bad blood courses through us, as arcane as the land itself. These mountains are family, our very ancestors. They have taught us lessons that haughty Northerners and other foreigners will never learn or understand.
We are children of the pines. Walkers of the high ridges. Tellers of stories too wild to be true… but are. We are the daughters and sons of central Appalachia. We are, by birth, Kings and Queens of this nowhere. We know this. These mountains have told us so. They love us and want to keep us all to themselves. The wind has whispered it to our souls since we knew how to speak and listen. And we listen very well.
Here, in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, it is early December, and I have watched the land falter from hues of cinnamon and gold into a vast vista of only shades of gray. A pearl and leaden mist falls down from the heavens, cloaking the rich coal black of my mountain.
Yes, it is mine. The one I look on and the others beyond it, as far as I can see. That is one of our secrets. This place belongs to us, and we to it.
But as I said, this is a hard place.
There’s a stiff price to pay for being Appalachian royalty. When we are born, the mountains lay claim on us all. They protect and shelter us from the outsiders, from the unrest and corruptness that waits outside our mothering hills. It is difficult to leave this place. And even harder to get in. Any stranger who comes too boldly to our door after sunset will most likely be met with a gun barrel. There will be no warning shot. No idle threats. We do not take kindly to disrespect. We do not want your charity, neither. We have learned to make it just fine on our own.
We consider ourselves Southerners. But this place is not the South of Scarlett O’Hara. This is not the south of flowery plantations and slaves and cotton. This is the other South. The one nobody talks about. This one is the real deal.
We are the real deal.
The South of Scarlett is not just gone; it is silent in the grave.
A large handful of us die young, too. Not by the atmosphere—this air is as clear and pristine as it was a hundred years ago—but by the poison that has trickled down our mountains from beyond our confines. Oxycontin and Methadone and Xanax, and other little liars that promise escape from here, if only for a little while. On every street corner you’ll find a bank or a lawyer’s office. Or a church. Jobs are scarce these days, and even more scant when drug tests come back positive. Those folks end up on the draw, living check to check, perpetuating their misery onto their children, imbibing in their young a sense of entitlement and disdain, letting them know without saying so that it’s just fine to live this way. No preacher could pray them off the dope, and no street corner lawyer could save them from jail or the cemetery.
The rest of us cannot help this. That is the South nobody here talks about. We are not proud of such things. And the royalty amongst us shun the idea that we are doomed to such a memory.
My own great-grandmother lived to be a righteous ninety-seven. Her name was Dixie Virginia Belcher Adkins. I saw the woman catch hornets in the air and rip their heads off. She could conjure up a meal for a family of twenty plus with little more than bacon grease and flour and cool water. She was a Queen, too. And she knew it. The mountains had told her the same story it has told us. They nurtured and protected her and provided for her. She was well loved by this hard place. And she may have been partial to a shot of ‘shine or a smoke from her corncob pipe, but she was never taken with the notion that anyone owed her a thing.
Do not ever entertain the thought that we are less intellectually endowed than the outsiders. Not for a fleeting second. This is the land of Dolly and Loretta and June, of the words of Lee Smith, of the sound of a porch banjo, courtesy of Dr. Stanley.
Surely, we must be blessed. If not by God, then by the mother mountains. Because we are a hard people, us Queens and Kings.
Despite the ones who have fallen victim to the woe of the outside, most of us will last long into our eighties and beyond. The hardness is the price we pay for our pride. We accept it. We welcome it. Most of us will live to tell our tales. To sing our songs. To remind, with a soft and dulcet twang, that we are mountain royals, thank you very much.
Rain taps on the windowsill, and the pearl gray of the fog retreats into a resounding echo, and fades to coal black.
And I hear my mountain speaking to me. Yes, I hear it. Audibly.
I will never let you go. Never. You are mine, and I am yours. Forever.
I listen very well.