Meditations on Place: A Creative Nonfiction Feature
Fiction Editor's Note: Recently, while teaching a writing workshop, I assigned my students to look at the title piece in Greta Ehrlich's classic essay collection The Solace of Open Spaces to get a better understanding of what great sense of place writing can be. Although I mainly teach fiction, I believe that having a fundamental understanding of writing creative nonfiction is essential for any writer to tap their full potentials. In this prompt I asked the students to look at the first seven paragraphs of the essay and to attempt to do the same thing Ehrlich does in those paragraphs: 1. Show an action informed by the place, 2. Explain the place name's origins, 3. Discuss the weather and its impact on the place, 4. Present a view, 5. Allow the place to be described by someone else--and that person must be vividly characterized, 6. Show what people who don't actually know the place think it is, and 7. Share a fact about the place that transforms into poetry. Furthermore, they were instructed to choose a place that is important to them in some way. Ehrlich focuses on Wyoming in her piece, but the essays that resulted from this writing prompt range from the city of Louisville to the Russell Fork River in Eastern Kentucky to a carnival in Florida. Some of them stick closely to the instructions while others do their own thing. I was so impressed by what the writers produced that I asked them to let me share them here with the readers of Still: The Journal. And I hope that others will take this writing prompt I came up with and create their own meditations on place. The short essays are arranged below in alphabetical order of the author's last name.
—Silas House, fiction editor
Of Poverty and Beauty
by Jennifer Adams
My internal alarm had roused me into reality at five in the morning. The rectangular window fan blew chilled air over me; the sweat on my body turned to ice, and I used the flannel comforter I had brought in. My arm had swung over my friend’s body sometime after my slumber had begun – it was odd to have to fight off cold in the summer, but she had even less insulation than I did, so I threw the comforter over her as well. I cursed the lack of air conditioning, hating having to choose between the desert atmosphere of my own room and the oddly winter-like weather in my brother’s room. I curled up to cover everything, squished between a wall and the smallest person I knew on the surely-not-big-enough-to-be-called-a-twin-sized bed, hoping that the bugs being flung in with the breeze wouldn’t want to nibble on the tip of my toes that I couldn’t quite fit under my make-shift shelter.
The county labelled my hill as part of the town Lancing, though we lived nowhere near said town. We were placed in a weird point that was evenly between Lancing, Sunbright, and Wartburg; this being said, I had little to no association with the first two run-down towns. Wartburg, named after the Wartburg Castle in Germany apparently, was the town where I went to school, and where my mother worked as the only florist at the locally owned grocery store, Darnell’s Food Market (“Your Key to Good Eating!”).
Summer here was the worst. The humidity levels never dropped below 20%, and the temperature could range anywhere between 80 degrees and 105. The creepy crawlers loved this; the double-wide being located smack in the middle of the woods allowed ample time to watch the insects go nuts. June bugs could be seen as early as April some years, fooled by the sun turning us into Australia, smacking themselves into the trailer, trees, arms, and faces while attempting to do whatever June bugs do. The ground, despite the humidity, dried up, and grass browned and crinkled like the wrappings you pull off straws at Hardee’s or Burger King. Every morning and afternoon, I would have to take a cold shower to defeat the power of the summer; my Irish heritage – blessed and handed down from father to daughter – was counter-productive here, heat exhaustion becoming a present danger every waking-and-sleeping moment, causing me to retreat to the somehow-frozen landscape of my brother’s former room, attempting to not die of stroke and bad luck.
That morning, the sun wasn’t quite in the sky as I walked the five minute journey to the “bus stop” – or, the gravel rode bit in front of my grandpa’s house and right next to the 90 degree hill where we lived. The birds were making a ruckus, and I remembered how, years before, my brother and I put words to their chirps. One continually asked “Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy!” in a high-pitched squeal; another answering in a chime-like, soft song, going high-low-high-low “He is not here.” The dim light never allowed us to put faces – or feathers – to those tiny voices, but allowed enough to see the forest looming over us on the right side of the woods once we emerged from the burrow we had placed our trailer in. The pines and oaks all swayed next to us, the breeze ruffling their leaves in that unique rustle; it was as if they were humming, swaying back and forth to the song only they could hear.
This was the most beautiful place I had seen in my 17 years – but it was painfully obvious that my Yankee family did not belong in this rural-southern area. My father fit in nicely; his family lived all around us on that tiny hill peak. My mother would look at me, however, and would joke in a sort of way that was being serious but not truthful: “We were on our way to Florida, and the car broke down. That’s why we stayed here.” She was far away from her family, and had no desire to explain her northern accent to every customer who walked near her out cove in the store. “The view’s the only reason I’m not going nuts,” she explained one day, and then she went on washing the dishes with her rubber-yellow elbow gloves, using the dishwasher as a drainer because the economy didn’t allow for it to be fixed.
Most people agreed that our area was beautiful – full of wildlife and wild bushes and trees. They also don’t see the people as, well, people. Southerners were often frowned upon, especially in the county I lived in – one of the poorest in the state. We were seen as less-than, as racist and ignorant and uneducated. There wasn’t ever a person who would speak to us in an eye-to-eye sort of level; always down, like they were speaking to a dog that had been scared by the thunder, or to a child that didn’t quite have a grasp on grammar. We were 2-D, flat characters that had no hidden traits, no unknown motives. Our secrets were on our sleeves, and our thoughts too primitive to see our folly.
families around us couldn’t afford a college degree, even from the local
community college. They had a soft way of talking, not quite separating every
word, allowing each syllable to flow together like verbal cursive – soft,
messy, really unique to each person, and easier than distinct separation. But
it wasn’t ignorance that caused the lack of education, and the southern accent
was neither cause nor effect of unintelligence. The economy fought against the
south, forcing it back into nature. We spoke closer to birds, singing gently
with our voices instead of rushing through and pronouncing each “t.” Muddy
pants were school appropriate, and Sunday’s were days of rest. We stayed happy
as minimalists, telling ourselves we were separating us from the world –
refusing to believe the world itself from us.
Jennifer Adams is an Asian Studies major studying at Berea College. She grew up in Tennessee but calls Oregon home. After college, she plans to travel to Japan and become an English-Japanese translator.
Emerald River: The Only God I’ll Ever Know
by Jacob Anderson
It’s June, and I’m heading into the forest. I’m on my way to a location on the river that is special to me, and I’m going to spend a few days out there camping.
El Horrendo is a Class V rapid on the Russell Fork River. My buddies often joke that El Horrendo is Spanish for ‘The’ Horrendo. It is known by kayakers and hikers alike as a place of power and majesty.
During wet weather, El Horrendo swells, sometimes as high as 20,000 CFS. It takes on the appearance of a tsunami wave, swallowing immovable limestone boulders, and not spitting them out until the weather dries up. When the sun’s sweltering, and the river’s low, you can swim from one side of the riverbank to the other, and crawl behind the rapid’s waterfall. You can’t hear a thing besides the white surge of river, but it makes for a very romantic kiss, and one of the most invigorating experiences you can have at the rapid.
Helios is blazing today in the cloudless azure sky. A troupe of yellow-winged butterflies flutter above a deep indention in the limestone, probably carved out by a long-gone Cherokee family. The honeysuckle breeze carries the songs of the woodthrush through the forest; it’s so easy to simply lie here on the rock, and revel in sweet peace.
My mom used to worry when I’d come camping out here. She warned me of the danger of the river. I guess she felt that way because her daddy drowned, succumbing to the power of the emerald current. But I always let her know that I revere the river, and I don’t try anything stupid because Nature doesn’t shy away from taking life. Mom was always fearing for my life; despite my experience in, and respect for Nature, I never could allay her worries. She wouldn’t let me leave without throwing an extra water bottle in my pack, and I was always thankful for that when beer and the sun had dried me out.
Most people who think they understand Eastern Kentucky don’t even know about El Horrendo. They see mounds of coal, and trucks hauling it, and they don’t think anything else about the area. They’ll see the churches that line the streets, and smell the noxious smoke piping from the coal-trucks, and assume that sums it up.
The truth is, the river’s not interested in coal mining. If you watch it flow, the golden sun dappling them emerald waves, you know that coal mining is a human mistake. I’ll pick a bright bouquet of wildflowers, make myself a crown, and ride the crest of an emerald wave all the way down; down to the marshy banks, where I’ll build a campfire, and praise the only god I’ll ever know.
Jacob Anderson is from Elkhorn City, Kentucky. He is a Senior at Berea College. When he’s not spending time chasing his college degree, he writes poetry and enjoys his family.
Germ-X and Other Futile Things
by David Cornette
"I am going to vomit," I say, and she says "No you won't, just hold on tight," but I cannot feel the metal bar under my whitening fists, can only feel the solid half inch of human grime that has accumulated from decades of summer sweat and corndog grease and children's sneezes. I remember reading somewhere that the dirt under your fingernails is 70% fecal matter and my stomach lurches, squirming inside of me like the gunk on the safety bar against my palm. She places her hand on mine but it feels oppressive and sticky in the heat. I see the ride attendant in a yellow polo making her rounds, making sure that the metal bar is held securely in place.
We are at the Hillsborough County Fair on the last Friday of
July. I am visiting my grandparents in Thonotosassa, a town of 13,000, but we
are fifteen minutes away in Tampa and I am pretty sure that there are more
people here than the entire population of their small town. My room at home
feels crowded if I leave dirty laundry on the floor, and I am overwhelmed with
the sheer number of other beings around me.
The sun is shining thick beams of plasma against my skin,
and had turned my arms a deep shade of scarlet even before the ticket taker
snapped this neon green bracelet around my wrist. The air is heavy and wet, and
I feel as though I am wading through a warm swimming pool while wrapped in
wool. The occasional breeze is a mixed blessing, its momentary reprieve soured
by the fact that it carries with it the dense scent of sweat mingled with that
of stomach-curling fried foods. The humidity brings droves of mosquitos that outnumber
the throngs of people that they feast on. I have no need for sideshow games
because I am perpetually engaged in a game of whack-a-mole with the mosquitos.
My arm grows bumpy and itchy but it burns too much to scratch them.
I am surrounded by loud and colorful whirs of metal, meshing
together intricately to give people near death experiences that make them feel
alive. Laughter emits from the crowds of walking fair-goers, interspersed by
the shrieks and screams of those on the rides. It might be easier to handle if
there weren’t so many Porta-Potties. Nobody washes their hands in a
Porta-Potty; most of them ran out of soap years ago and no one but me has
noticed. Their stink mixes with the oozing conglomerate of tainted odors
wafting from the overflowing trash cans in which discarded carnival food
festers under the early afternoon sun. Flies buzz busily around the cans and
flit away to spread the rot to whatever they land on next, a face or a sandwich
or a handrail. There are two sanitary stations hosting giant plastic bags full
of Germ-X. Anti-septic dispensers that the germ machines line up in front of,
hoping for a surface clean. Really all it does is leave a million bacterial
corpses on the hands and makes room for the resistant few to multiply
fervently, lessening the effectiveness of the antibacterial goo with each
My grandmother dragged me here because she said I needed to
get some sun. I had been more than content to spend the rest of my week as I
had the first four days – burrowed into the lumpy gray recliner under the air
conditioning unit in my grandparent’s trailer, reading a Vonnegut novel or watching
the History channel. “I’ll give you something to read!” she’d said, shoving a
brochure between my face and the book. It proudly proclaimed the fair as “FUN
FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY!” It also boasted being the first fair in Florida to have
a full-scale petting zoo; I still can’t see how such a bacteria factory could
be heralded as an upside.
And yet, here I am. Strapped into a haphazard heap of metal,
salty hair plastered along the arc of my ear. I can smell spray paint from the
airbrush t-shirt stand across from our ride and am reminded that an odor means
that there is matter in the air. I am breathing in paint. My mind goes to the
stink of the Porta-Potty again just as the attendant reaches down to check my
bar and I lose it. My eyes are forced closed so I do not see the thick yellow
spray hit her pale forearm and bounce to blend in to the front of her uniform.
She screams and sprints for the Germ-X station and I try to tell her that she
is better off not using anything at all but she isn’t listening and my words
keep coming out as vomit anyway.
David Cornette is from Michigan and Kentucky. He is a recent graduate of Berea College and now works with Grow Appalachia at the Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, Kentucky.
Barefoot We Stand, Never to Fall
by Anna Kate McWhorter
The Ohio River carves out the northern border of this place I choose to call home. I look to the water and wonder if any life could possibly thrive—or even survive—underneath the murk. Over a thousand miles of streams are polluted from the industry that keeps us afloat and pushes us under at the same time. The veins, the lifeblood of Kentucky are poisoned, but the people, our heart, keep pumping, keep beating fists to the sky, keep gripping tight to the hands beside us and the lush bluegrass under our toes.
Kentucky is a place where we know full well that the way a town’s name is pronounced can be determined only by the people who live there. Versailles is Ver-sails. Sparta is Sparty. Louisville is Lool-vuhl. The name “Kentucky” itself has been attributed to a few different Native American languages, but all the given translation options speak to the character of the place. Turkey lands, meadow lands, dark and bloody ground, or the Iroquois “Ken-tah-ten,” meaning land of tomorrow. We have exit signs that read things like “Waddy Peytona.” Going the opposite direction, the sign reads “Peytona Waddy.” It didn’t always, but the order just got switched a couple years back. It caused a bit of a hoo-ha; the citizens of Waddy threw a fit.
In other places, people talk about the weather as a way to pass through mundane encounters with strangers. In Kentucky, people talk about the weather because it’s fucking insane. Today I’m wearing shorts and a tank top. There’s talk of snow for tomorrow. The wild geese fly around overhead, their migration patterns confused. A Celtic metaphor for unpredictability, beauty, and grace, they circle the bluegrass, giving off their holy characteristics to those below.
Majestically flat in some places and molded with ups and downs in others, Kentucky’s topography is as diverse and unpredictable as the people that make up the commonwealth. The state is situated in a hug between the arms of coalfields on the east and west. The Knobs region swoops down and across Kentucky’s breast, dimpling it with hills that bleed into the mountains of the east. The Jackson Purchase constitutes its western tail that reaches out toward Missouri. A majority of the landscape lies in the Pennyroyal, also the name for a plant commonly used by Greeks and Romans as a cooking herb. When crushed, it gives off an aroma soothing like spearmint, but it is also high in pulegone—an organic compound known for its toxicity to uterine and liver function. That dichotomy of soothing and toxic weaves through the land and its people: “We’ll make you a casserole, but we’ll kill you.”
A girl my age from off up north somewhere once told me that Kentucky didn’t seem like a particularly interesting place. She must not know about Mammoth Cave (it’s the longest known cave system in the world). She probably isn’t aware that Appalachia is the second most biodiverse region on the planet, second only to the Amazon rainforest. And I find it terribly interesting that there are more bourbon barrels than there are human beings in my state. And that each of the counties are named for Revolutionary War soldiers who were given those pieces of land after the war. And that there exists a state mandate which declares that the University of Louisville Cardinals and the University of Kentucky Wildcats must play each other in basketball every year at the end of December. We are a dreadfully fascinating place.
When I went to summer camp growing up, the other kids would ask if we wore shoes. How many horses do you own? Where’s your Confederate flags? How many guns do you have at home? Are your parents cousins? Can you even read? I could roll my eyes, but teenagers seldom want to have conversations about structural inequality and extractive economies and how any of the faults that exist within this place are to no fault of the people who live here.
Heaven must be a Kentucky of a place, and if it isn’t, then I don’t really need to see it anyway.
Anna Kate McWhorter is a native of Louisville and a recent graduate of Berea College.
Letter from a Lover
by Matthew S. Parsons
I saddle the beast and climb aboard for what is bound to be a wild ride in the countryside. I haven’t often gone out riding by myself and I wonder if the horse is likely to stand still long enough for me to open and shut all the gates on the way. The ground is uneven, like a blanket whipped out to shake the dust.
I ride over the ridge, tumbling in my seat atop ol’ Ida Red, the quarter horse-cross. The land’s slope is deceivingly flat in appearance. However, like so many things one might encounter in West Virginia, it’s so steep you could roll a square down it. Somehow, sheer beauty is not enough to describe its ghostly majesty.
My dad once told me over a bowl of soup beans that they had almost called the state Vandalia. There’s a bluegrass festival here by that name for that very reason. Instead they settled on West Virginia, as if trying to claim some of Virginia’s lingering glory or to agitate the confederacy like pouring salt on an open wound. Somehow the idea of righteousness is infectious. I imagine that even the trees stand only out of defiance.
The spring here is warm and inescapably sticky and is always painted with the possibility of winter breaking in, only somewhat unexpectedly. Maybe you would think it would surprise us less by now. I once saw a wave of warm, golden sunshine on the back-side of my house, while the fist of winter pounded snow on the front. People around here are prepared for just about anything. There are some folks with bunkers and supplies, thinking either the rapture or bad weather are coming; and that one is about as likely as the other. Still yet, there are those that shoulder against the wall of ice on Monday and wear a straw shade hat on Tuesday. Somebody has to feed the hogs.
I readjust myself in the saddle, the squeak of leather giving way to a long sigh. If I look to my right, I am confronted with the wall of the forest; the boundary that separates the civil from the carnal. If I look to my left, I feel like I’m peaking under the skirt of the world. It is a private moment between me the bouncing hills, chained down by power-lines and fences. The hills give way to the towering mountain giant, the scar on its side fresh and deep where the ground gave way under five tons of metal and man-made innovation. The state lies disheveled on the bones of the earth; a wounded beauty cast to the ground by a selfish lover.
It’s not easy working this land. It’s been said more than once, and rightly so, that we could just as soon shoot our corn seed into the side of a hill as plow the ground. I can recall a hot day in the field, digging potatoes with over-sized dinner-ware. I was going strong, digging hill after tiny hill of plump, red potatoes. My poppy wasn’t going so strong. Age, neglect, and abuse had taken their toll on his lungs and he now didn’t dig so much as coach the digging of potatoes. He called me over, handed me a bottle of water and plopped down on the grass.
“Sit down,” he said.
I told him I could keep going easily enough, there was only a row and a half left, but that he was welcome to take a rest.
“Sit down, I wasn’t asking,” he said.
I sat down on the tattered grassy fringe of the dusty flat and felt immediate relief. My back was straightened and my throat absorbed the cool spring water.
Poppy told me all about bragging on oneself. He explained that in order for you to really appreciate what you were creating you had to sit down every few minutes with some bourbon and some tobacco and brag on yourself. Seeing as how I was too young to smoke or drink back then, we had only ourselves to amuse us while we bragged in earnest about the nature of digging potatoes and how demanding it is and how well we had done to have dug two full bushels already. I learned later as fact what I knew then by intuition; that he did not sit to brag, he sat to breathe and could not bear to sit idly by while somebody else was doing all the work.
There are some who maintain the illusion that West Virginia is the mountain mother, teaming with untamed beauty and literally springing with life. They sing John Denver and cry, “take me home!” like they know what it means. To go home to the “mountain state” is like exploring the halls of a dilapidated museum of mountain life from the 1960s; a monument to degradation.
The state that I have so long called home is now more like battle front. I can feel the tension when I cross the borderline, and sitting here on this horse only makes it feel more real. I’m riding into a battle for my soul, my identity, and my home which has inherited its predictable position: the all-too ready victim of progress. It gives me grief to think that I will remember my home state as one that lay down quietly like a good victim and let greedy men do as they would with her, scarring her body with indifference. I can only be comforted in thinking that the universe will be as unforgiving for these men as it will undoubtedly be for the rest of us, leading us on a well-traveled path to our inevitable end. There I will find peace in knowing that we will let her be, and I will express nothing but my apologies for the distress we caused while we were here. I’m sorry for the inconvenience.
Matthew Parsons is from Southern West Virginia, and says he is proud to have been born to a family of working people. He is a rising junior at Berea College.
The Concrete Jungle
by Janelle Terry
As I climb the stairs to the fourth floor, I swipe at the back of my knees, attempting to wipe some of the sticky condensation that has begun to accumulate there. I pull at the front of my shirt, creating somewhat of a manmade fan as I try to simultaneously keep my shirt from sticking to my chest and air myself dry. I hate the clammy feeling sweat leaves when it instantly combines with cold air, but I can only blame myself for the half-hour trek I’d just made in this sweltering twelve o’clock heat. I could have caught the bus, but I just had to keep hitting the snooze button . . . I think the new books I get today will be completely worth the journey.
The word Kanawha derives from the region's Iroquoian dialects meaning “water way” or “canoe way” implying the metaphor, “transport way”, in the local language. The rivers aren’t used much nowadays for transport. The rivers aren’t actually used for much nowadays except for supplying the city with water, but since the chemical spill, residents have been cautious of water they get from the tap. The rivers have a devilish beauty: pretty to look at but riddled with secrets.
I was talking with a friend of mine who lives in Malaysia about weather. He said that where he lives, it’s anywhere between low eighties to high nineties, humid and rainy all year round. I don’t much prefer living through all four seasons here, but I enjoy have one summer compared to four. Summer’s always right on time, so I always know what to expect: scorching afternoons, sun high in the cloudless azure sky, ideal for spending a day inside reading or hanging out all day with my friends at the pool. The sun starts to set around eight or eight-thirty taking the remaining heat of the day with it, and by nine, the weather’s perfect for a game of manhunt. The air is still warm enough to comfortably wear shorts and a t-shirt but cool enough to keep from becoming drenched in sweat. And windy nights are the best. The howling whirlwind creates perfect cover for silencing the beat of my feet over the crunchy, sun-dried grass. The accompanying chill is a personification of the anxiety and suspense that builds inside as I quickly and quietly make my way back to home base.
Sometimes in life it feels like it’s either or: black or white, meat or potatoes, the city or the countryside, but one of the best things about the Kanawha Valley is that it’s a happy medium, the best of both worlds. As I sit out on the riverbank, I can see a faint dusting of stars scattered across the asphalt grey sky, littered with light. I look around at the buildings shadowed by the rolling hills. It’s a beautiful concrete jungle. Blurs of red and white zoom down the interstate; the calming lull of the rushing river smelling of mud and acidity; the obscure mass of the mountains.
My brother hates Charleston. It’s not just the place - with nothing to do for youth besides hangout at the Transit with the “bottom feeders” and “low lifes”; the exponential amount of potholes that will do hundreds of dollars worth of damage to your car if hit in just the right spot; or the lack of progression. It’s the people, especially our generation. No one has anything that they’re striving for, so they live for the petty ass drama that they usually start. The only reason that shit keeps going is because they feed the fucking flames themselves. He keeps telling me that he hopes I don’t end up stuck like everyone else in else in this lame ass excuse for a city just before he heads home.
Not everyone feels that way. An ex-coworker of mine said that she loved going into the city with her boyfriend when she visited his home. She admired the “quaintness” of it all. Her boyfriend claimed to have a pretty significant understanding of the place – which neighborhoods to avoid and where to get the best Chinese food – even though he lives about an hour away. He had an idea, but he was missing the big picture. Most people do since the only thing they know about us comes from negative news stories. People chosen to be interviewed are almost always snaggle-toothed, camo-wearing, dialect-heavy seemingly uneducated men. If you lived outside of West Virginia and that's all you saw every time we made national headlines, would you not think we were all “backwoods, barefoot hillbillies”?
Most characteristic of the capital city is the Capitol Building with its resplendent gold-framed dome with Mountaineer blue inlay that no doubt cost millions of tax payers’ dollars. The dazzling dome personifies the progress and perseverance Charleston has made, but it also symbolizes strength and is a characteristic of community specific to the Appalachian region. What a spectacular sight it is! Sparkling like stars in the sunlight and a beacon of hope lit up like a lighthouse in the night sky. Beautiful and extravagant, when I can see it, I know that I’m home.
Janelle Terry is a recent graduate of Berea College. She is from Charleston, West Virginia.
by Lindsey Weist
The Black-Gold festival has alit downtown like a flock of birds, reminding us all of what keeps the lights on. The loosely-wound roads are stuffed with food carts and carnival rides, an affair that closes down at least four of the major five roads through town. Cold air rolling over my face, I take a frosted metal cup into my hands from the vendor of a root beer cart, a barrel-shaped construction ready to roll down the road the first chance it got. Sheltering the drink while I escape the crowd, I shove past the person behind me in line, an overweight mother whose nasal voice grates on my ears as she demands for her child a pint. She isn’t afraid to be rude; it’s her right. This festival, our only one, is a time for the mountains to be overturned and their underbelly displayed, brash and raw, to all who are forced to witness the brutal truth that we are here.
The streets are crowded with all the people who had ever been born in downtown Hazard—the only ones who would ever live there. You wouldn’t guess it by the rainbows of released balloons floating over hoards of laughing rednecks, but everyone here is so trapped it might as well be a prison yard with ring-toss. Hazard. The very name implies a danger inherent to its compact, wiry inhabitants. As well it displays an outward warning of risk willfully taken upon entering the town. There is a risk of falling into a deep hole whose sides are slick with black rock. Downtown doesn’t look like that, but it sits in a valley so deep the birds can hardly leave for winter.
The few trees that had pushed their way through the concrete reach their gnarled branches above me like a birdcage, shivering without their green coats which winter had taken and spring had yet to return. The sun today is more white than warm, glinting off the windshields of old and new cars alike as they crawled their way through the tiny streets. The old courthouse sits in the shadow of the new one, a monument to our elders in the shadow of the new generation. But I know and everyone knows that this old building will stand there for ages, to one day cast its wise presence over the ruin of the new. I leave Main Street and let the noise of bouncy-houses and barbecue sizzle fall behind me. As the city fades into residential, the thick, stacked buildings crumbled over narrow asphalt roads. In tiny patches of front yards fenced in by rotting wood, I can catch the frequent streak of suspicious gazes staring out from a front stoop, or hear the scrape of cold voices telling me to move along. I do as they asked, unwilling to make my weary case as one of their own.
The town is layered, so after I climb long enough, I come to its peak and look down at the valley stuffed with concrete and clans. They swarm all together in one place to celebrate their slow death, their loyalty. To go down with the ship is the most noble thing they have ever heard, the best fantasy within their grasp. You’ll never see a people so dogged, so determined not to pass out of the world. The people of Hazard were like dandelion weeds, tough, regenerative, vibrant and textured like nature itself.
“Youngin’ you get on, now. This’s private property.” I hear from behind me that the man on his front porch has had enough of my loitering, so I move along. I’m accustomed to obeying those older than me. And I do grant that my piercings and ripped jeans don’t really make me look like a well-bred youngin. Hazard doesn’t like my foreign influence. We don’t get tourists. At least, none who really want to be there. Is that what I am now? A tourist? I don’t really want to call myself anything in relationship to this city, but it’s not a place that lets you forget it, or leave it behind.
I’m not actually sure what Hazard calls me now. I’ve been gone for years at a college miles away, ridding myself of my roots with the weed-killer named progress. I’ve become that which my town despised, defended itself against. It’s a place always hostile to the clean-shaven man, the woman in high heels, the teenager with colored hair. My exile is self-inflicted. With the white sun laying out the city before me, the mountains at its back like supporting soldiers, I see clearly my side in the war. Threatened by the old man’s walking cane at my back, I descend once again into the blacktopped valley. I have nowhere else to go.
Lindsey Weist is a student at Berea College. She is originally from Hazard, Kentucky.