Monday, June 30, 2008


Blindfold allows me to sleep until after 7:30; suddenly, it’s time to roll out. Quick gas & coffee stop, then off to Big Walker Mountain on the Floyd/Bland county line.

Today is beautiful, hot and dry. Thin high clouds appear in widely spaced flocks. It feels like we are at high altitude somewhere out west because of the intensity of the sky.

The walk to the top of the rickety metal lookout tower is both a little strenuous and a little nerve-wracking. But it’s worth it—a 360-degree view, mountains around the horizon. Though I’m on my last roll of film, I decide to attempt a full panoramic shot; the last frame shoots as I circle back and overlap the starting point. Sweet.

[note: image below is 3,000 pixels wide; enlarge and pan to view]

We have a long lunch and quiz in the hot sun; many seek shelter in the 3’ wide shade of the footbridge, which gradually moves across the parking lot with the sun’s passage. There is constant shifting to accommodate. Most of us are gradually reddening as the week progresses.

I hear the distinctive hum of an airhead BMW approaching, and sure enough, a mid-nineties R100gs rounds the bend with rider and pillion. Its brief transit delights me no end—its self-assured quiet is such a pleasant departure from the incessant exhaust notes all the other bikes have displayed. Rock on.

Note to self: Must come back here with motorcycle. Soon.

After lunch, we continue along the dazzlingly twisted road, up and down many miles before we arrive at Crab Orchard. At one point on the drive, we note an abrupt transition from rolling limestone fields to the harsh, angular blockiness of sandstone, from wide open fields to a narrow, tree-lined chasm; it occurs almost like turning a switch. Then we arrive at Crab Orchard.

Long metadiscussion about museums. Great exhibit on music, which I find out later is a traveling Smithsonian exhibit, not part of Crab Orchard proper. But the rest of the museum is well done and professional; the structures outside lack the cheesiness that some of our earlier stops have held. Similarly, there is also a lack of oppressive earnestness and sincerity. They have struck a good balance.

Three varieties of mint grow here; two in the demonstration garden behind one of the little cabins and the third in the rank ditch dividing the exhibits. The ditch mint is by far the best of the three. I wonder how often the pioneers struggled to maintain something familiar from back east, when they had a superior alternative available just outside their boundaries.

Hot, crispy dried grass clippings on the lawn under the shade of the maple trees. This is such a pretty place.

More sleepy driving on twisty country roads to Pocahontas. We arrive at the exhibition mine about the time they say they close. We wander around the dim cavernous exhibit hall in a brownian clump; I think we may be reaching a point of diminishing returns. We assemble for the tour, sleepy and chaotic; it begins with a circa-1973 public television video that has not stood up particularly well to the vagaries of time. The phrase “…good, church-going folk…” grates on me, and makes me not like the speaker. Talking heads in static shots and painfully dated fashion make confident and optimistic statements about the town, which time has not borne out. There is a sadly “whistling-past-the-graveyard” quality to their words, and it seems that most of them understand, at some level, that an unfriendly future bears down on Pocahontas.

We begin the mine tour. The air pouring gently around our ankles is at 48 degrees, chilly and damp. The Pocahontas coal seam—12’ thick and stretching from Pennsylvania to Alabama—is a thing of beauty. The walls look like they were designed by H.R.Giger in a fractal landscape, a miniature Grand Canyon of blackness; water trickles down the wall in rivulets of condensation and drips from the ceiling. It smells like an old farmhouse basement I remember. Fossils in the ceiling.

This place has the same feeling of condensed and compressed human misery and anguish that I once felt in the eyeless dungeon of a real live castle. It is oppressive. I try to wrap my brain around what it must have been like to be a coal miner and fail. I can only imagine.

This hardly seems like part of the same state I have lived in for my whole life. It hardly feels like part of the same country—or era. The sun is dropping behind the hillside that houses the mine. It is quiet, serene and still. The gentle remaining warmth of the day is so very welcome after the funereal chill of the mine.

“Upon This Rock I Will Build My Church.” If the rock in question is coal, maybe not such a good idea? That this particular sentiment (Matthew 16:18, if you were counting) is found by the entrance to a ruined church on the steep hillside of the town supports that idea. Ailanthus grows out of the church’s foundation as if it were just another planter box.

We fan out through the town’s evening like a ravening pack of anthropologists across New Guinea, snapping photos and jotting down notes. We couldn’t possibly be more conspicuous if we tried. I can’t imagine what the town must think of hosting this little invasion.

I strike out alone east on the main cross street. There are people sitting out on several porches as I pass; each greets me cheerfully and politely. I walk purposefully with hands jammed in my pockets and notepad firmly tucked away. I try to act like I belong here, but of course I don’t and I don’t kid myself about it either.

I finally locate a place of commerce at the far side of the little town. I purchase a Pepsi, a copy of the local paper and, get this—a dreamsicle. I would spend more money if there were anyplace to spend it, other than the funeral home and a coffin maker. Pocahontas completes our trinity of despair—dying forest, dying lake, dying town.

I rejoin the group, triumphant with my dreamsicle. Life is good.

We dine en masse at a CAFO in the BigBox heart of Bluefield. Expedience is the key here, since eighteen people can get exactly more or less what they want,be done and back on the road in about thirty minutes. No one is writing home about it, but we aren't hungry any more, are we? Moo.

On the trip home, our van (“Top Gun”) sings the periodic table as a rondo, in its original Greek. Unfortunately, we keep faltering around the transuranics, probably because Greek doesn’t accommodate them very well. I really don’t know how the other van (“Air Force One”) passes the long hours on the road.

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