The Appalachians: My Hillbilly Home
When my grandfather was a young boy, he would sometimes follow the smell of an oak wood fire into the Buck Woods where the old-timers secretly made moonshine – corn whiskey, to be precise. They were mighty suspicious of visitors, but since my grandfather was too short to shoot, they let him watch. My grandfather also liked to eat the sour mash they fermented to make the alcohol and the men would sometimes give him a cup of this “shiner’s porridge”. Whether he got drunk from this or not, my grandmother wouldn’t say. It would seem too “hillbilly” to her, I suppose.
Hillbilly wasn’t a name to use in polite company, but it was there, the stereotype of the Appalachian Mountains: the lazy, bearded man in dirty clothes, sitting outside his log cabin with his dogs, no shoes, no teeth, a moonshine bottle in one hand and a shotgun leaning against the wall beside him. Or the woman: barefoot and pregnant, a child on one hip. That was the image that came to everyone’s mind when they heard I was from the mountains, because that is how the rest of the country saw us. I talked different, I acted different, and I ate different food. When I opened my mouth, people automatically wanted to deduct 100 IQ points.
As I grew older, though, I learned to be proud of who I was and where I was from, and learned to love that which made the Appalachian Mountains different from the rest of the United States.
Small is beautiful
They barely cast a shadow, as mountain ranges go. Only a few peaks reach over 1,800 meters. At a distance, their gentle and forested hills may seem mundane for travellers accustomed to the Rockies or Alps, but the Appalachians are a unique island of tradition surrounded by the ever-changing waters of pop culture and progress. From their deep cultural heritage to the rich colors of the autumn foliage, their history and scenery are worthy of discovery.
Stretching 2,570 kilometers from Newfoundland, Canada, to Alabama in the southeast, they are one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, having eroded from Himalaya-like peaks to their present size. The first to discover and settle the area were the American Indians. Later, the Scotch-Irish settled in the coves - some say it was because the area reminded them of the highlands they left behind. Many were devout Presbyterians, but they also brought their love for fiddle music and making whiskey.
Families and Feuds
What makes people from Appalachia different than the rest of the country could best be summed up in three factors: family, land, and time. There are stronger ties to family and tradition here in the mountains. Vendettas have been declared over blood ties - the famous Hatfield and McCoy feud is an example. In my area, there was a feud between the Allen family and law-men that finished in a shootout at the court, today called the Carroll County Courthouse Tragedy. Families stick together around here, for good or bad.
People also feel a closer tie to the land in the mountains. There is a sense of belonging to the mountains, of them defining who we are. What part of the mountains someone is from can be just as important as the sports team for which one cheers - so West Virginians, for instance, are fiercely loyal to their state. They have to be because of all the jokes that get told about them.
Time is viewed a little differently here in the mountains, and there is a friendliness and hospitality that is found more in the Appalachians than elsewhere. Whenever I leave the mountains and visit places like New York City, for example, I realize how much I miss expressions such as “Thank you” or “Excuse me.”
Not one range, but many
The Appalachians are really not one but several mountain ranges, each with distinctive geographic and cultural differences. To the north there are ranges such as the Adirondacks of New York and the Poconos of Pennsylvania. These are wonderful places to visit, don’t get me wrong, but being from the South I am naturally inclined toward the Southern Appalachians such as the Blue Ridge Mountains, which run from Virginia through North Carolina. They get their name from how the dark green of the summer forests look blue in the distance, rather as the nearby Smokey Mountains get their name from the blue-gray haze that veils the summits. Autumn is one of the best times of year to visit them, as the leaves lose their green color, revealing deep reds, oranges and yellows.
When it comes to recreation, camping and hiking are popular activities. Practically every park or national forest has miles upon miles of well-maintained trails and campsites. One of the most famous is the Appalachian Trail - a 3,478 kilometer footpath crossing 14 states from Maine to Georgia. Whitewater rafting and kayaking are also favorite pastimes with many world-class rapids here. Believe it or not, winter offers opportunities for skiing as well – the season is much shorter than in northern Appalachia or the Rockies, but places such as Beech Mountain in North Carolina and Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia offer comparable conditions. “Spelunking,” or cave exploration is another popular recreational attraction. Kentucky is most famous for Mammoth Cave National Park, the longest recorded cave system in the world. More than 570 kilometers have been explored and mapped.
Bluegrass and Country
The Southern Appalachian region is also rich in the cultural legacy left by our Scotch-Irish ancestors. From the settlers’ love of music developed two styles that are distinctly American: Bluegrass and Country. Though not as internationally popular as Rock ’n Roll or Jazz, they all originated from the same old-time sound. From the beginning, the Scotch-Irish fiddle was accompanied by the banjo, an instrument used by African slaves. Guitars were added much later, as well as the mandolin. The music was used as a means of entertainment at dances, and of storytelling, passing folk tales down to younger generations. Only later did Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe give it a title, after the blue-hued grass of Kentucky.
Once called “Hillbilly music”, the name "Country" developed as record companies tried to meet an urban demand for a traditional sound of rural, “country” people. The birthplace of country music isn’t in Nashville, but in Bristol, Tennessee – the place where the famous Carter Family, whose tight harmonies defined the genre, first recorded their songs (recently made famous by the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Today, Country and Bluegrass music has experienced a renaissance, both mainstream and in smaller circles. Festivals such as Merlefest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, celebrate country and bluegrass greats new and old every spring.
The Moonshine Boys
They were called the Robin Hoods of their time, roaring down the backwoods roads and over bridges, their big engines heralding their approach. With moonshine bottles rattling together in the back, they outraced the police with their hard-driving skills, delivering their cargo to the big-city bars and bringing the money home to support the family. Called "moonshine" because it was made by the light of the moon, this illegal whiskey-making was a profitable enterprise at a time when jobs were scarce. So, to avoid getting caught, young men would rebuild their car engines to enhance performance and outrun the police. Soon, they began to argue about who had the fastest car, deciding the contest with late-night races around a farmer's field. This is the unlikely origin of one the USA's largest spectator sports: Stock Car Racing. Better known today as NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing – memorize this and you win the admiration of thousands of fans!), it originated in the Appalachian region. The Dukes of Hazzard television show and movie attests to this legacy.
Don't Believe What You Hear
Over the years, the stereotypical hillbilly image has been romanticized in historic figures such as Davy Crockett, or seen as comic in television shows such as The Beverly Hillbillies, and even portrayed as evil and monstrous in movies such as Deliverance, where sadistic and depraved hillbillies harass, torture, and sexually molest a group of canoeists from the city. Don’t worry; the only things I’ve ever encountered canoeing and rafting around here are mosquito bites and a sunburn.
In reality, every society has its hillbilly. For the English, the lower class of ridicule was the Irish. For the French, it was the Belgians. For us hillbillies, it is the summer tourists from Florida who don’t know how to drive in the mountains, but that’s another story.
Many people laugh when we call the Appalachians “mountains,” and I can understand that, having myself traveled through the Rockies. But what the Appalachians lack in height, they make up for in depth -- of history, culture, and charm. To the rest of our country, they are like the wise and eccentric uncle of the family. Besides, to call them “hills” seems too condescending. Certainly, when I am on top of Mount Mitchell, with miles and miles of mountains rolling like waves around me, I can’t help but feel like I am standing on top of the world.
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[Insert shameless self-promotion here] By the way, I'm available for freelance writing if any editors are interested!