Dec. 14, Pennington Gap, Va. – Another day, another round of hit-and-run visits to sneak in before making up some of the 600 miles which still separate us from Spring City, Pa.
We awoke in the parking lot of a small truck stop after somehow missing our turn off for I-40 east and ending up on I-75 north in the general direction of Lexington, Ky.
Instead of Shenandoah National Park, we’d instead make a pilgrimage to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park to see if we could add another junior ranger badge to Max’s outdoor CV. We found our way there, and Max tried on some pioneer garb, answered a few questions and was dutifully sworn in by Sharon Griffin, our helpful ranger du jour.
While Max was busy satisfying the requirements for junior ranger badge No. 4, I did a little Christmas shopping in the upstairs gift store. When I paid up and emerged into the open area which doubled as a movie theater, I stumbled headlong into the indescribable drama of an NPS Daniel Boone documentary. Now, I would’ve thought Ken Burns would’ve killed off all those stagy documentaries which employ scenes filled with lumbering reenactors.
But no. Boone’s youngest son Israel had just been mortally wounded in the Battle of Blue Licks by forces loyal to the British crown, even though it was 1782, 10 months after Cornwallis’ surrendered.
Anyway, the actor playing Daniel Boone lifted his head to the sky with a dramatic flourish. His face was contorted in a mask of over-the-top anguish. Paging Mr. Stanislavski. Mr. Stanislavski, you’re wanted on set 3.
I returned downstairs in time to chat a bit with Sharon Griffin. She’s going on 19 years as an NPS ranger at Cumberland Gap. She was a seasonal employee for the first 17, but now she’s worked her way into a permanent position. (I recorded a bit of audio with Sharon, but of course I lost the recorder. At least I think I did.)
She is native to these rolling hills where Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee converge. Her father was a coal miner for Middlesboro Consolidated Coal. He went down in the mines at age 13, and stayed underground for a half-century. That’s how they refer to the miners’ place of employment around here: underground.
“He always said, ‘I’d rather be underground than spend my days in an office in front of a desk,'” she said.
Mining runs through this area like blood runs in veins. Her daddy’s daddy was a miner, too.
“They had to pull his dad out of the mine, his chest was so bad,” she said.
When his life underground was over, her father came down with silicosis. Sharon’s not complaining, though. She said his career underground was for the most part absent fractious labor-management disputes. She’s glad he had a place underground for 50 years. “It’s a good thing,: she said of her dad’s work in the mines. “We had six children. I had an awesome dad.”
She talked a bit about her favorite part of the park, the Hensley Settlement. Sherman Hensley (not to be confused with the actor who played George Jefferson) was the patriarch of an isolated community which carved out a hardscrabble life hereabouts for nearly a half-century. They mostly lived by their wits, the grace of God and a little, old-fashioned inbreeding. They eschewed modern medicine and put all their eggs in providence’s basket.
“Sherman Hensley got here in 1903, and he was the last one to leave in 1951,” Sharon said. “His wife had 19 children. Willie Gibbons, his wife Nancy had 15 children. At the peak time there were about 100 people total there on the mountain.”
We said goodbye to Sharon and raced out to get in another beat-the-dark hike. We shambled up the trail to the point where Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky met, took the obligatory photographs and scurried back down. We made it back down to the car, and Becky drove the torturous path up to Pinnacle Overlook. We paid our respects to the sweeping vista, and resolved to get on our way.
Since we had cut ourselves off from the I-40/I-81 nexus of polite civilization, we found ourselves cast adrift in the rural mining country of southwestern Virginia. It would be some time before we found our moorings.
Becky had been Jonesing for the Waffle House, or the Huddle House, or one of the great and greasy breakfast chains that dot the American South, for the past 24-48 hours. I thought we were safely beyond the range of the Huddle House, when I promised to stop if we happened upon one.
Hello, serendipity. Once we’d missed our turn for the commercial bypass for U.S. 58 business, our fate was sealed. We drifted into what passes for downtown Pennington Gap, and there Huddle House. We’d already eaten out once today, at Mama’s Kitchen over in Tennessee, but I agreed to go in and see if they had menus.
I felt as if I’d stepped into a time machine. The radio was on, and a man with a southwestern Virginia drawl called out the play-by-play of what sounded like a high school basketball game. The Lee High Generals of Pennington Gap were taking on the Union Bears from Big Stone Gap.
This I couldn’t resist. I went to the parking lot to gather the family, and a tape recorder, and we joined the fray inside the Huddle House.
We were greeted by a friendly waitress. I asked about the fried pickles, because fried pickles always tickle our imaginations when we’re in fried pickle territory.
“I ain’t been working here long,” she said.
Over at the far end of the room, nearby the restrooms, a stout, gray-haired woman worked to corral a 10-year-old boy. The lad was clad in Elk Knob basketball garb. That’s the Elk Knob Hornets.
His chaperone, which I later learned is his mother via adoption, wore a shirt that pimped out the website God.com. This also was written: surf.the.word.
Aside. I of course consulted god.com. This is what I found:
All I can say, without being flippant or judgmental, is they are all excellent questions.
Our waitress is 27-year-old Erica Johnson. She’s sweet. And stressed.
Her family’s in trouble, and she’s working outside the house for the first time since Ada Michelle, her 8-year-old daughter, was born.
“My husband got laid off at the mine,” she said. “I’ve spent the last seven years raising my daughter.”
I ask if she’d mind sitting down for an interview during a break. She looks a trifle nervous, but allows it’d be OK. I go to the behemoth to retrieve the tape recorder.
It’s frigid outside. When I return she’s standing by the door, taking a smoke break.
“It’s cold,” I say, offering up a little sympathy.
“I won’t be out here long,” she says.
Her husband, Michael, has been out of work seven months, she says, and his unemployment benefits already have expired.
“It wasn’t much to begin with,” she says, doing her best to manage a smile. “So here I am.”
Now they have a second daughter, 2-year-old Abigail Zirelle. Erica says it’s a biblical name and translates as “father’s joy.”
You get the feeling there’s not a lot of joy in the Johnson house this Christmas.
He’s been underground six years,” she said of her husband.
How they talk in these parts. The rhythm of the country, the melody of the mines. No time for elocutionary niceties.
“I done got full,” says Ms. God.com. “Now I’m leaving.”
She tells what appears to be a casual acquaintance, possibly an old friend, that her and her husband have adopted three older children.
“We’ve done started over,” she says with smile.
Erica says she’s lucky to be working this job, unlucky as it feels. Jobs are that scarce around here.
“It’s all who you know,” she says. “It’s your last name. My ma-maw knew someone who works here. A lot of people are down on their luck. He was laid off once before, but he found a job in two months. No such luck this time around.”
There’s a surge of excitement on the radio. I listen attentively. The Generals have rallied. They now hold a 43-42 lead.
No one here seems to care, though.
The Johnsons have been married 10 years, but she’s known him for 15.
“We’re best friends,” she says. “I used to fix him up with my girlfriends.”
She looks at me as if she’s trying to figure out if I’m for real. Who drops into the Huddle House in mining country and asks to interview the waitress. How do you find people, she asks. She’s canny, and she wants to know what the deal is here.
I ask her the uncomfortable question. I’d like to interview you. She looks suspicious. We talk for a few minutes, then she says she’ll sit down for a while.
Meanwhile, the game is getting away from the Generals. A blocking foul is called against Lee, leading to a three-point play for Union. The partisan announcer bends his drawl into an incredulous tone.
The game is over. The Generals have lost.
Before we know it, the post-game rush is on. I look for her, and she’s outside. She douses her cigarette and comes inside.
She gives me an apologetic smile and says she’s too busy to talk now. Then she admits she’s uncomfortable speaking to me without first consulting Michael. I understand. She gives me her phone number. I say I’ll call later and thank her for her time.
We’re back out on the road, Becky at the wheel. We plunge deeper into mining country. slowly twisting up switchback roads, negotiating hairpin turns and then easing back down again. We only got to the Huddle House because we got lost.
As soon as we left, we got lost again. Every time we think we are on the road east to Abingdon, we soon learn we are not. Twice we stopped to check the map. Twice I scrambled to find a pair of glasses and then squinted to make sense of the map.
The second time was typical. Not only were we not any closer to I-81, we were farther away. We headed to Grundy, hard by the West Virginia state line.
I unleashed a stream of foul language. Son of a bitch.
We were back on the road, I think Virginia route 63, winding beneath shadowy ridges and unseen kudzu with considerable trepidation. About 40 miles west of Abingdon, we passed through Trammel, a long-destitute company town. Back in 1986, the entire town of Trammel went up on the auction block. A CBS affiliate produced a fascinating documentary on the auction of Trammel. We should go back. Really.
It takes us an hour or so to navigate the final 40 miles to Abingdon. We wearily found our way to the sterile safety of the interstate highway. We put in for the night in a parking lot, enjoying the sterile safety of the Walmart orbit.
Sometimes, sterile safety is the best you can hope for.