Day Six: Them Hardscrabble Hills

I don't normally pick up hitchhikers. Too risky. You never know what they'll do -- not wear their seatbelt, hog the air conditioning, make you listen to Nickelback... all sorts of ghoulish possibilities. But this kid on the side of the road in the hammering rain deep in the West Virginia hills isn't hitchhiking.

The rain is a waterfall and the road is a river. Millions of tiny splashes leap upward from the blacktop every millisecond, and this kid is just watching his feet drag through the water on the shoulder of the road, his hands jammed in the pockets of his sodden jeans. He's not looking for a ride, he's not even looking up. He's just looking soaked and defeated. So I stop and ask if he needs a lift somewhere.

Just a donkey looking for a handout, not the kid to whom I gave a ride.
I call this one "Donkey eating," because I'm not very creative.
His smile surprises me. It somehow looks out of place on his face, like he's not used to wearing it. He brings the pungent scent of cigarette smoke in the car with him, but he seems grateful to be out of the rain. He looks early-20s to me. I ask where he's going. "Doesn't matter," he says. "Just a few miles." He glances back into the rear of the minivan where suits and dress shirts and ties and slacks are hanging from the walls. I tell him I'm headed to Washington for a new job. "Sorry you came this way," he says, gesturing at the wild, rocky mountains around us. "This is the worst place in the country. Nothing here but drugs." He's only confirming what I already deduced from his meth-addled teeth. He sort of looks out his rain-streaked window and says, "No one gets out of here."

He asks me to drop him less than ten minutes later, but I'd learned a lot in those few minutes. He related how he'd left the hills a few years back for a junior college in Beckley, a couple hours east. Left hoping to never come back. But over a span of a few weeks his mother and only sister died -- he didn't say how, but this is Hatfield-McCoy country and he hinted that it's still a land of grudges and violence. His father had long since disappeared, so this kid had no choice but to return to the hills, bury his family, and try to maintain the house. He got married. Not working out so well, he says. That's why he's walking the winding highway in the rain -- had a fight. The rain is still blasting away at the road as the kid steps back out the passenger door. I ask if he's sure he doesn't want a ride back home. "Nah," he says. "Thanks for talking to me."

I'm still thinking about the kid hours later -- Jesse's his name, and Hatfield's, his surname, if you'd believe it; he's related to the anti-McCoy Hatfields -- the tight valleys around here are still largely populated by Hatfields. The country I covered today is isolated and sad, dreary even in the sun breaks. Southeastern Kentucky and western West Virginia were wild frontier areas in the 19th century. The "frontier" slid west and the land behind it was settled, but these fierce, tangled hills were forgotten. The few hardy settlers and, a little later, coalminers cleared hardscrabble homesteads out of the isolated mountains, and then they never left. And no one else ever really came. Too hard to reach. Too expensive to develop. And now the region has the look of a child left to grow up, alone and joyless, in the mountains and woods.

Kind of a fun-looking headstone, huh? "Fun" as far as graves go, that is.
Fake flowers beside a grave in a roadside cemetery.
Miles into the bush north of Pineville, Kentucky I stop for a Pepsi at a long, tired country store. Wanda's country store. The door tinkles weakly when I open it, and Wanda is sitting ten feet in front of me in a nightgown, watching a little cube of a TV perched above my head. It's very dim. A quick visual sweep tells me this is both Wanda's store and Wanda's house. Dirty dishes on the stove. A worn-out living room on the far side of the store. Wanda doesn't want to talk, though I do get her to say "I reckon," which feels like a victory. My can of Pepsi tastes old and deep fried.

A few miles out of a smatter of houses called Topmost, Kentucky I stop in a log cabin for lunch. A sign above the counter says, "Proud to be a Coalminer," and there's a quilt on the wall with the silhouette of a guy with a glowing miner's hat crawling through a tunnel sewn into the center. The cashier's face is hard and tanned and grooved into a blank stare. She's thin and her hair is raven black and weedy, like it's been dyed too many times. Her roots are silver. She doesn't say much, apart from pointing and confirming that, yes, you take Highway 1098 to get to Pikeville.

There's a man at the back of the dark dining area, silently sitting at a video poker machine, playing game after game after game as his two children watch. The little girl clomps her cowboy boots on the hard floor, hides behind a ne'er-used gumball machine, and calls to her dad. He shushes her without looking away from poker. The man is there when I walk in, and he's there forty minutes later when I leave. And the whole time I'm there the only sounds are me chewing, the man shifting for comfort, and his little girl clomping her boots. The boy sits rigid on a stood beside his dad, unmoving, staring at the poker screen, seemingly without really seeing.

I call this one "Depressing basketball hoop," again because it's hard to think of good names.
Get a load of that crabgrass football field, right? 
Play ball! I honestly think this is a functioning baseball field.
This is coal country, the land America forgot. There's no reason for anyone to come, and few opportunities for anyone to leave. I feel almost guilty as I link up with I-64 that takes me east, out of the rundown nooks and crannies in the hills where the people wait out their lives. I'm driving somewhere, moving forward. When I look ahead to next month, next year, next decade, there's light and opportunity. It might not be like that for Jesse or the poker player in the diner or his kids. I can't say what they see when look into the future, but my guess is that it's very little apart from gray rock and tangled forest.