Wednesday, August 20, 2008

This Is Not Nowhere

When I was a child, I thought the ridge above my house was the center of the universe, the middle of everything. It might as well have been, as I had all that I needed there: trees, a creek, the sky, a pasture. Here I could run as fast as I wanted, or holler at the top of my lungs, go to sleep with my good dog Fala as a pillow, even pee outside. Basically, I could do all the things I could not do at home.

As far as that goes, my little town had everything I needed, too. People who loved me, my school, the Laurel River, which supplied us with endless enjoyment (swimming, skipping rocks, ice-skating), my Aunt Dot's store, which was well-supplied with plenty of candy and pop, and so on. Occasionally we needed to go to Knoxville or Lexington, but usually only when someone was nigh death and had to be shipped off to one of the hospitals there. We cared nothing for malls or fancy restaurants or things of that nature. As far as I was concerned the only reason to go to the city at all was because they had a better bookstore. I could take it or leave it.

Going into the city was a major thing when I was little. Always in early November my mother and aunts would plan an excursion to the city for Christmas shopping. This was a trip that was planned with the discussion and maneuvers that might befall a major expedition into some uncharted land. Directions had to be given over and over, coolers had to be packed full of Pepsi so they wouldn't have to spend extra money while on the road, oil had to be changed, tires rotated. Aunt Sis had to have a proper supply of Winstons and her pistol had to be cleaned and filled with new bullets in case they broke down on the side of the road. My sister had to have a new outfit for going into the city. My mother had to have her hair done before leaving. You get the picture.

As I got older, going to the city became only slightly more important, but only when Tom Petty or Dwight Yoakam were playing a concert there, or when a forbidden trip to the liquor store (our county--and most of the region--is dry) seemed necessary. The interstate had been improved so the city wasn't as far away now. When we wanted to go, the city was only ninety minutes away and if it had been farther we would have been alright, too.

All these thoughts ran through my mind when I was visiting a university (which I won't name) not too long ago. At this school, I talked a lot about my own writing and naturally, since I am from Appalachia, the issue of stereotypes came up. I spent a long time talking about the way we all have stereotypes, how we country people have preconceived notions about city dwellers just as badly as they do about us, and so on. I told the audience that I've encountered every kind of insult because of my roots, and especially because of my accent, which apparently gives people the right to treat me like I'm a dullard. I told them I had heard all the lame jokes about being barefoot, illiterate, having an out-house, making moonshine, yadda yadda yadda, blah blah blah. My God, I get tired of talking about it.

Despite going on about this for at least an hour, during the time I spent signing books afterward, two separate people referred to the place I was from as being "the middle of nowhere." Not my town specifically, but places in Appalachia. My immediate thought was to agree that some towns in the mountains were pretty far off the beaten path. But then I thought about how it had taken me such a long time to get to this university because it was off the beaten path, too, not near any major interstates or any other major towns. Because this city had a fairly large population, however, its residents never thought of it as being in the middle of nowhere. Because they were a city. They had Red Lobsters and Borders and a Panera. Whoopty-doo.

I'm being facetious now.

The thing is, Appalachia is not nowhere. Wherever you go, there you are, goes the old saying. When I am in New York City, I am in the place that people apparently think of as the Center of Everything, the opposite of the Middle of Nowhere. True, there is wonderful art and music and parks and food and all sorts of things in New York City. It must be said that it’s a real place, too, not just the stereotype we think of, but a place full of people with lives of their own. But not all of the people I love most are there. Isn't that really what makes a place the Middle of the World, the Center of Everything, the most important place?

Still, it has to be more than even that. It has to be, because even though the great majority of people I love happen to be concentrated in Appalachia, it is also a fact that many of my very heartstrings live outside the region. If my children grow up and leave this place, does it make the place any less special? Of course not. So it must be even more than just the people that makes Appalachia so special to me. It has to be the spirit that informs this place, this land. Without the land I love, the place that is a part of me, I am nowhere. If I am not in the woods that I know like the back of my hand, am I not truly lost?

The Middle of Nowhere is the opposite of wherever you think the Center of Everything is. And for all those people who like to refer to Appalachia as "the Middle of Nowhere," I give you this: for millions of people, this is the place we grew up, the place where we have had struggles and hardships, joys and triumphs. It's the place where our people are buried, where our children were born, where we've sweated and bled and have loved and loved and loved. This is not Nowhere. This is home.