So Far Appalachia (Book)

“I carried a deep-seated shame that he didn’t know.”

“The Edge…There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others- the living- are those who pushed their luck as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later.” — Hunter S. Thompson in Hell’s Angels

When I pulled into the Poppy Trail Trailer Park in Beaumont, California in late 2010, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

For much of my life, there’s been a disconnect between the stories I tell, and the life behind those stories. Since I began this project, I’ve increasingly found it difficult to escape from that dichotomy. Worse yet, I chose to handle that dichotomy by constructing the most superficial of stories about my family and its history so that I might more easily pass into new, more sophisticated worlds.

Instead of creating a solid foundation with that history, I found I’d created a weak scaffolding that required more attention just to keep it from crumbling. The net result was a feeling of restlessness. In order to fill the void, I had to keep moving up the ladder, always assuming that the next rung would bring some sense of satisfaction.

I thought those feelings of aloneness were a symptom of the just natural order of life. After all, we are internal creatures, viewing the world around us through a lens that begins in our own brains. No matter where we are, the world we perceive is something that is not us. I’m not sure our brains have evolved in such a way that we ever truly feel comfortable within any setting.

That is how I justified my trepidation, which still exists today. As I’ve traveled around the United States meeting my relatives, I’ve had this deep-seated sense nibbling at my insides that once I entered one of their homes, I would suddenly — and obviously — find myself out of place.

It’s important to understand when I say out of place, I don’t mean more sophisticated. I mean just the opposite. While many of my immediate kin had largely come of age in rural areas before scattering across the county, I had run from that.

The problem hasn’t even been with them. It’s always been with me. Only as I pulled into the trailer park looking for my Great Uncle Robert Lee, one of the last son’s of Bobby Baker, whose murder brought an end to the Clay County War in 1936, did I begin to realize this.

Since the time I can first remember thinking about my life, I had always wanted to go to places that were bigger. In my mind, these shining cities were places of opportunity, and the small towns of my childhood meant slow, certain, and obscure death. This anxiety became more pronounced as I got older, and more than one girlfriend told me that she never seriously considered a long-term relationship with me because it was very clear that I would never take the time to settle down.

As I moved through the professional world, I soon found myself out of place for an entirely new reason.

I found myself completely out of place as attended graduate school at Berkeley, worked at Conde Nast’s Wired, and the the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I’d spent a lifetime searching for the brass ring without concerning myself with the people who might be at that ceremony. Instead of slipping into a comfortable rapport with my contemporaries, I found myself feeling even smaller than I had when I lived in Appalachia.

Distraught, afraid, and inadequate, I fell back on the only identity I knew. I found myself telling stories about Appalachia and little snippets of what I knew about my heritage as a way to differentiate myself. Without the blue-blooded pedigree of many of the people I found myself surrounded by, I turned to the well-worn tale of the country-boy-done-good. I created an identity that was both the truth and a lie.

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On Writing: Why I’ll Be Drunk and Hungover in My Book

“You waking up hungover in jail is right up my alley. The rest of it sounds too academic.”

That’s what Alex Heard said to me during our conversation after he finished reading my proposal. I can’t say I jumped for joy at that critique, but the conversation that followed helped me frame what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it.

“Who are You Writing This For? What’s The Story You Want to Tell?”

Ask me about Appalachia and I’ll start to tell you stories about the people I’ve met, the places I’ve visited, and the personal history I’ve come to know.

I can string together tales, and connect dots in a way that weaves a pretty good tale, I’m told.

The more I’ve worked on this project, though, the more I’ve found myself moving away from that voice. I’ve been adamant that I want to write a book that is big and deep.

I’ve waffled with my voice. I’ve continuously toned down that storyteller within me because in real life that person has never felt very comfortable being around the people who I hope read this book.

It doesn’t matter how much I want to write for The New Yorker and the NPR crowd, I forgot an important rule: Write you.

I’ve spent the better part of my adult life crafting my voice as a writer, a voice that I have come to enjoy when it’s working well and a voice that is — for better or for worse — me. It’s not a voice that’s ever fit in with the type of elite circles I was lucky enough to run around with during my time in journalism.

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On Writing and Appalachia

When I tell stories about my family and its relationship to Clay County, Kentucky and the County Seat of Manchester, people tend to think I exaggerate.

I can understand why. The stories that come from that part of Appalachia tend to be wrapped in what seems to be hyperbole. You hear about poverty, feuds, grudges, anger at the government, lack of formal education, and a general desperation, but since most people aren’t around those things on a day-to-day basis they don’t seem real.

These stories must be fiction.


The fork off Crane Creek Road that led to the Baker family plot.

I always assumed the few stories that I’d heard about my family were true. There wasn’t anything in my upbringing to suggest that those telling the stories would lie.

Years later when I visited my family homestead for the first time, I likewise believed that when people told me to watch my back when I was traveling through Clay County, that meant I should watch my back.

This mentality related back to the days of the feuds.

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The Final Flight

My great Uncle Herbert and I after lunch. This was the first time I’d met him.

As I’ve worked on the book, I’ve had the opportunity to do quite a bit of traveling to visit important monuments to my family’s past and to meet relatives and friends of the family whom have kept our story alive.

The one person I hadn’t had the chance to meet, though, was my grandmother’s youngest brother, Herbert, and his family. The moved to the Pacific Northwest many years ago, and I’d never made that trip.

I almost made the trip in January 2011. I’d planned a two-week train trip through Portland with my friend Megan. Unfortunately, we were thwarted when a snow storm blasted across the Northern Plains and brought Amtrak’s train service to a halt.

In January 2011, my friend Megan and I tried to take a train across the U.S. Instead, we got trapped in Chicago.

Instead we were stranded in the Windy City for a few days, and we passed the time by visiting museums and cultural spots instead.

That wasn’t much help when it came to writing So Far Appalachia. Once I decided to pursue an independent publishing route, I knew I had to make the trip out West.

After several aborted attempts, I finally made the decision to fly (I despise flying) so I could visit Herbert, and my cousins.

Connie (Herbert’s daughter), Herbert, me, and Kiely (Connie’s daughter) taking a quick picture before I head home.

The trip couldn’t have gone any better. I’d flown into Seattle where I picked up one of my favorite former students, and we headed south to Oregon.

It took us a few days to arrange our visit with Herbert, and Kelly and I passed the time hiking some of the amazing trails in the area.

Eventually my family’s schedule lightened up, and we had the chance to spend several hours with everyone. We had a great meal, we talked about Clay County, and I had the chance to snag some of the Baker files.

As you might imagine, the visit was far too short but it was exactly what I needed. The next week, I shipped off the final book proposal and started the process of writing the actual book (instead of just this blog).

Which brings us up to speed. In just a few days, I’ll release the first chapter to my backers, re-launch the podcasts, and clean up the website. The Year of So Far Appalachia is about to begin.

On Appalachia Reality TV and Writing

After a summer of writing, I’ve reached the point where the book proposal is in the hands of my editor. In the next few weeks, I’ll begin to get the first set of edits. That’s a hard place for a writer because this is when I’ll start to hear about all the mistakes I’ve made.

I’ll also start to finalize Team So Far Appalachia, and begin the process of moving this book from concept to reality will begin in earnest.

It’s an exciting time, but also a nerve-wracking one.

Since I’ve decided to work outside the traditional publishing industry, I’ll be forced to spend a good deal of time working on the distribution and promotional plans for the book. Whenever I start getting bogged down in that minutia, I’ve put together a motivational list to keep me going.

What follows is a list of the current (or recent) reality television programming that portrays the Appalachia experience as something odd, weird, or backwards:

This is the list that keeps me up at night, and helps me slog through some of the less-than-glamourous parts of pursuing an independent publishing product.

That list also haunts me as I begin writing because I’ve staked much on my belief that people are not inclined to watch a series of never-ending caricatures depicting a stereotypical life.

I believe that if you treat your audience with respect and give them an insightful story, they will follow you. I believe that complex beats simple every time.

The onus is on me to fulfill that promise. For that, I need help.

In just a few weeks, I’ll finish my proposal and share with my Kickstarter backers. At that point I’ll begin to receive the first feedback from my audience. Soon after I’ll share pieces of that writing with a larger public, and then I’ll find out exactly what you think.

I don’t want to write easy, I want to write hard and that requires opening up the process for everyone to see.

As we begin the journey, I look forward to opening a dialogue with you all.

Technology + the Myth of Free Markets in Appalachia

Broadband access is a top issue with the majority of study counties, especially in communities outside county seats and population centers. Rural communities lack the communications resources to bridge distances and minimize long-held feelings of isolation.

Businesses are leaving, youth are underprepared for an increasingly connected workforce, and the general rural public is missing out on the security and conveniences that their more urban counterparts are experiencing. Time and time again people remarked that “a new kind of infrastructure is needed.” Clearly, a digital divide exists in Appalachia. — from the May 12, 2013 “Strategies for Economic Improvement in Appalachia’s Distressed Rural Counties” ARC Study

I encountered the Appalachia Regional Commission in 2001 when I was working on stories for about the convergence of technology and society. Throughout the years I’ve come to rely upon them as an accurate source of information about the region, and as a conduit for news about initiatives happening throughout the 13-state region.

Now the House Republicans are trying to defund ARC. This is problematic for Appalachia because the ARC stands as pillar for the kinds of local economic development necessary to reinvigorate the area.

As I’ve discussed previously, the reason for poverty throughout Appalachia is largely tied to national and state governments abandoning outlying communities. The ARC works counter to that.

The Fallacy of Free Markets, Technology, and Appalachia

While I am a classic libertarian, which means I believe in the right of man to be free of the reigns of control, I reject the notion that “free markets” are the sole solution for libertarianism.

Twenty years of corporations turning away from the cost of infrastructure development in Appalachia is the most compelling argument.

For the true impact of modern technology to reach Appalachia, the government must provide help build that infrastructure, which includes not only building access points that make mobile technology usable throughout the region but also support the education measures necessary to turn that infrastructure on.

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WONDER: The Lives of Anna & Harlan Hubbard

This past weekend, my wife and I decided to begin saving money for an RV, which would serve two family purposes:

  • This would allow our family to travel for longer periods of time since we wouldn’t need to board the animals. We would still take our short camping trips, but come summer we could reasonable expect to travel for a few week
  • This would allow me to take writing time away from the hustle and bustle of life (while still fulfilling family duties by bringing creatures with me).

When I mentioned this on Facebook, an old family friend immediately posted this trailer for Wonder: The Lives of Anna & Harlan Hubbard:

Since I’m spending my days getting ready to write this book, I couldn’t help but order Shantyboat: A River Way of Life, which seemed to dovetail (albeit in simpler way) with the discussions that my wife and I have been having about happiness, life, and purpose.

The more I delve into the idea of the book, the more I find myself asking the fundamental questions about those three ideals.

This is the natural outgrowth of writing. To write about a subject, you have to find ways to transport yourself into their world, to understand them from afar inasmuch as you can.

You have to both inject yourself into their artifacts and remove your own biases from the world. That’s a difficult thing to do, and invariably you end up searching for the answers to happiness, life, and purpose in your subjects.

A Controversial Documentary: Oxyana

A controversial new documentary focused on the drug problem in a small Appalachian town has raised the ire of locals and area advocates.

The film is Oxyana, a film that purports to tell the story of Oceana, West Virginia. The premise: prescription medications and drug use have turned the town into a wasteland, which is indicative of a larger problem with small town in America.

The film has garnered great praise from film critics and festivals.

The problem: the state, regional, and local population say the depiction of the city isn’t an accurate portrayal of the town. Although the initial outrage has subsided a bit, within the criticism you can still feel 150 years of anger directed at outsiders who attempt to portray Appalachia with simplistic, stereotypical brush strokes.

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Frontline: Two American Families

This blog is primarily about the Appalachian experience as it relates to my work on So Far Appalachia: An American mythology as told by the Bakers of Beckinghamshire.

If I do my job well, though, that story will touch on larger American themes.

While I haven’t had the chance to watch this Frontline piece yet, it’s now in my queue. In many respects “Two American Families” seems to be the American version of the British Up series.

The Up Series began following a handful of young kids when they were 7, revising their lives each 7 years (56 Up was just released) in order to explore issues of class within the England.

Two American Families has followed 2 lower-middle class families for 22 years as they cope with the changing economics.

Watch Two American Families on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

The Impact of Appalachian Culture

Almost without question, I grow concerned whenever I see people writing about Appalachia in broad sweeping terms. Unquestionably it’s a knee-jerk reaction to reading countless stories by people who characterize the region by its least common denominators.

But this piece doesn’t fall into that. Instead it’s an endearing, point-of-view essay that offers us an interesting primer into the history of Appalachia.

I’m not going to call out the specific passages I enjoyed. Instead, you should click on that link and go read for yourself. It’s worth that 10-15 minutes you’ll need.

(I do have to say that the author’s writing about coal and economics is particularly good.)

Now that we’re past the “read this” portion of the post, there are a few points that aren’t as well put together.

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Film: The Melungeons

I’d never heard the term Melungeon until I worked at Wired. While I was there our science writer Kristen Philipkoski wrote a series of pieces about genetics and Appalachia.

Since then, I’ve learned a bit more here and there but I’d be lying if I said I knew much beyond the blurbs I’ve read here and there.

I’m hopeful that this documentary will get released either in a run where I can catch it in the theater or on Netflix, iTunes, or Amazon so that I can watch it at home.

TWiA: The National Radio Quiet Zone

Whenever I travel to Appalachia, I tell my friends and family to expect few phone calls because the reception is so bad. However my phone problems are nothing compared to those who live in the national quiet zone:

Investing in Appalachia

After the financial crash, I decided to begin looking at smaller and regional banks to handle my day-to-day business. In general I’m not prone to reactionary thinking, I’ve come to believe in that in general big is a bad way to address local.

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