“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.