You can never see too many sunsets on the Blue Ridge Parkway. After the first snow in Virginia this winter, photographer Brandon Dewey drove out to capture the sights. “The sky normally lights up once the sun dips behind the mountain ridges, but this night, there wasn’t that much color. About 20 minutes after sunset, I was just about to pack up my gear when the sky finally caught on fire for less than two minutes.” Photo courtesy of Brandon Dewey.
I was born and raised in Kentucky, near the foothills of appalachia. I could drive twenty minutes in any direction and find myself square in the middle of abject poverty. Every spring, winter-hardened homeless men reappear to beg for change by the end of most interstate off-ramps.
The people here don’t love me. I’ve been glared out of nearly any kind of establishment you can think of. The south is a place where there are crosses in sight nearly everywhere you go and Mitch McConnell has been voted repeatedly back into office since 1984. They play country music in the Dairy Queen and everyone has a Ford pickup (“because they’re made in the USA!”). It’s a place where speaking in tongues isn’t crazy but being transgender sure is.
Everyone I know wants to leave. They set their sights on Colorado, California, Washington, Oregon. Out in the west where everything is bigger, more open, more open-minded. A place where they might feel safe.
But Kentucky is my home. I love it from deep within my bones. The hills nestle you into them, lovingly, nurturing. In the summer, the air presses into your lungs like it has something burning to say. The forests here are more alive than any other place I have seen; the cicadas sing nonstop and the greenery is so lush that it holds you. A teacher once dubbed it “the sacred yoni” and I have since longed for nothing but mother earth’s embrace. I feel her magic everywhere.
Y'all. I can’t leave. I love these people the way you can only love the people where you come from. I love all of the brave queer kids and the scared queer adults and everyone in between. I love the homeless men begging for the kind of change that you can’t pull out of a wallet. I love the hills and the rivers and the trees.
Someone has to stay. Someone has to make it a better place.
The 1,500-mile Appalachian Mountain range stretches so far that those on the northern and southern sides can’t agree on what to call it: Appa-LAY-chia or Appa-LATCH-ia. The outside perspective on the people who live there might be even more mangled. Stories about Appalachia tend to center around subjects like poverty, the opioid epidemic and coal, but since 1966 a series called Foxfire has been sharing food, culture and life as it’s actually lived in the mountain region.
Foxfire started as a class project at a Georgia high school — students interviewed neighbors and wrote a series of articles, which turned into a quarterly magazine and then a book, in 1972, with other books to follow soon after. (The name of the series comes from a term for a local form of bioluminescence caused by fungi on decaying wood.) Within the first decade, more than 9 million copies of Foxfire were sold. Today, there are specialized Foxfire books that focus on cooking, winemaking, religion and music.
It’s not odd at all to have a connection with a home, a place where bits of your life happened. But what about a home that you have no personal connection to other than noticing it’s sheer beauty peering out from amongst a thick blanket of trees? I cannot even begin to explain the flood of excitement and admiration that washed over me the first time I spotted the house I will from here on out refer to as Margaret. Like with most places I find, I was out on a random weekend drive. While speeding down Route 2 in Mason County, West Virginia toward Point Pleasant, a road I’ve been down countless times, something in the distance caught my eye that I had never noticed. I quickly turned around and headed off the main road, dropped my car into 2nd gear and began to slowly ascend up a narrow one lane back road. As I grew closer and the trees parted, I simply could not believe what laid upon my gaze. How could something so beautiful and majestic just be sitting here all alone? Needless to say I immediately fell in love with this antebellum gem. Dozens of questions about this place flooded my curious mind as I drove up the muddy and narrow driveway. That was in December 2015.
Over the past year or so I’ve been periodically making the 45 minute drive to shoot photos of Margaret. No matter what my mood she always made me feel better. I don’t know why I immediately felt such a strong connection with a home that I’ve never lived in. Perhaps she knew I would be coming along one day and admire her how someone once had. I sure as hell can’t fathom why someone would leave her behind. Sadly while on a recent visit, that same moment of laying eyes on her as the trees parted that made me fall in love, this time made my heart fall to the pit of my stomach. At first glance at a distance I thought maybe someone was demolishing the home. As I drove closer I realized that it was far worse. Margaret had been torched. I looked at my girlfriend and just kept saying “No! No! No!” as we drove closer. How!? Why?! I had just visited a few weeks prior and everything was fine. Judging by what’s left (or rather lack there of) it appears she burned for a while. Who the hell would do something like this? One thing is for certain, I will miss Margaret dearly.
I often forget (though the internet just as often reminds me) that most people have absolutely no idea what is going on in Appalachia, particularly central Appalachia. People know it is where the hillbillies live, and something about coal, and opioids, and poverty… but it’s like nobody connects the dots between the buzzwords. No one has a cohesive story of the region’s history or how we ended up where we are.
And to top it off, no one even pretends to offer assistance - just judgment. People on the right say the magic words about coal to get our votes (turns out people vote for people who make promises about keeping food on the table), but then screw us over after the fact, and don’t seem to care what the coal industry actually does to our homes and bodies. People on the left want to end coal, but then ignore us and leave us to die after our major source of livelihood is gone - that is what is happening right now. Obviously coal has to end, but when no one is willing to so much as make an effort understanding what is going on, I don’t see things getting better any time soon.