DC life didn’t suit me. Each morning, I rose before dawn, navigated a maze of red light cameras and fender benders, languished all day under fluorescents, then slunk home through the gathering dusk.
During that year in the city, I rarely encountered any real natural beauty–save for a wooded property line or a polluted stream, lined with cement. And mountains? Forget about it. DC is flat, flat, flat—you’re lucky to find a hillside that’s not already infested with million-dollar houses.
So when I drove west to visit family last spring, I found myself entranced by the swiftly-rising hills. The gorgeous blue-green waves, hovering on the horizon, made my heart race. Passing the mighty Shenandoah ridge, I craned my neck to see the bumpy spine recede into the distance. As I descended into Cumberland, Maryland—a cozy little city surrounded by the Alleghenies on every side—I marveled, eagerly swinging my gaze left and right. It’s a miracle I survived that trip, given my distracted driving.
Here’s the funny thing: I grew up in this same mountain range. Throughout my childhood, I took Appalachia’s blue ridges for granted. I never knew how beautiful my hometown was–how privileged I was to live there.
But once it was taken away and replaced with suburban flatness, I could better appreciate what I had lost. I could sense a certain emptiness–a hunger for mountain vistas, pine groves, and burbling creeks. Driving west from DC was like refilling my soul.
If the experts are right about “Nature-Deficit Disorder,” could mountain deprivation count as a corollary “illness”? And does rural relocation represent the only known cure?
At the turn of the twentieth century, the American frontier lay in two directions. Of course, heading west would get you there, to the remote towns romanticized in our westerns. But you could also reach the frontier by traveling up—into the Appalachian mountains. Visiting the high canyons and hollows of West Virginia demanded a journey nearly as difficult as visiting the Wild West.
As in Colorado and Utah, extractive industry—timber and mining—created an Appalachian “boom.” Eager workers streamed to the high hills by the tens of thousands. Rough-and-tumble boomtowns—complete with dirt roads, general stores, and false-front saloons—sprung up overnight. It was the wild frontier, transposed back East.
And the similarities—between boomtowns in Appalachia and those out West—don’t end there. Compare a place like Telluride, Colorado to Davis/Thomas, West Virginia:
Telluride’s current population (2200) is comparable to that of Davis/Thomas (1200 or so).
Both towns were founded in the late nineteenth century.
Both owe their early success to extractive industrial booms (silver and gold in Telluride, coal and timber in West Virginia).
Both boast iconic “boomtown” architecture, well worth preserving.
Both now depend on outdoor recreation (particularly skiing) and tourism as primary industries.
And yet, despite their many parallels, these towns’ recent economic histories seem startlingly different. Many historic Appalachian towns remain mired in poverty, while tourism has transformed Telluride into a prosperous destination town. This, despite the fact that West Virginia’s mountains lie far closer to densely-populated urban areas (e.g. Washington, DC).
Given this disparity, could the West’s mountain retreats provide a blueprint for sustainable development in Appalachia? Could these mountain towns’ economies transition from extractive industry to tourism? Might these locations attract the history buffs, Wild West aficionados, and outdoors enthusiasts who frequent Colorado’s mountains? Could a place like Davis/Thomas become the “Telluride of the East”?
Claiming this identity will not be easy. Appalachian towns must celebrate and nurture “destination” features—heritage, natural areas, and recreation opportunities—at all costs. If anything threatens this frontier identity (e.g. extractive industry), it must be evaluated, scaled back, or even stopped altogether.
Many local residents may resist such a transition (as they did in Telluride). After all, when your livelihood depends on extraction, prioritizing “frontier tourism” seems menacing. And when you’re struggling just to keep a roof over your head, you’re not likely to embrace boomtown building codes (like Telluride’s “design guidelines”).
That’s why it’s so important for sustainable development advocates to concentrate on consensus-building, community outreach, and public relations. Unless they can cast a convincing vision—one that includes jobs for locals and opportunity for all—they’re unlikely to earn local support for any high-minded dreams.
Regardless of the challenges, Appalachia’s boomtowns must reclaim their historic, frontier character in order to build a sustainable future. Comparable mountain destinations out West offer some hope and a potential model for development.
Last week, many American families gathered to share a special meal, to tell stories… and to argue. Thanksgiving brings out our most combative sides. After that second glass of wine, Grandpa Joe gets a little too honest about his grandkids’ lifestyle choices. Aunt Mary invites a quarrel with her snarky political commentary.
Remembering past spats, the thought of sharing big news with your relatives might make you nervous. More specifically, you might hesitate to explain just why you’re quitting your secure suburban job and moving to the countryside.
Why would this innocuous news incite an argument? For one thing, older family members might not understand your decision. Many of today’s retirees spent their working years in an entirely different economic climate. In their day, many employees stayed with a single company for decades—-even for entire careers. That background makes it difficult for Uncle Gerald to comprehend why his idealistic young niece would abandon steady work.
That’s not the only land mine to avoid when telling the fam about your rural escape. You also risk offending any relatives who don’t share your cynicism about suburbia. After all, no one likes to be told that their lifestyle is unsustainable or irresponsible. People get defensive when some impertinent youngster impugns their way of life.
So… given these risks, how should you explain your move to rural America?
First, do your homework. By the time you tell Cousin Ralph, you should know how, exactly, you’re going to make rural life work. Where will you live? Where will your money come from? What happens if you get sick? Your family’s going to ask these questions; be prepared to answer them.
Remember why they’re worried. Why is your family skeptical? Why do they ask practical questions? It’s not (just) because they doubt your ability or your common sense. They love you, and they want to make sure you’re safe and happy.
Don’t take yourself too seriously. You’re not John Muir, Thoreau, or the Dr. Pepper Mountain Man. Don’t pretend to be. Acknowledge that this move is an experiment—-possibly a short-term one. Be willing to laugh along when Uncle Horace pokes fun at your idealistic vision.
Invite your family to visit. Make it clear that you’d like everyone to come stay with you in the sticks. By offering to let them share in your adventure, you defuse any “my way of life vs. your way” tension. Help them understand that you plan to stay involved with the family and that they’re welcome to drop by anytime.
Accentuate the positive. Spend more time celebrating the benefits of rural life than you do lambasting suburbia’s evils. Rather than railing against factory farms, gush about fresh veggies from your garden. Instead of whining about city traffic, get them excited about outdoor recreation opportunities in your new hometown.
Whenever an individual makes a major life change, people around them notice. Those “left behind” may even feel guilty about their own stasis. For example, an alcoholic might resent a close friend who successfully walks the twelve steps. Media junkies get defensive when the next-door neighbor refuses to buy a TV. In the same way, your family might resent your move to the country as an implicit condemnation of their own suburban lifestyle.
But with a positive attitude and some forethought, you can keep things civil at your next family meal. If you’re lucky, you might even win them over—-or at least convince them that you’re not completely crazy.
Population of Davis and Thomas, West Virginia, charted over time. Data: U.S. Census Bureau.
In the early twentieth century, two towns in the remote mountains of West Virginia “boomed.” In just a decade or two, Davis and Thomas grew from tiny frontier encampments to thriving industrial outposts. Extractive industry—specifically, timber and coal—fueled this remarkable growth.
Eventually, the boom went bust. Timber companies exhausted the region’s virgin forests, having clear-cut its stands of massive oak, spruce and poplar. Coal extraction continued, but on an increasingly limited basis.
Decade by decade, the towns began to decline. As industry dried up, workers moved away. The county’s population plummeted—from nearly 19,000 in 1910 to barely 7,000 by 2000. Lacking customers, many businesses downsized and eventually closed altogether. Abandoned homes and storefronts decayed and collapsed. Davis and Thomas seemed certain to slide into rural obscurity.
But that bump in the graph—that tiny bump, between 2000 and 2010—offers some hope. Is it possible that efforts to establish a new economy have finally taken hold? That tourism, outdoor recreation, and the arts could arrest a century-long skid?
Or does this mini-spike represent a mere aberration? A short-term hiccup in the towns’ downward spiral?
For decades now, proponents of local food have pushed back against “Big Agriculture:” corporations that import “fresh” food from thousands of miles away. Community-Supported Agriculture programs, resurgent farmers’ markets, and a renewed interest in gardening all reflect this local food movement. Local food, we’re told, is good for our bodies, for our budgets, and for our local economies.
Just as SYSCO and U.S. Foods dominate our food distribution, so a handful of media conglomerates now control American media production and distribution. Local radio stations function as mouthpieces for Clear Channel. Your favorite movies were likely financed and distributed by Big Media (i.e., NBC, Fox, Disney, CBS, Time Warner, Viacom, or Sony). Your neighborhood newspaper copies its stories from the wire.
This dearth of locally-produced media causes problems. First, we lack the information we need to make good decisions about our community. Second, differing viewpoints don’t get voiced—especially on issues that affect locals. Finally, distinctive regional culture gets diluted by nationalized media. We watch the same shows, read the same magazines, and, eventually, think the same way as communities in Wheeling or Walla Walla or Wilkes Barre.
Fortunately, some are fighting back against Big Media. Just as local food advocates resist factory farms and oil-dependent distribution, so now a nascent “local media” movement has begun to emerge.
The increasing availability of broadband Internet has created space for whole new categories of media producers, bloggers, vloggers and podcasters among them. On the Internet, you don’t need a media conglomerate’s blessing to say something. You just say it. Over time, others start to notice, and your audience grows.
Even in more traditional media categories, hyper-local alternatives can take back the microphone. For example, a group here in Tucker County (rural West Virginia) recently submitted an FCC application for a low-power FM radio license. The proposed station would allow local content creators to broadcast to our tiny community (less than 1200 people): locally-recorded music, locally-produced news, and locally-themed discussion.
This is media produced on an impossibly small scale, akin to a gardener selling her harvest from her truck bed. Consider: we’re more likely to trust the squash grown by our neighbors than the squash trucked in from Mexico, right? Then why not gravitate to local artists, rather than content that’s mass-produced in some Nashville or Hollywood studio?
…[T]he world doesn’t bend to everyone’s beckoning whim—it doesn’t really give a shit about your passion—because it needs people to do normal stuff like collect garbage, police streets, put out fires and process applications at the DMV.
This is common sense. Not everyone can become an artisan or found a start-up.
And young people must eventually come to grips with a sobering truth: you’re not all that special. Your career won’t be anything particularly important, in the grand scheme of things. Your parents worked “normal” jobs; why can’t you?
The problem is that even “normal jobs”—jobs with benefits and a livable wage—seem harder and harder to find. Far from retiring at thirty, millennials struggle to start careers by thirty. Forget “do what you love;” for today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings, even their parents’ modest aspirations—take an occasional vacation, buy a house, save for retirement—seem impossibly ambitious.
Toys “R” Us®. Because kids couldn’t possibly care about trees (yawn!) or the outdoors (snoozefest!).
A person who commutes an hour each way has to make 40% more money to be as satisfied with life as a person who lives near the office.
Sue Shellenbarger, writing for the Wall Street Journal and citing research from the University of Basil.
When we moved to the DC area back in 2011, I had hoped to avoid driving through the capital’s infamous traffic. Unfortunately, that just wasn’t possible. DC’s public transit makes it easy to travel into the city, but impossible to get around its outskirts. I was forced to drive, and although my office was less than ten miles from home, it often took an hour. My roundabout route had me racing stoplights, deciphering one-way detours, and dodging traffic cameras, twice a day, every day.
By the time I got home, I felt awful. So it’s easy for me to believe the statistic above: it takes 40% more money to satisfy a long-distance commuter, versus someone who lives close to work. In other words, someone who braves the bumper-to-bumper traffic and pulls down $100K might be less happy than a suburbanite who earns $60K and works down the street from his house.
Unfortunately, quality-of-life isn’t the only factor in these decisions. For some, a long-distance job is the only position they can find. Others have non-negotiable expenses that demand a higher salary.
Still, it makes sense to step back, crunch the numbers and evaluate your lifestyle. Employment close to home might mean a crummier car, fewer gadget upgrades, and fewer nights on the town. But it also offers more time with family, a more cohesive sense of community, and less stress.
In a recent article (“Silly Hipsters, Farming Sucks”), Greg Meyer criticizes the youth agrarian movement. He takes aim at idealistic “kids,” who erect a chicken coop or dig a garden, then give up when hardship inevitably strikes. Farming is hardship, Meyer contends, and “no one who really knows that life would ever willingly choose it.”
Of course, plenty of young farmers have chosen the life bucolic. And many of them don’t buckle under, despite farming’s monotonous labor and uncertain harvest. To them, small-scale agriculture is not “unrewarded toil”; its rewards include good health, self-contentment and restored community.
Meyer streamlines his argument by ignoring such counterexamples, then mixes in other questionable rhetorical techniques:
A smidge of misogyny. Hipsters’ hands are “as soft as a woman’s,” and farming makes women into “old crones.”
A touch of civil religion. Modern society should become “that shining city on a hill”.
A pinch of outdated, modernist optimism. “Sure, modern society isn’t perfect…. But we can make it better.”
An irrelevant argument from pop culture. To prove just how difficult farming can be, Meyer cites Monty Python.
For all of the article’s ill-advised rhetoric, I’m more bothered by what’s left unstated. Meyer fails to acknowledge the possibility that small-scale farmers have something worthwhile to say against “modern farming.” There’s no mention here of abusive animal treatment, destructive land practices, seed company brutality, rampant nature deficit, or disintegrated local economies. Meyer flippantly ignores such concerns; to him, hipsters find mainstream farming abhorrent “for some reason or another.”
In fact, Meyer nearly celebrates the mass-agricultural system that his “hipster” antagonists despise. “For all it’s [sic] faults, modern society has offered us a lot,” he coos. “The means of mass production has removed the work” that made farming such a burden.
Hipsters deserve ridicule for a lot of things. They’re an easy target, with their handlebar moustaches, oversized bicycles, and hyperbolic cynicism. And what’s more cool than criticizing the self-appointed arbiters of cool?
But lambasting those young people who commit to rural communities, safer food sources, and redemptive work? That puts you on the wrong side of justice—a decidedly uncool place to be.
Fifty-one years ago, the ground beneath Centralia caught fire. Somehow, the Pennsylvania town’s abandoned coal mines began to burn. Noxious smoke leaked from every fissure. A sink hole swallowed down one local boy. Underground gas tanks warmed to dangerous temperatures.
Every effort to extinguish the fire failed, and Centralia itself began to die. By the 1990s, many long-time residents had accepted buyout offers from the federal government. Others were forced out when the state invoked eminent domain on the remaining lots. As time passed, the town’s population dwindled, from 2000 in 1950, to 1000 in 1980, to 50 by 1994.
Today, just a stubborn few—seven residents—still live in Centralia. A recent agreement will allow these loyalists to remain until they die. Once they do, the state will seize their properties, as well.
There’s something beautiful about these Centralians’ loyalty to a place. They stayed, even when the community crumbled, the economy evaporated, and the environment succumbed. They watched idyllic suburban avenues deteriorate into a ghost town. They saw a sleepy rural town morph—slowly but surely—into an apocalyptic hellscape. And yet they would not surrender; they refused to leave.
And even those Centralians who did emigrate never really left in spirit. As one former resident reminisced, “I really miss it. I would go back in a heartbeat, you know.”
Some do go back, every Sunday. Incredibly, Centralia’s century-old Ukranian Catholic Church still conducts services. Former residents, long since displaced, make the weekly pilgrimage, returning to worship at their “home” church.