The Outage

The Only Roof Over The A.T.: Mountain Crossings, Winton Porter, and the next chapter »

In 2009, like many somewhat recent college graduates, Georganna Morton and Logan Seamon found themselves putting in time at jobs they couldn’t stand.

“We had to do something different,” Morton says, “but we didn’t know what exactly.”

Eric Wallace explains how a 70-year-old backwoods shelter was transformed into a beloved (and profitable!) Appalachian Trail hostel.

"Location, location, location." That’s the oft-quoted key to business success, and Mountain Crossings proves the rule. The backpackers’ store and hostel sits along the Appalachian Trail. In fact, the trail itself passes through the store’s breezeway. Potential customers literally can’t avoid stopping in.

In addition, Mountain Crossings lies just thirty miles into the 2100-mile northward journey from Georgia to Maine. That’s the perfect position to sell ultra-light backpacking gear to struggling thru-hikers, just a few days into their hike. Mountain Crossings offers a service called “The Shakedown,” in which a staff member empties out an inexperienced hiker’s backpack, sifts out any heavy gear, and (often) recommends a few high-tech (and high-priced) alternatives. The business grossed $860K in 2010.

But success didn’t come automatically—or painlessly. According to a 2010 article, Mountain Crossings nearly foundered. The previous owner struggled to organize his books; eventually, the bank foreclosed on his house.

His marriage disintegrated, too. As his ex-wife explains, “When he had a chance to buy Mountain Crossings, we didn’t sit down as a couple and say, ‘Let’s talk about this.’ No, it was, ‘We’re going for this!’” Not exactly a recipe for a happy mom-and-pop shop.

Eventually, the owner’s new partner helped right the ship and guide Mountain Crossings out of debt. And in 2013, a young couple (quoted above) bought the hostel and started a new chapter in its long history. Here’s to hoping they can leverage Mountain Crossing’s ideal location—while avoiding the previous owner’s mistakes.

Modern ghost town (when housing developments go awry).

Just past our little mountain village, across the Blackwater River, lies a monument to failed property development.

The (pretentiously-named) “Tuscan Ridge” promised to raise the bar for vacation home communities in Canaan Valley. Imagine meandering hilltop boulevards, faux-rustic McMansions, picturesque pine groves and stunning mountain vistas.

Unfortunately for the developers, the Tuscan Ridge project fell apart in 2009, along with the rest of the housing market. As one blogger put it,

They didn’t expect to find wetlands next to the Davis Town sewage treatment pond [ruling out the expansion needed to accommodate Tuscan Ridge]. They didn’t expect to hear about flying squirrels [an endangered species whose habitat the development threatened]. And they didn’t expect the market for second home vacant lots to fall off a cliff.

Tuscan Ridge was abandoned. Its infrastructure remains, though—vestiges of grandiose ambitions. There’s the elaborate entrance, for example: handcrafted signs, a stylish archway, a roadway paved with decorative brick. But the entrance leads to nowhere—a maze of unused roads. The beautiful, multi-million dollar lodge sits empty and unfinished, with no homeowners’ association fees to fund it.

Surprisingly, there are a few houses in Tuscan Ridge.[1] But it must be lonely up there, surrounded by forgotten lots and residential decay.

  1. Presumably, these properties include septic tanks, since the city sewage treatment infrastructure couldn’t accommodate Tuscan Ridge.  ↩

This is probably the most unhappy average citizen in the history of the world. He has not the power to provide himself with anything but money, and his money is inflating like a balloon and drifting away, subject to historical circumstances and the power of other people. From morning to night he does not touch anything that he has produced himself, in which he can take pride. For all his leisure and recreation, he feels bad, he looks bad, he is overweight, his health is poor. His air, water, and food are all known to contain poisons. There is a fair chance that he will die of suffocation. He suspects that his love life is not as fulfilling as other people’s. He wishes that he had been born sooner, or later. He does not know why his children are the way they are. He does not understand what they say. He does not care much and does not know why he does not care. He does not know what his wife wants or what he wants. Certain advertisements and pictures in magazines make him suspect that he is basically unattractive. He feels that all his possessions are under threat of pillage. He does not know what he would do if he lost his job, if the economy failed, if the utility companies failed, if the police went on strike, if the truckers went on strike, if his wife left him, if his children ran away, if he should be found to be incurably ill.
Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, p. 21. The modern worker’s sorry fate? Training for decades to do specialized work you don’t even like. Meanwhile, more practical skills—craftsmanship, self-sufficiency, stewardship—go undeveloped.

Should gas companies dump fracking waste into West Virginia’s municipal landfills?

Yesterday, The Outage asked how wastewater from hydraulic fracturing operations affects rural communities.

It’s not just the liquid waste that poses a concern. Drill operators must also dispose of solid fracking waste. One recent article described these “cuttings” as “a sludgy mix of dirt, water, sand and chemicals dredged up in the drilling process.”

In the past, some companies simply buried this material at the drill site itself—a practice that West Virginia outlawed back in 2011. More recently, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issued an edict allowing municipal landfills to accept fracking waste material, in excess of those facilities’ tonnage limits.

This decision proved highly controversial. At a hearing for the bill that would codify this policy for some landfills, nineteen of twenty commenters opposed the idea. The one speaker in favor? An energy industry representative.

Opponents cite the drill cuttings’ unknown levels of radioactivity. Marcellus Shale material is naturally radioactive, and it’s not entirely clear if burying that material in municipal landfills poses a public health risk. Some regional waste authority officials have questioned whether it’s safe to accept more fracking waste—particularly for landfill workers, who are exposed to these drill cuttings on a daily basis.

After some legislative back-and-forth, the fracking waste bill passed the state’s House of Delegates in a special session on March 14. Governor Tomblin will likely sign the bill into law soon.

The Tucker County landfill lies near our home here in Davis, West Virginia. Given the dump’s close proximity, I wondered whether local municipal authorities had wrestled with the potential impacts of fracking waste on public safety. I recently reached out to the Tucker County Solid Waste Authority (TCSWA) via email:

To whom it may concern,

I am currently writing an article on fracking waste and its potential impact on West Virginia’s rural communities.

I was hoping that someone from the Tucker County Solid Waste Authority could comment on the recent DEP decision to allow WV landfills to accept increased amounts of drill cuttings from fracking sites. A bill codifying this decision (HB 4411) recently passed in the WV House. More specifically, it would be helpful if you could address the following questions:

  • Has the Tucker County landfill received the DEP’s memos?
  • Have the memos–or the issue of solid fracking waste disposal–been discussed by the TCSWA? If so, what was the outcome of these discussions?
  • How would the TCSWA respond to those who worry about the safety of drill cuttings, given their potential radioactivity? Does the TCSWA have a stance on the issue?

Thank you for your public service—and for helping to keep the public informed!

After discussing my inquiry at its March 18 board meeting, the TCSWA declined to comment.

Briney business: treating local roads with fracking wastewater.

Hydraulic fracturing creates waste. And it can be nasty stuff. First, there’s the regurgitated fracking fluid—a complex mix of toxic chemicals used in natural gas extraction. Regulators have demanded that gas producers disclose the exact make-up of this chemical brew, and it’s notoriously difficult to treat properly.

But it’s not just the fracking fluid itself that poses a concern. Gas wells also siphons subterranean, salty water to the earth’s surface. What to do with this industrial byproduct? Treating “production brine” also represents a significant potential expense for energy companies.

One solution: sell it (or give it away) to municipalities. Some localities (in New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia) use the brine to treat roads in advance of winter storms. Presumably, it’s far cheaper than mixing together a custom salt solution.

It’s also a spectacularly bad idea. As the EPA observed,

Produced [brine] water will have higher concentration of natural contaminants such as total dissolved solids, chloride, bromide, and radionuclides than flowback water [i.e. fracking fluid] since it has been in contact with the [rock] formation longer. Also, produced water may still contain some of the chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing fluids…. Moreover, the actual concentration and/or radioactivity of contaminants in the produced water spread on land or roads would be unknown at any given time… In addition, road spreading of any type of natural gas non-domestic wastewater could lead to violations of the Clean Water Act.

Here in Tucker County, West Virginia, the local Division of Highways district does not use fracking wastewater to treat roads. This, according to the district engineer, who cites “potential problems” with the solution’s mix. Presumably, the “problems” would also include a grave public health risk and an outraged constituency.

Despite the DOH’s reassurance, it’s hard not to get queasy when I see the tell-tale salt water streaks along our local roads.

Rural cell coverage: convenience or curse?

On a summer evening last year, after a spirited local game of Ultimate Frisbee, I limped gingerly back to my car. Out of habit, I glanced at my phone—then did a double-take. There it was, plain as day, at the top of of screen: “4G”. I blinked in disbelief.

You have to understand; this seemed impossible. We had given up on decent cell coverage when we moved to rural West Virginia. Here, you were lucky to eke out a 2G “Edge” connection—effectively useless for modern smartphone use. And in many spots around town, you got no signal at all. Seeing a 4G connection took me by surprise.

As I soon discovered, AT&T had upgraded its local service. No, it wasn’t LTE, the high-bandwidth technology deployed in most U.S. cities. But we were happy with 4G. After all, up ’til then, we had paid exorbitant sums for data packages we could only use while traveling. Cell service here at home would make errands much easier. My wife and I could message each other on the go, check local prices against Amazon, and get driving directions without scrounging for rogue wifi.

Still, for all the gains, we also lost something when the cell service improved. Before, the area’s subpar cell service forced us to remain present to each other. When my wife and I ate out, we were guaranteed some shared quiet time, uninterrupted by our phones’ chirps. Now, I’m constantly tempted to check out of conversations by fishing out my phone. Spontaneous conversations with strangers seem less likely, too, with instant distraction so close.

Bad cell signals also made us more attentive to our surroundings. When we went hiking, we couldn’t instantly upload scenic photos to Facebook. Instead, we drank in the scenery—there was nothing else to do. And backwoods exploration felt off-the-grid, since we couldn’t download topo maps on the fly. The wilderness feels just a little less wild when you have the web in your pocket.

Anxious Youth, Then and Now »

Today’s young adults are constantly rebuked for not following the life cycle popular in 1960. But a quick look at earlier eras shows just how unusual mid-20th-century young people were. A society in which people married out of high school and held the same job for 50 years is the historical outlier. Some of that era’s achievements were enviable, but they were not the norm.
Whatever the era, when the economy collapses, it collapses onto the heads of young adults.

Highway to heaven (through hell).

If our little West Virginia town is “almost heaven”, the road to get here passes through hell.

Route 93 has always felt treacherous. Its steep grade and hairpin curves demand attentive driving. In winter, fierce winds and blinding snow squalls only multiply the danger. Getting “up the mountain” takes real courage. The hill’s fitting name? Mount Storm.

Once you’ve crested the summit, your surroundings grow even more menacing. The road shoulders up against the fearsome Mount Storm power plant. This hulking complex of smoke stacks and industrial machinery crowds the shore of a sprawling artificial lake. Night and day, the plant belches coal fumes into the air.

Leaving Mount Storm behind, the landscape starts to degrade. The next ten miles are a construction zone for Corridor H, the long-awaited four-lane highway. A wide ribbon of mud, tended by bulldozers and backhoes, makes up the “scenery.”

Before long, things grow still more ghoulish. You’ll pass a “reclaimed” strip mine—an earthen ziggurat, carpeted with grass. Then, a coal tipple appears, along with a sign marking the “Mountain View Mine.” The only mountain in view? The blackened, crusty hole across the highway. It’s an active strip mine, its rim bustling with coal trucks.

Driving onward, you leave behind environmental hell and emerge into a purgatorial quiet. This empty landscape has long since been raked over for coal and left to lick its wounds. These days, the only sign of civilization is a juvenile delinquent center. Like the surrounding land, its troubled teens try to claw their way back to the land of the living.

Finally, blessedly, you reach Davis, West Virginia. This quaint boomtown sits on the edge of Appalachian paradise: state parks, ski resorts, a wildlife refuge, and glorious wilderness. It’s a fantastic place to visit.

But it’s a nightmare to get here. It’s a wonder that anyone dares to drive here from the east, given the hellscape that lies between.

Get on board: the importance of vision-casting for rural development.

Go for it. If you want your town to be groovy and economically viable, you have to figure out what that means for your particular town, be accountable to that vision, and stick with it. … Do something that matters until it starts working.

— Ben Nelson of Mud Ceramics in Thomas, WV. Via Root Cause Wellness.

Nelson’s on to something. To change a community for the better, its residents must share a vision. What do you want your little town to be? If everything goes right, what would your region look like—five, ten or fifty years from now? In the case of Tucker County, WV, Ben dreams of “a community that is built around contributing to solutions and a better future, by building and trying out new ways of understanding and living life, ‘an incubator for cultural innovation.’” That’s an intriguing idea—one that Tucker County should take seriously.

But whatever future you imagine for your hometown, it won’t mean much unless you earn buy-in from others. Competing visions will will tug your town in a dozen different directions.

Again, take Tucker County as an example. Many here argue that our economic future depends on establishing a “destination identity”—a center for recreation and culture, attractive to young professionals and tourists alike. For others, that seems hopelessly idealistic, since extractive industry (i.e. timber and coal) has buttered the region’s bread for over a century. These two viewpoints—these alternative visions—have butt heads for decades now. And so, Tucker County limps along, stuck halfway between the old economy and the new.

So how do you build that consensus? How do you get everyone facing the same direction, rowing together?

First, you must clearly articulate your vision. Talk it up at town council meetings. Spell it out on social media and the web. Draw your transformed town on paper (literally!), so that others can dream with you. Do your homework. Cite concrete examples. Crunch the numbers.

Then, prove it. Build something awesome—like Ben Nelson’s doing with his MUD Ceramics shop. Demonstrate your vision’s viability. Show the skeptics it can be done. If you’re successful, you might just see those doubters hop on board.

“The yuppies are coming! Put out the organic kale!”: how rural businesses can serve both locals and tourists.

You can always tell when it’s ski season at our local Shop ‘N’ Save.

For one thing, the store’s clientele changes, come December. Alongside ten-year-old Subarus and mud-splashed pickup trucks, Mercedes SUVs line the parking lot. Inside the store, the check-out lines are split by apparel: pricey ski jackets on one side, overalls on the other.

The grocery store’s inventory changes during the winter, too. Affluent D.C. suburbanites expect a higher class of ingredient. They’re more likely (than a local resident) to pay handsomely for a carton of organic milk, a six-pack of craft beer, or a hunk of artisan cheese. When tourists are in town, Shop ‘N’ Save stocks these more expensive items. Counterintuitively, even the store’s selection of fruits and veggies improves for the winter. Visit the store after ski season, though, and you’re lucky to find unspoiled produce (let alone organic arugula). I once grabbed a fruit tray, only to notice that the cantaloupe and honeydew sported an unappetizing layer of fuzz.

I don’t resent the supermarket for tweaking its inventory to suit shifting customer demographics. It makes good sense to capitalize on tourists’ discretionary income.

But when you’re serving locals an inferior product, it raises difficult questions. How should you do business in a growing vacation town? As tourism ramps up, you risk pricing out your town’s native residents. If restaurants platter up twenty-dollar, free-range steaks, where will lower-income locals eat? When a day on the slopes tops $100, can underemployed residents still hit the powder? And if every local concert charges for admission, can locals afford to hear the music, too?

Serving two demographics faithfully takes some creativity. Mountain-town businesses must find ways to capitalize on vacationers’ dollars without losing year-round residents’ support.

One potential solution? Charge locals less. For example, one ski resort here offers discounts to locals one day each week. Prove you live nearby, and you score a cheaper lift ticket. But while price cuts appeal to your neighbors, they can backfire, once visiting customers catch wind. Even affluent tourists resent paying more for the same product.

A safer approach? Offer your best deals to repeat customers; you’ll accommodate your neighbors without angering the tourists. Only local residents live close enough to take advantage of long-term discounts. For example, an affordable season-long ski pass makes all the difference for a local powder hound.

Why couldn’t other businesses follow the same model? Mountain restaurants could sell quick-expiring coupon books. That would lower the per-meal cost for loyal customers, without sacrificing the lucrative, one-time diner. Music venues could do the same thing by selling annual concert memberships. Yes, a yearly pass would likely cut into cover charge revenue. But if it packs out the house and establishes an electric, free-spending atmosphere, that trade-off might be worth it.

Mountain-town businesses walk a tricky tightrope; they can’t afford to estrange the visiting big spender or the loyal local. With a little imagination, though, entrepreneurs can establish business models that keep both demographics happy.