I spent three days last week traveling through far southwest Virginia, primarily in Bristol, Big Stone Gap, and Appalachia doing research and interviews for my upcoming book, Harmonic Highways, Motorcycling Virginia's Crooked Road. I met several interesting and articulate people with great stories to tell. One man near Bristol was particularly fascinating. A luthier himself, he owned a classic violin made in Italy by one of the contemporaries of Stradivarius. It was worth in excess of $1 million. I will be telling his story in my book.
One interview, however, that I conducted on a hot Thursday afternoon left me a knot of indecision and emotion.
The neighboring communities of Big Stone Gap and Appalachia, Virginia, straddle the line demarcating the boundary between coal bearing regions and non-coal bearing regions. There are many active and retired coal miners in this area and I wanted to speak with some of them to understand their occupations and lifestyles. While one miner I spoke with was happy and reasonably healthy in his retirement, another drew a much more negative picture.
On one of the many roads emanating from Appalachia, I drove my motorcycle onto increasingly narrow and poorly paved roads past abandoned homes, tipples, and industrial buildings. On a side road in a former coal camp, I parked the motorcycle at the end of the good pavement and I walked the last 100 yards to find a man named John Seabolt in his small but well-kept bungalow home. There were a dozen other homes in the neighborhood, some in good condition with homey touches like picket fences and flowers and others in the advanced states of decay. There were neither children nor telltale signs of them, such as bicycles or basketball hoops. Dogs ran from porches to bark at me.
A friend of John's had called him to ask if it was okay for me to visit and interview him. I guessed upon meeting him that he saw relatively few visitors, particularly strangers. He was a short man like myself, but stout. Even though he knew I was coming, he didn't bother to put on a shirt. He wore only shorts and loafers. He had a belly as round and smooth as a dime-store Buddha.
He told me about losing his job years earlier in coal mining. Apparently, he was responsible and on the scene where a man was crushed to death in a mine. Somebody had to take responsibility and that fell to John.
During his conversation, he got up from the sofa to attend to his wife, who was apparently incapacitated in the nearby bedroom. He told me that she had had several strokes. I had to impose upon him in his own house by asking him not to light the cigarette he lifted to his lips.
I heard several stories of accidents and fires in the mines. John was disabled, living off a pension and government assistance. His days were filled with menial tasks and listless wandering of the neighborhood.
When I departed, he told me that perhaps half the houses in his neighborhood were completely unoccupied. Because of the advanced of the decrepitude, houses were virtually worthless. Many of them were ostensibly for sale and could be purchased for virtually nothing, but since there were no jobs, nobody wanted to live there.
Donning my helmet and clothing, I threw my leg over my hot motorcycle and bid Mr. Seabolt adieu. Driving away, it seemed to me that he and most of his neighbors were simply waiting for death to come. I remembered the old admonition from my mother, “If you can't say something nice, don't say anything.” What would I say in my book about Mr. Seabolt?