I never get tired of the rugged beauty of my home deep inside the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. The dense forest seems to swallow most of the small communities. It is easy stand on one of many overlooks and imagine that the world hasn’t changed in three hundred years. On the morning that I took the feature image with my Canon T5 the mists were hovering around the the sandstone tower. I look at the large tree growing on top of the ancient and weathered rock and I know that it’s probably sixty feet tall or taller. ( about 18 meters). It’s smaller than the ones growing around the base. It’s hard to believe that I’m in a public park about five minutes from the main road. I have my camera case setting next to me on one of the wooden benches. I was here to try and get some cool pictures of the Civil War reenactment group. (In an upcoming post) I was rewarded for being there early by finding out that an international whitewater rafting event was occurring in the valley below. It was a real challenge for me and my 300 mm lens but I did manage to pull off a shots of rafts as they exited the rapids. (also in an upcoming post). The warm morning air and humidity allowed my ever present coffee to fill the air with a rich aroma. I could waste a whole day in this spot just absorbing the peace and quiet. Once my coffee tumbler was empty I stepped back to the big blue truck in the parking lot and placed in its holder. I was about to travel back in time and find the encampments of the Blue and the Grey as they prepare for the yearly clash in an effort to define the future of a nation.
They always ask, “Do you remember where you were on September eleventh, Two Thousand and One?” Yes, yes I do. I was working for the prefab housing plant and we had been able to transfer to a new plant that was closer to home. The housing market was really starting to drop off and work was slow. We kept a radio on because the internet was barely off the ground and in rural West Virginia the only access was at a public library. We were taking our good sweet time to complete the day’s assignments. It’s nice to be able to knock off early occasionally but when it’s every day it really cuts into a paycheck. The radio signal was very weak and the static was horrible but we could enjoy the classic rock as we double and triple checked our measurements. Through the static and over the sound of the hammers and power saws we heard the words Plane…Hit…Tower. The line boss hit the emergency stop and the whole plant fell silent. We changed the station on the radio and redirected the antenna to pick up the AM news station. The details were starting to come in and one of my coworkers was drawing with his finger in the sawdust. Being curious I stepped over to look at what he drew. The numbers 911. That was about the time that the first tower collapsed.
The boss shut the lines down for the rest of the day but kept us on the clock with the excuse that he was calling for more blueprints and didn’t want us to leave and then have to call us back in. I spent the rest of the day out in the lumber stacks looking up at the crystal blue sky. It was the first time since the early 70s that I couldn’t see a contrail.
I listened to the memorial service today. The thing that held my attention this year was the children and grandchildren of the 9-11 victims and the hope that they carry for the future. What was born out of all that pain and suffering was a generation that’s dedicated to the betterment of mankind as a whole. Young people who want to cure cancer and solve problems all kinds.
God takes the bad things that happen and uses them for our benefit. As we remember the past and the loss let’s not be trapped by the memory. Instead, let’s honour those who’s lives are memorialized in art and verse by building a future that they would be proud of.
Appalachian Americans have a language that’s all our own. In the late 90s I left my home in the Appalachian Mountains to find work. I went to Maryland and took a job as a framer in a prefab housing plant along with a group of people from my home area. Most of the people who were with me were people whom I had known for years and worked with before. We had pretty efficient crew and nearly tripled the production of the opposite shift. But the good folks in Maryland didn’t quite pick up on some of the Appalachian Dialect that we spoke among ourselves. It’s English language but we have a tendency to use archaic phrases that people outside of our Mountains “ain’t really able to get a handle on”. One such phrase is the word “Yonder”. When used in context it generally means “over there” and is normally accompanied by a subtle nod of the head towards the direction of the subject being spoken of. While working at the job site we had a supervisor who was raised near the coast and had never heard of the word yonder before. Bob was actually one of nicest people who I’ve ever met. He had lent his hammer out to one of the “hillbillies” who had left his at home and the worker misplaced it. Bob inquired as to the whereabouts of his favorite hammer and the reply came back that it was “yonder”. Puzzled by the answer but not wanting to look bad in the eyes of the Appalachian crew Bob began to search on his own. This quickly became a game with my coworkers. Each person asked about the hammer replied with “yonder”. After about an hour of searching Bob came to me and asked if I would please let him know which direction was “yonder”. I simply smiled and replied “Bob, everybody knows that yonder is the opposite of “nigh””. (meaning near by) I quickly went back to work hammering away at wall I was building. Poor Bob just stood there blinking. Eventually we let him off the hook by returning his beloved hammer along with buying his lunch.
The deep forests are an easy place to get lost. You start out on a dirt road and you just keep walking when you run out of gravel. Eventually the mud transitions into leaf litter. The moss grows thick and the gnarled undergrowth fills every available space. Just beyond these trees are the cliffs I used to play on as a kid. There’s a rocky ledge with a large overhang that one can sit on and observe the forest floor below. I’m guessing that it’s only about twenty or maybe thirty feet in hight but to a young man in his early teens it may as well had been the edge of the world. I would get all garbed up to the point where it looked like I was going on a major expedition down the Amazon. I carried a large Bowie Knife on my belt for survival. The only thing I ever used it for was to mark trees by cutting out a patch of the outer bark and being careful not to damage the live bark underneath. (If done right it in no way harms the tree). I would sometimes take a slingshot along. ( called a catapult by many of my international friends). I would try to pick off individual leaves with a small stone. The stones are not nice and consistent like the fancy ammo in the stores today. That made hitting anything consistently quite a challenge. Sometimes I would pick up acorns or hickory nuts for slingshot ammo which was better for accuracy but didn’t really impart much impact to the target. I’d bet that if I made my way to the ledge today I’d find a pile of small stones in the back of ledge waiting to be used during the zombie apocalypse. Other days I would trek down into the valley below. I would pick out a sapling to craft into spear. There was a particular rotten stump below the cliff that was just the right consistency to allow the spear to stick. I was actually better at throwing the spear than I was with the slingshot.
The road in the feature image was one of my favorite childhood memories and a way of escape from the mundane world and a gateway to a primeval adventure.
Today we have machinery that does most of the work. But there was a time when each spike was driven by hands of a worker. Each beam was placed on a platform that was also laid down by human hands. The heavy iron rails had to be moved into place and precisely positioned. The land wasn’t joined by steel as much as it was the blood, sweat and tears of men who placed it there. Today, I was reminded of one such person who’s very name brings to mind myth and legend. The real John Henry. I understand that some of my international friends may not be familiar with the story of John Henry, so here are the basics. John Henry was a railroad worker and possibly a former slave who was working on the Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia. At the time when the industrial revolution was bringing about new technologies. Namely, the steam hammer. A machine that drives steel without rest. A machine that threatened the livelihood of every worker building the rail system. In an effort to save the jobs of himself and his coworkers John Henry challenged the steam hammer to a race and he won! The power and strength of a man who could out work a machine must have been an awesome sight. However, the story ends in tragedy. John Henry dies of exhaustion that very night. The steam hammer gets the contract to complete the railroad. Why would I write about such a sad story on my normally upbeat blog? Because, it’s happening again. Our world is changing. More and more I see and hear about automation. Robot cars are replacing Uber drivers, self checkout is replacing cashiers and software applications are set to take over other jobs. This not a race people can win by brute force. This is a thinking game. ( using the word game metaphorically). At the time of the steam hammer a man of John Henry’s strength and power could have done very well by shoveling coal that powered the machine instead of trying to out work it. He could have adapted to work with the technology and become an invaluable part of that team. As we move into the future of automaton I want to encourage you to think differently about how to adapt to the new work environments. The robot car can never be as romantic as a horse and buggy ride in the country. There will be those older folks who would rather pay someone to do their shopping for them rather than face the self check out. Jobs won’t go away completely. Instead, new niches will form and with them will be new opportunities.
I see the railway in the feature image and I see a man, a machine and the new opportunities that lay unseen just beyond the next bend in the tracks.