It’s just before sunrise and I’m making my way up a steep, rocky slope. A short jog beyond the city’s main drag, the earth begins to rise. Flat streets become steep grades as we climb up, up, into the Appalachian Mountains. The weather is cool as the mountains exhale softly in the morning air. I fall in stride next to Tim Caudill, a Williamson native, trained archeologist, and seasoned ultra-marathoner who has since returned home to carry out research into how best to revitalize the local economy.
This morning, we’ve pulled ahead of the group of us who rose early to hike up to “Death Rock,” a peak overlooking Williamson offering a birds-eye view of the Tug Fork River separating Williamson, West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. For Tim, the roughly five-mile route to the top is easy exercise. In the course of training for a 100-mile race, he logs dozens of miles per week in the surrounding mountains. As we run, Tim shows himself to be a trusted guide for all things big and small. He stops to point out the fossilized remains of plants etched into small rocks. And when we reach the peak, he is quick to gesture toward mined mountaintops and discuss the storied history of the area. Here the closer you look, the more treasures you see.
Williamson is a city graced with grand natural beauty. With over 700 miles of trails, the surrounding mountains are a trail runner’s dream. While many locals utilize the Hatfield-McCoy trail network for All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) recreation, runners like Tim are a less common sight. But times are changing.
In the wake of King Coal’s decline, as the city works to find ways to revitalize the economy and address healthcare challenges, locals are also making great strides in fostering a healthier community culture. In the heart of downtown, the Williamson Health and Wellness Center is the focal point for many of the area’s efforts. The Center offers numerous clinical services to residents, sponsors regular events focused on local food, active-living, and healthy lifestyles, and performs outreach in support of community-building efforts that foster a sustainable future for Central Appalachia. The city even has a website dedicated to sharing residents’ motivational success stories at healthyselfies.org.
Around town, it’s hard to miss the work the center has accomplished. From farmers’ market stands to community gardens to flyers announcing run/walk programs, local food events, and educational classes, there are symbols all around the city of a people and a place strong and hopeful in the face of change.
Alexis Batausa works as the Active Living Coordinator for the Center’s “Healthy in the Hills” program and is a passionate, dedicated runner himself who shares his talents by inspiring others to get out and move. Batausa coordinates more than twenty run/walk events per month, including weekly track workouts and the annual Hatfield-McCoy Marathon. Through his example, he encourages local residents to see regular exercise as a force for positive change.
Bit-by-bit, the residents who take part in the city’s active-living programming are spreading inspiration. Because no matter how you take part, there’s a lot walking or running can say without saying anything at all. The action speaks to a sense of moving towards something, a curiosity about a place, a sense of adventure, confidence, health, and positively.
It also stands as a metaphor for tackling big challenges. Whether that is transforming a city, or completing your first mile, each begins with a single step. In the case of Williamson, there is much that can be said about the progress the city has made towards the goals it set out to accomplish. What stands out most to me is the city’s rugged refusal to quit. Despite tough economic times, depopulation, and other challenges, the people of Williamson continue to come together to put one foot in front of the other and charge onward with big goals in sight.