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.
A few days before I traveled to Williamson, West Virginia, I was speaking to a university friend from Chicago about visiting the Appalachian region. He told me that his uncle passed through eastern Kentucky, just across the Tug River from Williamson, in the early seventies. When he stopped to ask which was the best route back to Chicago, an old man by the side of the road paused and said, ‘oh, I don’t think you can get to there from here.’ This story somehow captures the sense of far away, and of inwardness, that reverberates through the American imaginary of rural Appalachia. It’s a region that has a mythical quality to outsiders, a place of coal, “hillbillies,” and bluegrass.
Appalachia keeps you grounded, close to the land and close to the people. Sustainable Williamson, the collective that hosted our congregation of Fulbright Amizade Students and alumni, is trying to reinvent centuries-old connections to the land. With the discovery of coal in the 1880s, Appalachia’s rolling hills became known as much for the riches they contained as for their quiet beauty. The earth here is quite literally coal-soaked; since the turn of the last century, billions of dollars worth of coal has been extracted and the commodity has become the mainstay of the local economy. Sustainable Williamson’s espousal of agriculture is an attempt to shift the region’s soul to the land’s surface, an echo of the hills’ nineteenth century agrarian existence before the discovery of black gold.
As the world is dealing with the effects of climate change, a visit to Williamson, WV exposed me to a new paradigm on sustainable development and the impact of ‘ruralness’ on the health and well-being of a society. As a participant in the Fulbright Amizade service-learning enrichment activity, this trip to Appalachia showed me how old coal mines are being reclaimed for agricultural use and how community revitalization has created a pathway towards sustainable living and economic growth. Getting close to nature also offered me an opportunity for reflection. Often times we tend to neglect the very small things that matter.
I grew up on a farm in a rural community in south western Nigeria. Coming to a rural community in the United States was, for me, a rare and unique opportunity. I visited many places and met many people but the most exciting aspect of my experience was visiting the community gardens and learning the local style of growing crops. The decline of the coal business has had an effect on the people of Williamson, causing a visible decline in population as evidenced by the abandoned houses. But the general sense I got was one of hope and determination.
Driving around the central part of the Appalachian region in early spring, one is struck by the jagged, rocky hills and the bare-leaved trees. All along the winding roads, I saw old and rusting conveyor belts and mining equipment lying abandoned by the wayside. It was a stark reminder of what used to be considered the heart of a billion dollar coal industry and what sustained an entire culture and way of life for generations. It made me aware of how the burden of history looms large over this landscape and its people—one that even visitors like myself cannot escape from.
Arriving in Williamson a few days ago, I was initially struck by the absence of people on the streets and the lack of human activity. It was strangely new to me, and I fell into the immediate trap of comparing it to small towns in India and with familiar images of urban decay. But a few hours into my stay here and after interacting with the dynamic team of Sustainable Williamson, I realised that underneath its “sleepy” mask was a group of passionate and dedicated individuals who are trying to revive the local economy and revitalize the lives of the local community.