It smells different in Appalachia


I met former Appalachian Mountains resident Pam Harris, 52, near her home in the Boston area, of all places.

Though she left Wise, Virginia 27 years ago, she carries her accent with her and a way of looking at the world.

"The first thing you'll notice is that it smells different there," she told me of the area straddling the mountain ridge between Virginia and West Virginia.

And of the roads: "Some of those turns will knock you on your face!"

Due to rain, exhaustian and conflicting travel plans, I avoided the crazy swtichbacks and only ventured as far as Oakdale, West Virginia, on the northeast edge of classic Appalachia.

I did notice the air smelled fresh and kind of sweet – almost like someone in the distance was baking bread.

I found it incredible that there were five churches in a three mile area on Old 460, and wished it was Sunday morning.

In Oakdale, there were trailers and houses in various states abutting the banks of a beautiful river, a pickup truck piled with tied trash bags, a vacant looking fire station and some kind of community center or school.

One man who looked to be in his thirties was working near the road and gave me a routine salute as I drove past in my RV. Otherwise, I saw very few people.

The Applachian towns sprang up around coal mines and many have dwindled in population with the industry's decline.

After leaving Wise, Harris says she was hurt to hear people stereotype Appalachian residents as stupid or unsophisticated.

"The two insults people (from the Appalachian Mountain towns) can't tolerate about them is they're liars or lazy. You esteem to tell the truth and you esteem to not be lazy, because those things are important to how the mountains work."

With her accent and value system, Harris knows she could go back and be accepted instantly. In the Boston area, it took a while to make friends.

To this day, her way of speaking confounds some New Englanders.

"Some people speak slowly to me," she says. "I speak slowly back to them!"

(The photo above is of a river in Narrows, Virginia, near the northeastern edge of the Appalachian Mountains.)