What was your best experience in the field covering this story?
The best treasure I came away with is my memory of the collective courage of the people I was privileged to meet in the little hollows and hamlets of southern West Virginia. I emphasize the word "courage" because you need a lot of it to speak your mind in a state so openly enthralled— economically, politically, and socially—to the industrial giant known throughout much of Appalachia as King Coal. Outside of Appalachia, in the city-slick precincts of Hollywood and Manhattan, there has long been forged a smug stereotypical view of these mountain-and-hollow folks as crackers and hillbillies. Call them what you will. I call them authentic, grassroots Americans, and they may well be the best and bravest, long-suffering, authentic Americans in the U.S.A. I salute them. And I salute my friend and colleague, photographer Melissa Farlow, not only for introducing me to many of these brave West Virginians but also for turning the key that opened our door on this story in the first place.
What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?
There are some stories—almost every one, in fact—in pursuit of which the writer prefers to remain inconspicuous. Nothing sneaky about this, just a common-sense desire to avoid appearing out of place in the venue one happens to be examining. Now, put yourself in my shoes, cruising the back roads of southern West Virginia, where every other vehicle is either a coal truck or a pickup of venerable vintage, and what are we driving? A gleaming white sports convertible better suited in the driveway of the Great Gatsby's estate on the Gold Coast of Long Island. That's what the rental car agency had waiting for me at the Charleston, West Virginia, airport. "There must be some mistake," I protested. But there was none. The only mistake was my driving away in that elegant roadster and keeping it for a whole day. Oh, the stares I endured! Once I was out of the city and deep into coal country, I imagined people thinking, "Who the heck is that schmuck?" In the morning, I returned the Gatsby convertible to the airport and traded it in for a black sedan. After that, the drivers I passed looked the other way, pegging me, perhaps, for a cop in an unmarked car.
What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?
Ever since I was old enough to read, I have been fascinated with maps and the odd place-names you can find if you've the patience to squint at the small print. The Atlas & Gazetteer Series, now available for most states, is your best bet for fetching geographic gems. And the coal states of West Virginia and Kentucky provide excellent hunting.
Along the Mountain State's Big Coal River, for example, among hills long tortured by mining, you come upon Bloomingrose, Comfort, and Friendly View. All pretty fair trophies, though not quite as spicy as (elsewhere in the state) Peewee, Wolf Pen, and Stumptown. You see, the Celtic Highlanders who settled these places had no fondness for importing the worn-out place names of Merrie England, Bonnie Scotland, and Irascible Ireland, so they put their imaginations to work and invented their own. Thus, in Kentucky we see Quicksand, Thousandsticks, Rowdy, and Kingdom Come.
Yet sometimes an unforeseen event can turn the initial imagery of a name into a painful irony. Not far from Inez, Kentucky, two creeks carried off the toxic effluents after a disastrous mining accident in 2000. One flowed to a community called Lovely. The other anointed a place some Highlander, years earlier, had tenderly named Beauty.