Saturday, January 26, 2013


Being raised both solidly middle class and solidly Appalachian, my new suburban life in Northern Virginia is not settling well with my soul. I come from long lines of mountain people, generations of Blue Ridge-born and holler-bred Germanic immigrants, miners and ministers whose descendants still live in Kentucky crevices and on Virginia hilltops.

Belcher family legend includes Grandma Gracie, who, during hard times, traded in her house and her land for a horse and a shotgun. She bundled off her own offspring to live with family members and became a working woman – a midwife who ended up delivering both my grandmother and my grandfather.

On the other side of the family, my grandpa’s Franklin County cousins operated one of the county’s notorious moonshine stills. They’d post a sentry down at the end of the driveway when the still was operating, a sign that meant: No Visitors Allowed. Grandpa Bobby and his parents had to turn around and drive all the way back to Roanoke more than once. As he tells it, several of those brothers died unnatural deaths, matters having something to do with that moonshine operation.

I grew up a couple of generations later in what people around those parts call “the city,” but even Roanoke celebrates its working class railroad roots. Roanoke is in a natural valley, hollowed out of the surrounding mountains like a perfect little haven. It’s those mountains and their slopes that make the place a Place, but the Norfolk and Western railroad was what made the place into a city. The railroad brought industry and employment and a stream of people. A display in the downtown museum chronicling the town’s history has a sentence I like to roll over and over in my head like a stone: “Roanoke began as a raucous town, full of hotels, saloons, and get-rich-quick artists.”

Roanoke calls itself the Star City of the South. This is, in part, because of a gigantic, horrendous and charming neon star atop Mill Mountain. It is also because, like any southern place worth its salt, it has a well-developed sense of pride. (And salt would be an apt unit of measurement for worth, as the place was originally named “Big Lick” for it’s large salt outcropping that attracted all manner of wildlife.) Roanoke has its own music, produce, art, and accent. It has a particular pace and an expected threshold of friendliness. If you don’t wave on the street or make pleasant small talk with a stranger or fail to make eye contact with a cashier, people notice: “You ain’t from around here, are ya?”

There are complications to being from a particular, peculiar Place. In a culture bent on achieving equality through mediocrity, justice through sameness, having a personality or a Place can be a liability. When I went across the state for college, my southwest Virginia accent got beaten right out of me. When I made friends in grad school who were from the plains, their disdain for banjo music and the slow work of storytelling infuriated me. When I moved to the Midwest, I found myself defending not only the honor (such a Southern thing to do!) but also the intelligence and integrity of Virginians I didn’t even know.

And now I live in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, the least Placed of anywhere I’ve known. Plenty has been written about the carbon copy housing developments and the endless repetition of strip malls and chain restaurants. To say “I am here,” when I am here means…less. There are stories here, but they are hard to come by. Slowness is unacceptable, banjos unappreciated. To be descended from shine runners and coal miners doesn’t mean much, and people aren’t likely to linger long enough to figure that out about one another, anyway.

Those articles about the cult of busyness, the tyranny of connectedness, the infinite rat race and keeping up with the Joneses are all starting to make sense to me. How do you commit to a place and a people when the place is actively attempting to efface itself, the people, like Israelites, wandering in wilderness waiting for landmarks?

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