You are on page 1of 7

Montgomery County traffic, Cirrus Four-three-five Sierra Romeo taking

Runway one-four, VFR departure to the west. Montgomery.

Deborah Fallows
And with that, we were off, flying away from frigid Washington, D.C., and
its political postelection turmoil, on a southerly route to California.

We had flown nearly one hundred thousand miles in nearly four years in
our small plane, with Jim as pilot and me in the right seat. We began in
my home territory of the Upper Midwest, then headed over to Maine and
flew south through New England and the Mid-Atlantic states to Georgia
and Florida. We swept farther through the Deep South, to Texas and the
Southwest, up the Central Valley of California to Oregon and
Washington, and closed the loop after leaving Montana. All the while we
snaked in and out of the so-called flyover country, through Wyoming,
Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and much more.

We have landed in dozens of towns and cities along the way,


anticipating in each of them local stories that would organize themselves
into some kind of composed narrative about the backbone and character
of the region and maybe beyond that, to help explain the character of the
country. We began by looking for towns with positive energy, with signs
of rebound from some kind of shock or shift, like a mine or factory that
had closed or waves of people who’d departed or newcomers who’d
arrived. We ended up adding towns with down-and-out reputations
where we truly feared for what we might find. Life upon landing was
never quite what we’d planned.

We have stayed in towns for weeks at a time. We have often revisited


them, following threads from one person, or one group or town institution
or movement, to the next, settling into the local rhythm. We have gone to
town plays and musicals, sat in on civic meetings, hung out at coffee
shops and brewpubs, spent days at schools, libraries, and ball games,
taken tours of downtowns, visited factories, start-ups, and community
college classes, taken boat rides and bike rides, swum in local public
pools and run on high school tracks, borrowed cars, and stayed in
motels, private homes, and one-off eco-hotels. We remained long
enough to begin to imagine how much we didn’t know, but also to
appreciate the unusual opportunity we’ve had, in seeing a broader
sampling of modern America’s realities than most of its citizens will ever
have a chance to do. …

I’m not a pilot, which is often an uncomfortable admission. I don’t share


the zealous passion for flying that I have seen in most pilots, and my
eyesight has always been, well, wanting. If Jim says, “Do you see the
runway?,” I’ll mumble something in return. But after a thousand hours of
being in the right seat, I know a lot about flying the plane. I know its
repertoire of gurgles and agitations as well as I knew those of our infant
children. I am very familiar with the gauges, navigation, radio work with
ATC, steering the plane, and I know how to pull the parachute, which
deploys from the fuselage and settles the plane in a true emergency.
The parachute of the Cirrus, now the best-selling small aircraft in the
world, eliminates night-before-flight worries for me.

We stopped in Las Cruces in search of cheap fuel and a late-afternoon


lunch. We never knew what kind of food we would find. Many times,
vending-machine peanut butter crackers were the best we could do. I
worried about this a lot in our early days. Our go-to provisions were a
cool sack with dried fruit, nuts, granola bars, carrots, hummus, grapes,
cheese, Vitaminwater—you get the picture. Over time, the list became
leaner and leaner. By now, more than three years later, we’d actually
become aficionados of jerky: beef, buffalo, reindeer, elk, spicy, lime-
ginger, teriyaki. One Uber driver who drove us on an unscheduled stop
in Wyoming went on for twenty minutes with stories about his
homemade jerky from a personal drying machine. When lunch in Las
Cruces didn’t work out, jerky it was.

We pressed on for another hour or so to Tucson. The mountains


deflated into undulating brown hills. We flew over flatlands with
occasional volcanic outcroppings and long stretches of almost surreal
desert landscapes that looked like pointillist paintings…

As we flew over Palm Springs, the aerial road signs were becoming
familiar: the mountains north and south, the desert settlements below,
the wind farms, the Banning Pass through to the Los Angeles basin. We
flew over Redlands, our destination, to San Bernardino and the long,
wide runways that had once accommodated B-52s when this site was
Norton Air Force Base. Jim guided our Cirrus in, hovering near
touchdown in the wind gusts for the final few hundred feet.

Landed. What were we supposed to feel now, some twenty-five hundred


miles and four days later? Or one hundred thousand miles and four
years later? Maybe like Mark Twain, I thought, one of the writers whose
account of an epic journey I had read. At the end of twenty days by
stagecoach, the Washoe Zephyr, from Missouri to the territory of
Nevada, Twain wrote, “It had been a fine pleasure trip; we had fed fat on
wonders every day; we were now well accustomed to stage life, and very
fond of it; so the idea of coming to a stand-still in a village was not
agreeable, but on the contrary depressing.”

We, too, had indeed “fed fat on wonders every day.” Our ending didn’t
feel as sad as Twain described his, but he was young then and didn’t
understand yet that you can craft many adventures in a lifetime. I knew
we would head on to many more adventures, and that this ending was,
again, another beginning.

###

Charleston, WV

James Fallows
Mountain Stage is the main national-media production coming out of
West Virginia, and it has been a significant force in country music. It was
carried by 150 stations nationwide at the time of our visit, and in the next
two years it expanded to 200. The list of artists who had their first live-
broadcast exposure to a national audience under host Larry Groce’s
auspices is so long and impressive that at first I didn’t really believe it
(but then I checked it out).

We got to see a live Mountain Stage performance at the Civic Center in


downtown Charleston, before an enthusiastic and youngish full-house
crowd.

A few days after the show, we went to see Groce and his family at their
house, both to ask him about the program’s history but also because his
name frequently came up when we asked people in Charleston, “Who
makes this town go?”

West Virginia in general and the Kanawha Valley region around


Charleston are, of course, places where not enough has gone right for
quite a long time. The coal industry has inevitably shrunk and is
shrinking further; the big processing works that once gave the area the
name “Chemical Valley” are mainly gone.

So what was it like to run a recording career from here? And to produce
a national radio show from a state usually the object of condescension
from coastal big-city tastemakers? Two themes ran through what Groce
told us.

One was about the possibilities and challenges of doing first-tier creative
work in what the world considers second- or third-tier locations. This,
obviously, was a major theme through all of our travels. Whether they
come out and say it or not, many of the country’s most ambitious people
assume that work of a certain level requires being in a certain place.

This idea of a vast national sorting system for talent has huge
ramifications. They range from politics to the distortion of real estate
prices in a handful of coastal big cities. But as we continued to find, in
countless other places across the country, people don’t have to start out
assuming that most of what they take home will immediately go out for
the rent or mortgage. This is because they have calculated that—in
Duluth and Greenville or any of dozens of other places, they can build
their company, pursue their ambition, and realize their dream without
crowding into the biggest cities.

As for Larry Groce, when he first got to West Virginia, he said he found it
comfortable, because “the way people here looked, acted, and even
sounded” reminded him of his grandparents’ and great-aunts’ generation
in Texas. Which made sense, since many Texans of that era had
migrated from Appalachia. As he stayed, he came to appreciate its
practicality, its lack of pretension, and its person-to-person level of
generosity.

Practicality: “It’s one of those places that has never had a boom, so
booms and busts are relative. If you’re never up, you can’t be down.”

Lack of pretension: “Lots of people can make an album in the studio who
can’t do it live.” (Mountain Stage is recorded before a live audience.)
“That is very West Virginia, too: to deliver in person. We have hillbillies,
but we’ll tell you what a hillbilly is—you [outsiders] don’t tell us.” This was
two years before J. D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy made the term a
staple of political conversation. “A hillbilly isn’t an ignorant fool. He’s a
straightforward, self-effacing, ‘what you see is what you get’ person. He
relies on his friends because he doesn’t trust a lot of other things. He is
not necessarily formally educated. But he is smart.”

Generosity: “If your car gets broken down, you want it to happen in West
Virginia. This whole stuff about Deliverance, it’s just the opposite. If
something happens, you want it to happen here. People will stop and
help.”

Groce told the story of a national network correspondent who came to


interview people nearby and found them unwilling to answer questions.
So he put up the hood of his car as if he were having engine trouble, and
people came over to help him out and talk with him.
Groce seemed content with and proud of his show and its cultural reach,
but he was fully aware that “since it is a national show, we have felt
stereotypes people have about West Virginia.”

He said, “One thing I’ve learned over the years, when you put ‘Mountain’
in the title of something, people think you’re the fiddle-and-banjo show.
Which we’re not. Of course, if we were just an old-timey bluegrass
country show, we’d probably get more national press, since we’d fit
expectations.

“We see the expectations in the stories that are generated about this
place. Have a mine disaster?
The reporters are all here. Have a chemical spill? All here. Have
something where it shows that some percentage of the children are poor
or obese? Yes. But if you have Gabriel Kahane and Kate Miller-Heidke
on one show, and then James McMurtry, it doesn’t fit the categories,
doesn’t make sense.”

If I am making Groce sound defensive in recounting this, I’m


misrepresenting him. His tone was like that of a politician who
understands, anthropologist-style, that the press simply can’t help
concentrating on elections rather than governing but nonetheless
realizes that his or her job comes down to governing.

And the second theme Larry Groce reminded us of, beyond his
insistence on the potential for the first-rate from this locale? His sense
that West Virginia and Charleston, for all their travails, were moving in
the right, rather than the wrong, direction.

“Lots of people who are older are looking backward,” he said. “people
can get stuck in ‘I remember when. . . .’ Coal is dying, but it’s like a
dangerous animal that’s dying. It’s going to thrash.”

However, he said, younger people, as well as those from elsewhere,


didn’t have that memory. They were starting new businesses and
families and projects. “I think in the last ten years there has been a
renaissance,” he said. “It’s easy to go to a place because the money is
good. It’s different because you like being there. I am optimistic about
this place.”

Excerpted from Our Towns by James Fallows and Deborah Fallows. Copyright © 2018 by James Fallows
and Deborah Fallows. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without
permission in writing from the publisher.

Related Interests