The Great American Reach Around - "Appalachia and Japan"
The previous installment of the Great American Reach Around began our slow, julep-sipping, sultry journey south from New England. Washington, D.C. was as country-fried as we got that time around. This time, prepare to get backwoods.
We will continue our journey south following the Appalachian Mountains. This immense mountain chain covers an area roughly the size of the United Kingdom and extends from New York down to the depths of Alabama. For the purposes of today's article we will concern ourselves with four states: Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Virginia.
For Americans, Appalachia is a word with mostly negative connotations. The region has come to be associated with backwoods America. It conjures imagery of inbred yokels with bare feet and one eye twice as big as the other pursuing campers through dense forests that cling to the mountains. This stereotype of cannibalistic genetic freaks is probably unfair, but the generalization that large swaths of Appalachia are behind the times is grounded in reality.
Isolated towns and single-family dwellings sometimes have no running water and little communication or contact with the outside world. Poverty is endemic in the region. Economies that once relied on the dangerous trade of coal mining have dwindled as the supplies of easily mined coal have been exhausted. Mining activity now revolves around mountaintop mining, a grotesque method of coal extraction that literally removes the tops of mountains and leaves cratered mountains and valleys full of debris behind.
However, it is a mistake to think of Appalachia purely as the backwoods and to consider the people there to be drawling yokels. Nestled in among the mountains and foothills are some of America's most beautiful vacation spots and campgrounds and some of America's most historically important cities. Do you think a bunch of redneck morons worked in Oak Ridge refining fissile material for the world's first functioning atomic bomb?
Speaking of which, the recipient of Tennessee's finest isotopes happens to be the subject of the foreign portion of this week's Great American Reach Around. I am referring, of course, to the island nation of Japan. Eric "Rabid Child" Azevedo, elloliam, and Mike "Stoat Box" Paxman will be telling us all about the island of Shikoku, Niimi, and Tokyo respectively. I have asked them to keep the anime references to a minimum.
More on those goofs later. For now, we continue our episodic march to the sea in the great state of Kentucky.
If you cross the Ohio River heading south from Cincinnati, stop at the first gas station you see on the Kentucky side of the border. Get out of your car, walk into the mini-mart and ask the attendant a question. Any question.
Dollars to dinosaurs, that attendant will speak without a trace of the easy-listening accent of Ohio. There will be a very distinctive twang in their voice. With the possible exception of Boston, no other area in the United States has a more abrupt and distinct barrier between regional dialects. Welcome to the South.
You can generally (but not always) judge the overall quality of a state in the South by how closely they identify with the Confederacy. Kentucky remained mostly neutral during the American Civil War, but it was actually represented as one of the stars on the Confederate flag. Consequently, the Stars and Bars show up all over the place in rural Kentucky. Good or bad, I'll let you be the judge of that.
One of Kentucky's gems is definitely Lexington. Like Louisville, Lexington is heavily involved in horseracing and horse breeding. Drive around outside the city limits and you will come across one million-dollar horse farm after another.
Lexington is also the cultural heart of bluegrass music. For you foreigners that are unfamiliar with bluegrass, imagine an Irish pub band singing some sort of shanty and then add a banjo and a Jew's harp. If you still don't have it, it's basically the orchestral version of Dueling Banjos from Deliverance. Bluegrass music is empirically horrible in every way, but it's pretty good as far as bar music goes. I'll take the Soggy Bottom Boys over Jock Jams Volume 5 any day of the week.
Spending time in Lexington will give you a taste of the South with a nice thick frosting of Midwestern sensibilities. The city is reasonably cosmopolitan, clean, and quite modern. It's not a huge city, but it's large enough to make you feel like you aren't in the middle of nowhere and small enough that you won't feel overwhelmed. That's not really a compliment, because on of the most terrible and exciting things you can experience as a traveler is being overwhelmed by the size and complexity and character of a city.
Listen to the bluegrass performed live by traditional musicians, wat something fried, see the horses, marvel at the incredibly green bluegrass growing everywhere, and then get out before you start saying "y'all" unintentionally.