Reflecting back on the questions I intended to answer during the trip, I confirmed some of my preconceived notions, but was also surprised by some of my experiences.
In term of the Appalachian people’s relationship to the land, I was not surprised to find that in general, they were more concerned with using the land to its fullest potential, instead of preserving it in a completely natural state. The people are just as aware of how beautiful their land is as visitors are, but they also understand that their survival depends upon their use of the land. “Papa Joe,” the old coal miner with whom our group spoke demonstrated the balance that is required between preserving and utilizing. He described to us his many years as a coal miner, but also pointed out how the mountains had been affected by the industry. He understood that the region’s natural resources need to be mined to support communities, but that it should be done in such a way that the impact on the landscape is minimized.
I was a bit surprised to find that the Appalachian people were not terribly different from me. They certainly had slightly different values from me, but nothing that made me uncomfortable. Culturally, the region was especially similar to my own experience; we ate a local pizza joint, listened to the local Top 40 Hits station, and saw a surprising number of Catholic Churches. That being said, I did have two experiences that demonstrated a definitive gap between my culture and theirs and even a bit of a bias. On the trip down, our group got incredibly lost in central West Virginia. At a rest stop, a trucker saw us intently reading a wall map, and asked where we were heading. After hearing our explanation and seeing our printed directions, he simply started laughing. He advised us never to trust “them internet types of directions” and we better change our direction fairly soon. To students who practically live and die by the internet, meeting someone who flat out did not trust it was a bit of a culture shock. In another instance, Papa Joe asked what he looked like to us. We were initially puzzled, but he clarified that he wanted to know if he looked like the typical hillbilly to us, “swinging from a tree with overalls.” He was obviously aware of the stereotype about the Appalachian people, but we did our best to befriend who and show that we thought otherwise.
My third question about simplicity I did not really answer. I went a couple of days without showering, but that is not a habit I want to start back at school. I did survive quite easily without electronics, so perhaps I will be more willing to turn them off in the future. Additionally, I found great enjoyment in the beauty of nature, which I can also bring back with me to school.
Finally, I wanted to compare urban poverty with rural poverty. The most obvious difference that I noticed was in terms of possessions. The urban poor own very little, since many own only what they carry or can move quickly between apartments. The rural poor have much more stable housing, and can even be considered to own some luxuries like an ATV. However, their situations can be just as precarious if one’s health becomes an issue or employment is lost. Additionally, they do not have all of the resources available in an urban setting, making it more difficult to get the help that is needed.
I mentioned earlier that I thought the mentality of the urban and rural poor were different, but I think my mind has since changed. Saying that a certain temperament is predominant in one group is too much of a generalization; individuals in both regions have a very large variance, with some people desiring privacy and some wanting to tell their stories. If I were to generalize, I would say that both the region and the people of Appalachia are fascinating.