ESSAY FOR “HEARD TELL: LOOKING AT APPALACHIA”
In July of 2018, I made a short contribution to a new feature for Roger May’s “Looking at Appalachia” project. Called “Heard Tell,” the feature pairs an audio clip with writing and an image, essentially a kind of listening to Appalachia. Read the excerpt below, and then visit Looking at Appalachia here to read the entire essay, view the paired image (different from the one below), and listen to the audio.
Moonshine Festival (excerpt)
Now it is night. I slip behind the parking lot and walk up wide, irregular steps toward Robinson’s Cave. The cave sits recessed on a wooded hill above town. Up here, I can just make out the lights below––orange street lamps and fluorescent green porch lights, dirty yellows from concession stands and rainbow hues drifting through plastic overhangs, the harsh whites of halogen work lights and ground floor businesses, and the warm glow seeping through second floor windows––all coming together to meet the clear night sky above.
I stand in the cave’s shallow opening. A slow, steady drip of water. The tree canopy stirs overhead. Sounds drift up to me, muffled and blurred, echoing off the cave walls. The crowd below cheers as tag team wrestlers pound and hurl each other across a ring. Carnival and country music swirl together and are lost inside the ear of the cave. Shadows move across the walls. The cave transforms these sights and sounds and I am transformed, too. I am confused, a little dizzy, and need to sit down. I lose track of time. The past leaks in, and I am lost in it:
I remember the miners who met in this cave in 1890, secretly banding together to form the United Mine Workers. I remember another, more contentious secret meeting in 1884, when a group conspired to set the mines on fire in a futile effort to end a strike. I think of my great uncle, a bootlegger from nearby Junction City, who must have passed through New Straitsville many times over with a car full of moonshine and bathtub gin. And I think of my grandfather Mordecai, who grew up just two miles away in Shawnee, how he might have come here to walk, to visit friends, to get into trouble.
I cannot help but feel these people here, their voices still faintly resonating, scattered waves of sound gently touching my own ears so many years later. I reach out to touch back, groping and fumbling and straining in the dark, never quite successful yet never fully discouraged, either. I listen. I listen in, and out. And in so doing, I am not alone.