Friday, October 25, 2013


A phone call previously in the week to the Director of Keepers of the Mountains, inquiring about a mountaintop removal auto-tour, went unanswered. So, despite sentences in their printed instructions like "This is a public road, it is OK to be here" and "don't be frightened by the coal trucks but give them plenty of room" and "proceed with caution," Craig and I proceeded to Kayford, West Virginia...with caution.

The day started out sunny and our drive to Charleston was pleasant, noticing that the foliage further south hadn't turned quite as colorful as in southern Ohio. I wanted to do this auto-tour partly for research for a short story I'm writing and partly because I wanted to see for myself what I'd been reading about the practice of mountaintop removal. This is a relatively new method of mining that not only obliterates the mountain tops, but also significantly decreases the amount of human labor needed to extract the coal.

After lunch at The Bluegrass Kitchen in Charleston, we left the interstate via Exit 79 and began navigating using the print out.  The directions took us several miles down a broken and pot-holed country road lined with below-poverty houses.  We passed a couple large trucks going in the opposite direction, and after "bearing to the right at the "Jesus Saves" sign," things got a little dicey.

The poorly paved road turned to gravel and mud and it began to sleet, leaving us to wonder how bad the weather might turn.  Would it be a treacherous return down the mountain?  

A large coal truck came barreling up behind us.  We decided to take advantage of one of the "pull-offs" on the road - not knowing how well our little Subaru, with its Nature Conservancy and "Beauty Will Save the World" window stickers would be received.  But it sped by without incident and we continued to "follow the guard rail up the mountain," on a very rocky road.  

Our only glitch following the directions was when we turned too soon and went right in to the mine entrance...until we heard someone yelling for us to stop.  A young man came out of a small building and we tried to ask his help with our directions.  He was a good-looking boy, maybe 18 or 19, and I wondered about his future as we talked.  Even at that young age, his front teeth were rotting and I guessed he would be working for this mining operation for the rest of his life, if they didn't lay him off.  From where I stood, I thought his situation looked bleak.  From where he stood, he probably thought his future was bright just by having a job.  After his answers revealed he was either completely unaware of the place we were looking for or just playing dumb, so as to be unhelpful, we left.  

Finally we saw the true "white rock," where we were originally supposed to turn for the Stanley Heirs Park parking lot. This park is 50 preserved acres - what's left of the original 5 ridgetops that the Stanely family once owned.  The picture on the website is heart-breaking.  Each of the small seasonal cabins pays tribute to "their people" who came before them, living on the land for several generations.
From the parking lot, it was now a short but steep hike in the cold rain to the ridge top, where we would see the effects of mountaintop removal on the surrounding ridges. We passed a dozen or so shacks and trailers, belonging to the Stanley heirs, all with their personal decorations and all closed up for the winter. 

The views on the path up were beautiful, both beside us and below our feet, where fallen maple, poplar and oaks leaves had us walking on shades of red, gold and orange. I was anxious to see the view from the top. Would I be devastated?  Would I cry? Would we even be able to see anything?  Would someone see us...and send a posse?

Finally, we reached the top and saw the sign.  NO, we were not authorized by anyone the mining company would recognize, but we were authorized by our own consciences. And I wondered about the consciences of those who run the loud, violent machinery we had been hearing since getting out of the car.  I wondered about the mining executives and the Board of Directors who make these decisions and live in homes 20 times the size of the ones we saw in the valley.  I wondered about my own conscience, since I use the electricity generated by this coal, and what I might do from this moment forward. 

Finally, we took the last few steps up the narrow path on the ridge and saw it. We stood in silence for a long time before I started taking pictures.

 This is what is happening to the mountains of West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee...over 500 so far! They are being cleared, blasted, dug and dumped to death.

The little valley town below is Kayford. I don't know how the people of this small community are faring.  As we passed through it on our way back home, we saw what we would consider extremely impoverished homes and middle class houses side by side.  Is this a good thing?  Is one household head a crew chief and the other someone who got laid off?  Has their drinking water been poisoned?  Is that why we saw so many large water containers near homes?  Again, I couldn't help wondering if any coal executives had ever been to this area. Had they ever seen this land...some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world...that they were blowing up?  I wondered what plans they had for the future. Wouldn't every mountain eventually have to be laid to waste to fuel our lifestyles? 

On the way back down we couldn't help but notice the contrast in beauty. 

After returning to the park, we also noticed the sign above the stage that read, In Loving Memory of Larry Gibson...the reason my phone call was never returned.  For me this was the saddest moment of the trip.  From all that I had read, he was a man dedicated to fighting for the mountains with truth and integrity.  Was anyone else was stepping up to take his place?  I wondered if he struggled at the end, knowing his task was not yet accomplished.  I wondered if the stress of this fight and the loss and destruction of the place where he grew up was a factor in his death.  I wished I could have met him.  Since I couldn't, I picked up a few chestnuts from a large tree growing by his cabin and put them in my pocket to take home to plant. I also plan to make a donation to the Keepers of the Mountain Foundation, because I believe that if he would have answered my phone call, we would have become good friends.

To find out more about Mountaintop Removal and what it does ecologically and socio-economically, click on these other links: