Growing up on Georges Fork, coal trucks were a part of life. They rumbled up and down the road every five to ten minutes starting from 6:00 in the morning and continuing until 6:00 in the evening. From our doublewide perched on the hillside, we could hear them coming, jake breaking into each curve all the way down as far as Jimmy’s truck shop. Paid by the load and not by the hour, drivers hurtled their tractor-trailers loaded with 50 tons of coal up and down our narrow road. When we were old enough to take our bikes to the road, Mom made us wait until well after 6:00 when the sun had fallen below the western ridge and the threat of us being caught beneath the 22 wheels of a coal truck were gone. Still we kept our ear to the wind, listening for a truck that got held up, or a day the tipple was kept open late.
We had to have CB radios in our vehicles to avoid being crushed by coal trucks as they sped up and down our narrow road, including our bus driver. The truck drivers named the dangerous curves where passing another truck was impossible: “Volkswagen,” “Horse Shoe,” “Meat House,” and “Trailer,” to name a few. They were named according to small landmarks, like the Volkswagen beetle parked at my grandparent’s house, or the small meat shop owned by my cousin and great uncle.
We contended with the dust they’d bring up and down the roads, chunks of grey mud caking the undercarriage, falling down and being pulverized to fine dust beneath their wheels and drifting as clouds onto the homes of my family. My grandmother took to draping old towels over her porch chairs rather than having to wipe them down every time someone came for a visit and my uncle purchased a pressure washer to keep his porch floor and vinyl siding clean. Those living nearest the road with little ones petitioned the county to enact a 25 mile an hour speed limit down the road. Truck drivers didn’t like the idea that three miles of their thirty mile journey would be slowed down. They began issuing threats to those who’d been most vocal about it, blowing their horns every time they passed by their houses. The county eventually installed a speed limit sign and the first night it was up, someone cut it down and threw it into Glenda’s yard, one of the mothers who’d fought hard to get it. It was a shallow victory though, coal politics saw to it that the speed limit was never enforced.
How many tons of coal left our hollow in those trucks? How much money? Load after load, for over fifty years. Now the minable coal is gone. There hasn’t been a mine down Georges Fork for 15 years, and there won’t be another.
The ridges that surrounded Georges Fork have been torn to shreds, the large holes punched into the sides drain out acidic water and whatever chemicals were left behind. The forests are dissected , grass and brush still the only things covering hillsides nearly forty years after reclamation. Many of my generation have left the hollow, finding few reasons to stay without good jobs. The once well-kept home places have been rented out, falling into disrepair, their renters and owners having little time and energy to accomplish much after working long hours to scrape out a living.
Many of those whose fortunes were made bigger down Georges Fork do not live nearby. Gilliam is a billionaire and continues to fly in his private jet, living five hours away in Charlottesville, enjoying the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley. The owners of Paramont eventually created Alpha Natural Resources, 3rd largest coal company in the United States following their merger with Massey Energy. They live in Bristol, miles away from the mountains they laid to waste. The Lamberts still live somewhere closer by, their humble beginnings and ties to family still holding them to the towns they love, their money able to shield them from the problems caused by coal mining and natural gas production.
Our wells are contaminated, our springs turned into mine drainage. No thought was ever given to the people who would be left with the mess. Georges Fork is only one place, one familiar lifelong home amongst thousands of others left to ruin in the wake of “business”, of American Progress.
And so is the story of Appalachia, the story of billions—trillions—of dollars of natural resources leaving our mountains, heaved from the Earth by the broken backs and choked lungs of our families. For our love of home and our love of family, we have been made dependent upon outside interests—made slaves to others comfort and luxury.