Larry Thacker

Looking for Ghosts, Fighting Mountaintop Removal

Ever head out in search of one thing but along the way you found something else that suddenly be- came just as important to you? Perhaps even transformed how you think? We've all had that happen. This is my story. I've been working on the Mountain Mysteries Project on and off for most of my adult life, collecting and interpreting folkways, stumbling upon fringe paranormal mountain items we often take for granted in a culture crawling with such stories.

In the early winter months of 2008 I traveled with a friend over to Wise County, Virginia (near the southwest tip of the state along Kentucky border) in search for details concerning the "Black Mountain Lights". I'd first heard of from a student back in 2002 and which was confirmed as a long-standing story by my father. Apparently, in the vicinity of Black Mountain peak – the highest point in Kentucky – strangely acting unidentified lights have been reported for decades. The student heard about them from her mother. My father grew up hearing about them and their association with mine battles in the Black Mountain Range in Harlan County, Kentucky.

We headed out for a leisurely day of what I thought would be UFO hunting, a fine Sunday afternoon in my opinion. By the end of the day, however, we returned empty handed of any stories on mountain lights but emotionally changed and "all in" on a com- pletely different subject. This is the story of how UFOs further sparked my interests with the anti-mountaintop removal coal mining movement growing so strongly in the coalfields of Appalachia and spreading its important message at the national level. You can get to the Black Mountain region in two ways, from the Kentucky side through Harlan County or the Virginia side through Wise County. Either way will get you there but not in a straight line. Both are every bit a two hour drive from my home in Middlesborough, Kentucky at the Cumberland Gap. We took the Virginia way, looking at the map and following what looked like an easy enough route.

By Larry Thacker

We traveled up along Highway 58 to Jones- ville, to Pennington Gap, up to Big Stone, then slightly north to the small struggling coal town of Appalachia, Virginia. From there we headed further north in the direction of the highest mountain tops we could see, just sort of roaming around up in the hollows, hoping we'd run into some folks to ask about the rumored mountain lights around the peaks to the north. I'd also sporadically heard about the controversy surrounding mining around Black Mountain, but that was a secondary interest on this trip having yet to see what was in store for us. We wandered up a few roads along hollow communities with lots of little coal dust covered match- ing homes along thin roads that suddenly up and quit, not because it's the head of hollow, but because a min- ing gate blocks your way.

The further north we tried snaking our way the more evidence of mining we witnessed in the distance. We’d make a turn and suddenly a surprising mountain view would clear. That is, what was left of those mountains and hills. Most every mountain we saw north of town was scarred with the evidence of MTR and other forms of mining, flattened at the top, or skinned away for hundreds of feet right up to only a patch of trees on top, the mountains chunked off in large steps like South American pyramids, hills of terraced yellow-brown dirt drastically contrasting with beautiful undisturbed vistas filled with evergreens and snow dusted bare winter trees. Entire mountain peaks gone, flattened, shortened, deforested. Mutilated forms of a prior state now abandoned to memory. All of it within site of communities strung along these hollow roads, a constant reminder of the threat heading their way.

Along one stretch of road in the Stonega community we noticed how abandoned about a quarter mile of it seemed. The coal dust was so thick on these structures they were encrusted in grey-black powder. There was a church, covered in dust, unused, forgotten, caution taped off. Its windows broken like the surrounding matching houses. No one was around. Then we noticed two men and a boy chopping wood off the side the road, the only life within sight. We continued past them down the road but were stopped at yet another mining gate and turned around. On the way back out we pulled up to speak to the men. It was cold, they were working hard, chopping and filling the bed of their truck from felled trees at the bottom of a draw in the hill where just above it, signs of the encroaching mining were apparent. I asked them about the lights, but by that time we'd taken in half a day of out and out strangeness of another sort, distracted away from our primary task and growing curious to see what was really happening up on the mining sites. They'd never heard of the lights.

I asked about the abandoned houses and church up and down the road. The coal company bought it all, one of them explained. He said a lot of the people were moving out anyway since it was impossible to live there with the noise and rumble of constant coal trucks and equipment, the unbreatheable air, coal dust on everything inside and outside the homes, the blasting, the foundations of their homes cracking, their questioning whether the water was safe. The company had simply bought the street and homes up as "a favor" to these people, places they'd lived for years. It appeared as if it had been deserted for a long time. I asked how long ago the company bought it up. He responded it had only happened about half a year ago. That was stunning. This looked like years of neglect. It resembled any number of scenes from McCarthy’s The Road, desolate, full up with unanswered questions, confusion, the scene of something devastating no one was left to talk about.

From there we wanted to get up on the mountain as high as we could and asked how to get to a good place. They directed us up another hollow and mine site, saying "Go ahead. People four wheel and camp up there all the time. They won't mind, especially on a Sunday." We took off up another road, in my non-four wheel drive Suzuki, heading for the distant high brown patches we might have once recognized as mountains. We entered an open gate and chose from a delta of gravel and dirt roads. The further out and up we got along the winding road of frozen mud, the more alien the scene transformed. We drove away from trees. Away from animal movement and natural sound. Away from the smooth contour of the hills. Away from commonsense.

We rumbled along to one of the highest reaches of the area, driving at least thirty minutes through what can only be described as a moonscape, a no-mans land. There were only a few scraggly trees at the top, layered in crystallized frost, a little black-stained snow in patches. It was cold and windy, the sound of four-wheelers in the distance. Though not on Black Mountain's peak we were along one of the Black Mountain ridges, now flattened, but still very high. The view across Kentucky went for miles. No description I offer here can do justice to what it looked like everywhere else around us where we stood. The earth was exposed in almost every direction, the view out across Kentucky pretty much the only visible undisturbed land. It is thousands of acres, making most the visible world look lifelessly turned torn inside out. It was not reclaimed, not developed back to some semblance of its original contour. Not even an afterthought. I was taking photos when the guard pulled up and told us to leave. "What about all these other folks running around on their four wheelers, I thought it was alright to be up here?" Mostly friendly, but to the point, he responded, "You all need to go ahead and get off this private property." We'd been officially thrown off a mining sight.

Having grown up in the mountains and seeing coal-related activity all my life, having grandfathers that mined underground with picks, shovels, and mules, even secondarily benefiting from the coal industry as many in my family labored in steel fabrication at a company fed with coalfield supplied jobs, seeing small strips of mountain disappearing here and there was sort of weaved into the norm of my senses. But in my home area of Middlesboro, Kentucky, mining was, and still is, significantly removed from my everyday view, never jolting my senses the way this experience was. It was a clean ignorance of what was happening just over the ridges comfortably out of sight. A lot of us directly impacted by MTR but only indirectly seeing its effects are like this. I’ve never dealt with waking up to bed-shaking blasts or having to dodge coal trucks on the way to the bus stop. Witnessing the region north of Appalachia, getting shaken out of my comfort zone of ignorance, however, pushed me out of old thinking into the desire for new understanding.

There are some things you just know when you see them. Things you deeply understand as soon as you happen upon it, dwell on the event, digest it in your thinking gut, and allow it to land naturally in a part of your brain. Mountaintop removal is just such a thing. I recognize it in every fabric of my make up as simply wrong. I generally understand what it is, why it is, but especially what it does. I understand what explosions are. I understand what pushing the top of a mountain over into a valley and streams does to everything from natural animal habitat to ground water supplies in neighborhood wells. I understand what a slurry spill will do. We now know what a coal ash spill will do since the Kingston TVA plant catastrophe in December. I recognize callous greed from a distance and up close. I also understand the confusing state of helpless- ness so many feel about how to tackle this invasion of common sense. I understand why what few surface miners there are, with no other job resources in an area, defend their jobs. But more than any of that, I recognize a scar on the spirit of the land when I see it and, more especially, when I feel it in my soul.

If that experience wasn't enough, a few other trips were sufficient to push me over the edge further. To bring it all home. I took some weekends and sought out some sights – west of town toward Fonde and Pruden, Frakes, over to Fork Ridge and Tackett Creek. We're in a basin in Middlesborough, the remainder of a 300-million-year-old meteorite crater. We love to promote the crater. It's unique in the nation and we're all about promoting that and, of course, our sharing a boundary Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. But winter, when nature shows off what's really up underneath the veil of leaves, exposes the dominating brown swaths of scarring along the western and north-western mountains of our basin. These increase with every year. Some would remark that these are "reclaimed." Some of these long strips of emptiness may be seeded with some foreign anti-erosion grasses that require no topsoil, but they stand out as particularly disturbing because of their treelessness. Ironically, you can much of this from the Pinnacle, the park's celebrated lookout.

I came back from these daytrips feeling like someone had sucker punched me in the gut, driving all the good air from my lungs. It was sickening, to my mind, heart, and soul. Perhaps a clichéd response, but nevertheless the only way I can describe it.

I don't know if these are strip mining, high-wall mining, contour, or pure mountaintop removal sites, or a mix, or whether there's really a difference in any of them when you get right down to it. I have a lot to learn, but I do know it's a mess, a big disastrous environmental, cultural, socio-economic, spiritual mess. A big incomplete thought and a wrongness at once so noticeable that it seems to call out between the miles. How can this happen? Apparently we’re all willing shoe-lookers as the world–and our cultural fabric–is scraped from above us.

I think my detesting of this act runs deeper than its tangle of politics. Mountaintop removal is a personal assault. A cultural assault, akin to someone crushing the hands of a banjo player or writer, mashing the mouth of a gospel singer, or plucking out the eyes of the artist. It's robbery. Blasting off the tops of mountains and pushing that dirt and rock into valleys is not only a destruction of the oldest mountains in the nation, it is the blatant destruction of the things making mountain people who we are. We are the mountains, physically and spiritually linked to our place. More than any- thing we are products of the topography surrounding us. We are culturally dependent upon the geographical position of our raising. The mountains shaped what we became as Appalachians. The creation of culture requires proper ingredients. For us, the mountains are an ingredient that, if taken away, deformed, abandoned, removes yet another portion through which to know that sheltered our pioneer ancestors, provided the challenging land from which our tough culture emerged, shaped the attitudes and enthusiasm of our great, grandparents, grandparents, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, are being attacked. We are the land from which our thoughts on living sprouted. And now, we stand by and let that thing – an element of our cultural sustenance – die in front of our eyes.

In the end we'd ventured out to research yet another story. A story that couldn't exist without this particular mountain area, a place we discovered is in danger of even existing down the road. How this happens, how we let such things roll on under our turn at the cultural watch, I think, will become one of the greatest mysteries I've ever tried to understand. –e-