Adventures of Appalachia: Come as Strangers, Leave as Friends

After the loss of a loved one, I’ve spent this past year committed to spending money on experiences and less on material items. This philosophy has taken me to Chicago, Traverse City and all around Michigan’s upper peninsula; alone, with strangers and friends.

Going into my senior year at MSU, I decided to enroll Anita Skeen’s Appalachian Literature course. During the first couple of weeks of class, we discussed the trials and triumphs of a seemingly distant land of West Virginia -- the only state completely in Appalachian. A state swallowed by coal dust, poverty and “overrun by hillbillies.”

The Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, or RCAH, has endless study abroad and away opportunities, but I’ve always been drawn to the Appalachian Immersion Weekend to West Virginia, even before Anita’s class.

I’ve never been to Appalachia so I was unsure of what to expect.

Friday

After an eight-hour bus ride, our group of five RCAH students and two professors, we safely arrived in Elkins, West Virginia, to our host's, Michael and Carrie Kline’s home. The couple greeted us with warm embraces -- as if we were long, lost friends instead of a bus full of strangers.

We had begun to nest in our tents until we were herded by the Kline’s to gather around the fire pit in the middle of their lawn. We all grabbed a spot on either the old church pew from the late 1800’s or the miscellaneous Kline’s dining room chairs scattered around the flames.

Once we had all gathered around the fire, proper introductions were exchanged. Considering the trip was intended to be a complete immersion into Appalachian regional history and culture, it only seemed fitting when the Kline’s announced their livelihood as oral historians for Talking Across Lines.

Michael and Carrie were attentive in learning about each of our lives. I was humbled to be accepted into their inclusive community with an unwavering love for one another as great as the rolling mountains for a weekend of wholesome fun and genuine human connection.

Eventually the day’s travels began to wear our eyelids heavy and we bid our nightly farewells and returned to our respective tents.

Saturday

On the first day of festivities, we each bagged a lunch and headed over to a friend of the Kline’s, Jane, to pick apples. After successfully gathering our loot, we made our way to Elkin’s United Methodist Church for their monthly Buckwheat Feed. Michael agreed to pay for our meals on the condition we ate our meal with a stranger.

I tried my first buckwheat pancake, which had sort of a tart taste because buckwheat is fermented like wine and sour cream.

After filling our bellies, we loaded back into the van and headed to Beverly. As the van wound its way up the mountains, a group of ducklings and their mama crowded the entrance to Sam and Rose’s house. After guiding the ducks safely into the woods, we successfully arrived.

Without fail, Sam and Rose welcomed us into their home with homemade snacks.

We began the laborious process of mashing our apples with an 100-year-old apple press. I claim that it is the best apple cider I have ever tasted, it wasn’t too sweet or watered down. The best part? No preservatives were added, just apples and possibly sweat because those bad Jackson’s are hard to mash.

Sam and Rose live an almost completely sustainable lifestyle: they grow their food in a hoop house, have a composting toilet, and use organic toiletries. The people of West Virginia have a deep connection to their land, as it’s often all they have -- along with a deep connection to their community and kin.

Eventually, our group split into those who wanted to meet Joe Bob, a farmer who lived across the street, and those who wanted to search the creek behind the house for 2000-3000 years old fossils. I found a gem for my mother’s garden.

We eased into a tender familiarity -- the weather was a comfortable mid 80s with a slight breeze. Coco the rogue chicken, a cute little Rhode-Island Red, squawked at our feet underneath the tent. We rested under the tent waiting for the other half of our group to return.

That evening, Sam cooked us a feast -- there was a wide variety of options for both the vegetarians and the carnivores. I sampled the chicken of the woods mushroom quiche and it was wonderful. It had a rice base instead of bread. I was concerned there wasn’t enough room in my stomach to ever look at food again.

Then dessert was served -- homemade blueberry pie and ice cream.

Sunday

The second day was action packed. We woke up late and returned to the mountains to Maurine’s and Ivan’s for a plant identification and apothecary course.  

Their pets made a guest star appearance -- and of course, I was weak at the knees for their cats. One babe particular stole my heart: a grey half-maine coon cat named Lurk, who followed us around the trails surrounding their property. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to love again.

Maurine was very versed in wild, edible plants. During her class, I learned about the expansive medicinal uses of plants, specifically the common GoldenRod.

We roamed their property and gathered wild Goldenrods, which were a safe distance from any main roads and thus contamination from car’s exhaust pipes. Then we concocted a homemade remedy of finely chopped GoldenRods combined with a 58 percent alcohol mixture. This serum can be added with tea or any other drink, and helps to boost the immune system after contracting a cold, UTI’s, and aids in cell re-growth.

After our departure, we managed to get lost for two hours in the Cheat Mountain Ranges and ran into numerous hunters prowling on the first day of bear hunting season.

Before dinner, all the ladies went for a dip in Shavers Fork Creek. Although the swim was refreshing after the hiking, that water was colder than my soul.

Finally, we went to visit RCAH alumnus William Roboski and the Appalachian dance troupe he leads at Davis Elkins College. We each took a swing at learning how to “chug,” or clog.

Reflection

These adventures have me that the best education anyone can receive is traveling. By making traveling a priority, it has had a profound effect on my mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.

I was petrified to venture beyond Michigan with a group of strangers in a state that I had never been to, but I’m grateful that I did. Nature has always had a way of healing my hurt, but in particular, I left West Virginia feeling rejuvenated and calm.

Most importantly, I got to know an amazing group of individuals who have forever altered the way I look at Appalachia. The importance West Virginian folks place on the land, the community and their kin are virtues that are hard to find in this era. It was refreshing to see that there’s still things to believe in, because lately everywhere I turn there seems to be a never-ending slew of unfortunate events.

I encourage everyone to take a chance and break free from their mental constraints because “there’s still good in this world, and it's worth fighting for.”