Hollowed Ground

A student moves to West Virginia, where mountains and politics turn inside out.

On a humid night along the Big Coal River, in a restaurant just north of Upper Big Branch Mine, Carrie Lou Jarrell counted her steps to a wailing country beat. Eight matronly women followed. They rocked, shuffled, and turned with unlikely grace. They scuffed their heels and toes along the floor, stomping at the end of each beat. An old man pressed his nose to the window and moved on unnoticed. When the dance ended, Carrie Lou sat at a table pushed against the wall and rested her elbow on a napkin dispenser. “Keeps me healthy,” she said, breathing heavily. She drew a cigarette from her pocket and offered me a seat.

Carrie Lou, 65, has wide sassy eyes and a mouth pinched to a frown. Dancing was her idea 15 years ago when she gathered the first “swinging grandmas” in a dingy basement and had a friend teach them the steps. She only missed a few nights since, when Virgil, her husband, fell sick and when she was bedridden herself. Carrie Lou had a tough few years. First the coal dust got so thick in town she could barely breathe. She had the aneurysm; Virgil’s lungs gave out. They lost money when they closed their restaurant. And then the mine explosion: she had known miners to die, but never that many at once.

If you followed the news, you know the story. On April 5 this year, a fiery ball of methane gas killed 29 men in Upper Big Branch, a Massey Energy Company mine set between Montcoal and Whitesville, West Virginia. Rescuers hoped that a few missing men were still alive, but anyone who had worked in the mines knew it was impossible—the miners had died instantly. Reporters camped out along the Big Coal River for weeks as they dug for the best story. Had the company disabled the methane detectors on mining machinery? If the mine had been unionized, would this have happened? Was Don Blankenship, Massey’s CEO, responsible? Many locals cursed Blankenship long before the explosion. He’s a classic villain: dark eyes, a handlebar mustache, shrewd business sense, and indifference to the law. The man could make any story interesting.

It was the explosion that drew me back to the Coal River Valley this April. The last camera crew left by the third week, the articles slipped off the front pages of the national newspapers, and I, knowing the story went deeper than the incident itself, decided to return to the place I had lived and visit the people I had come to know. I had first moved to the Valley in early 2009 to stay several months in Rock Creek, a town missing from most maps, set 10 miles south of Whitesville. At first, I was hesitant to move. In my last semester at Middlebury, a professor had encouraged me to coordinate a project called Power Past Coal, a national effort among communities and organizations to transition away from coal. “Why not live in the coalfields while you work?” he had said.

So I called a friend in West Virginia to ask where I should live. I was looking for something cheap. “Can’t get much cheaper than the Coal River Valley,” she said, and that’s where I ended up.

It’s hard to measure the cost of living in a place like the Valley. Even before the explosion at Upper Big Branch, the region ached with loss. Casualties are commonplace in the mines: roof bolts give way to collapse, off-gassing feeds fires, and sparks from machinery turn rock dust into gunpowder. By the time a miner’s retired, he’s likely to have black lung. And the industry’s changed, making it hard to find a job. Many mines closed in the nineties, sending able workers to Cleveland and forcing old miners to retire. The company that reopened the mines—Massey Energy—hired many miners from out of town to keep the union from reorganizing. Now the union has all but disappeared.

In 50 years, West Virginia has lost over 80 percent of its mining jobs while coal production continues to increase. Machines have replaced men, and to reach the thin, shallow seams of coal that underground mining often can’t, peaks are exploded and the coal scraped out through a method called mountaintop removal. To clear land for the mines, Massey buys up houses—sometimes, whole towns. The company saves money and speeds production by dumping mine waste into the valleys and streams, leaking arsenic, selenium, and heavy metals into people’s wells. Cancer and disease rates have spiked—the last nail in the Valley’s coffin, emptying towns that were never meant to exist without coal.

But somehow, people like Carrie Lou Jarrell have held on. In a town riddled with ghosts, she and her line dancers are among the few signs of life. “Thirty years ago, you couldn’t find a parking spot in Whitesville on a Friday night,” I’ve heard her say. Now she owns one of the last open buildings in town, though she hasn’t kept a business more than a few years. When I first came dancing two winters before, she had just closed her restaurant, the Country Corner. The walls were tacked with Coca-Cola signs and yellowing Elvis photos clipped from newspapers. The deep fryers shone like mirrors, and the coolers still had a few warm cokes. Now there’s Nuttin’ Fancy, serving the same greasy corn bread and sweet pork beans. The new owners replaced Carrie Lou’s cutouts with nylon flowers and cheap, nostalgic paintings of pastoral valleys and bustling city streets.

“Life is what you make out of it,” said Carrie Lou. She rested her burning cigarette on the ashtray and winked at me through the smoke. “I could sit here and bitch and complain and bellyache, but it doesn’t accomplish anything. So why do that? Turn the music on and dance a little.” She clapped her hands and rose for the next song—“Old Time Rock ’n’ Roll.”

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