A couple of weeks ago, my father, one of my brothers, and I drove up to Pennington Gap, in Southwest Virginia. The nearest town of any size is Big Stone Gap, which may give you an idea about just how far back in the mountains Pennington Gap is.
We moved to Pennington Gap when I was three months old and left four years later, almost to the day. My father was the preacher at First Christian Church there. They invited him back to preach at their 100th Anniversary service. That’s quite an honor, and I am glad I got to share that with him.
Everyone tells me that a person does not remember much, if anything, about their first four years. That may be so. I don’t have many conscious memories and the few that I do have are really fuzzy. What I do have is a big hole in my soul.
Having no conscious memories of a place does not mean that it never existed for you. The human mind is a strange and wonderful thing that retains a lot more information than just what is on the surface. I may remember little and indistinctly, but I feel the lack of a place I can really truly call home.
That may seem strange, considering that I have lived here for some 48 years now, but there is just something missing that keeps me feeling like a stranger in my hometown. Rootless. Two weeks ago, I found out what.
A four-year-old is not supposed to remember, but he does. He remembers the feeling of being ripped from the only home he has ever known and thrown in among strangers. He remembers feeling like an outsider in his own home town. He remembers feeling left out and alone among his friends and family. I remember — now more than ever.
I remember mountains that block out the sky. I remember wild places and towering trees. I remember coal trains and snowy afternoons. I remember people tough as nails that would give you their coat on a frigid day, if you needed one. I remember sheep on green hillsides and weathered shacks that had been home to generations.
I know now what I have always missed, where my roots were, where they are still. Those mountains, those people, that place, cry out to me on a visceral level. They belong in my heart, where I have kept them hidden so many years. I miss them. I want them back.
Yet there remains much doubt in my mind.
That part of Appalachia is a hard and unforgiving place, a place that cares nothing about people and their works. It is a place where people scratch to survive. It is a good place to be born in, to grow up in, to move away from. Life is hard in those mountains and money does not flow easily.
Could I make the transition from relative comfort to relative poverty? Could I live with snow and ice and sudden thunderstorms so violent they threaten to blow houses right off the mountainside? Could I live so far from my family and friends? Do I dare disturb the Universe?
My heart looks to what was for comfort and peace. My mind looks to what is. Reasons, excuses to stay are easy to find. Reasons to move are hard. Nebulous. Difficult to explain. I am uncomfortable here, a stranger in a strange land. Yet, how far am I willing to go on a hunch, a whim, a feeling? Would I be more comfortable far from everything and everybody I have known for so long?
“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Mr. Lincoln said. I am divided. I am at war with myself. How long can I stand?