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‘Up close’: A story of anxiety, the mountains and coming together

‘Up close’: A story of anxiety, the mountains and coming together

Prologue

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I’m driving. If you know me, you’d know I do that a lot these days. Sometimes I have friends there with me; we laugh, sing — badly, in most cases — and talk until the sun sets. We even argue every once in a while. The car is an intimate place, though. Going 60 mph, it feels like you never move at all — you’re protected from the elements, the sounds, the breeze. When conflict arises, you’re in a safe space — you can hash things out, reach true understandings. In other words, there’s no pressure — no pressure to act a certain way or put up a certain appearance. You can’t say that about many places anymore.

Other times, I’m alone — there’s a lot to think about. In what direction is the world going? Where is our place in it? Do we have a place in it? A drive is a good time for those thoughts — the landscape whirring past distracts you just enough to keep your mind from spiraling. Everyone’s anxious nowadays — there isn’t much certainty in the future for any of us, no matter where we stand in society. As a college student, I’m worried about the economy upon graduation, and whether I’m prepared to be successful in the real world. For someone living paycheck to paycheck in Appalachia, instability is ever-present — and devastating.

Route 460 is kind of an anomaly. They built the new highway in 2003 to bypass the towns of Blacksburg and Christiansburg, giving easy access to the Virginia Tech campus and athletic facilities — I’ve heard the road called “the highway Mike Vick built.” That lasts until the freeway meets North Main Street, just beyond downtown Blacksburg. After that intersection, the speed limit goes down, the road has more cracks and it feels like southwest Virginia again. It’s amazing what a little school (football) money can do for a place.

I’m past all that now, somewhere in Giles County. If it weren’t so late at night, I’d see the mountains a bit more clearly. There’s this beautiful, yet mysterious quality to the slopes in the distance, often with fog blanketed overtop. They aren’t sharp like the Rockies out west, but rolling peaks, cascading into the distance. The stark mountain landscape is still there, though — they’re rounded, but still uncompromising. When you’re in Blacksburg — in the valley — you see the Appalachians on the horizon, but you’re never face-to-face with them. They really are different up close.

I wasn’t paying much attention, though — my mind was somewhere else — and at nighttime in the pouring rain, I had no idea where I was. I checked my clock. Midnight. It was time to be homeward bound.

I pulled over at a gas station and checked the map on my phone. I was at the West Virginia border — when you’re distracted, it’s easy to lose track of the miles. I went inside, used the bathroom and bought a pack of gum. It really is comforting, chewing gum. It distracts that part of your brain that wants to dwell on the negatives — the part that can spiral down into oblivion if you aren’t careful. My mom, a gum chewer herself, wonders if I have a problem — I go through at least a pack a week — but she takes solace that, “at least it’s not cigarettes!” In times when I’m not “totally there,” so to speak, I chew and chew, until the flavor, and — even if for just a little while — my problems, dissipate.

Wearily, I walked up to the register. Behind the counter stood a woman, smiling at me as I made my purchase. Normally, I feel uncomfortable in these situations — being in a small-town gas station. It’s not uncommon for me to get weird looks from the locals. “He looks different,” they must think to themselves. But in this place, I felt something else — I felt welcomed.

You’re probably wondering why I’m out here in the first place. Well, there’s a lot of backstory. The girl I liked at the time was in the passenger seat that night. Earlier in the evening, I had expressed my feelings for her — something I don’t do very often. When you’re prone to having your thoughts go down the rabbit hole, you have to be careful sometimes — to not let yourself be vulnerable. That night, I opened up and I got burned.

That’s where my mind was off to. I was shaken, flattened to the ground. It’s in these moments where we yearn for human connection the most — when we feel rejected. So, at that counter, I struck up a conversation.

“How’s the late-night shift?” I asked the cashier.

“It’ll be better in 10 minutes,” she said, “when I can go home!”

We shared a laugh and said goodbye. It was the nicest moment of a long evening. I walked back to the car feeling a little warmer in my heart.

I unwrapped my gum and chewed and chewed.

***

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Have you ever thought about those chance encounters we have from time to time? Those where two people cross paths — for an instant — and brighten each other’s day, before going their separate ways? I always wonder where they’re off to — they have independent lives as rich and as interesting as our own. Today, I wonder how many of those people are still alive and thriving. Maybe they think the same of me, but I suppose none of us will ever know for sure.

That encounter in the gas station stuck with me, though — I guess we’re most impressionable when we’re emotionally compromised. Perhaps it’s because I felt at home, in a place very far from home.

I’m a NOVA kid. That much shouldn’t surprise you — Virginia Tech is full of us, and the Collegiate Times staff is no exception. There was no culture shock when I arrived, it just felt like Patrick Star took all the NOVA kids and put us somewhere else.

For the first few months of freshman year, I was blissfully unaware — what a feeling that is. In anxious times, we often find comfort in consuming our surroundings with a filter — seeing what we want to see, hearing what we want to hear. What is life, if not an exercise in self-preservation?

Though, we all wake up eventually. Some of my friends, who were going to more urban schools, would always ask me about all the “weird” things I saw in the mountains. Even my dad, a Virginia Tech alum, used to tell me that, “once you leave Blacksburg, things get ‘interesting’ real quick.” Take Glade Road west for a while, and you’re in the country. Go north on 460 into Giles County, and the largest building you’ll see for miles is the defunct Glen Lyn Power Plant on the shores of the New River — a crown jewel of a bygone industrial era. All the money the university generates doesn’t go far outside the town limits — southwest Virginia largely stays the same. Wealth does tend to build upon itself, after all.

I often wonder, then, what Virginia Tech really represents. We’re living in a place that’s “in” southwest Virginia without being a part of it — close enough to the mountains to admire their beauty, but far enough to ignore the blight underneath. It’s an island, really, closed off to the region it calls home. I sometimes question how happy we should really be here, with our high-tech labs and our drone cages, with poverty a stone’s throw away.

***

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It’s easy to get to a dark place like that, sometimes — where everything just feels … wrong. Everything you have, everything you want, everything that makes you happy — it’s all undeserved. It’s built on the backs of — and at the expense of — the less fortunate. You feel bad about enjoying anything because someone else can’t.

However life isn’t a zero-sum game, and even for those more fortunate than others, happiness can still be in short supply. I remember earlier this year, I was having one of those nights — I can’t tell you what sparked it; sometimes those moments are just blurs, in retrospect. Maybe deep down, we just want to forget them. I suppose this time, I succeeded. I found myself staring at a wall, diving deeper and deeper down that treacherous rabbit hole. I was sad, lonely. But I remembered that I had a Korean pastry from back home saved in the fridge. The sweetness and bitterness of the mocha cream and fluffiness of the bread comforted me in that moment. My eyes even watered slightly. I was happy.

Looking through one lens, eating that pastry was a moment of excess, and, in a vacuum, I didn’t need it. But the moment I sank my teeth into the bread and cream, I felt whole again, in a moment when I felt empty. Everyone wants that feeling.

(Opinion) Highway 100

Highway 100 in Pulaski County, Virginia, Feb. 23, 2019.

I can’t shake the idea that our society has devalued happiness in favor of “correctness.” We’re no longer striving for goodness, but rather, “rightness.” But being right is not always the same as being good. We’re all caught up in words, symbols, meanings and representations, demonizing those who don’t see things the “right” way all the time.

In pastry terms, they’d rather quibble about the ingredients and manufacturing process than enjoy the texture and taste. I suppose that to some, overthinking is just … thinking.

Instead of making more pastries, our leaders are debating over cilantro. Many people like cilantro, but no one loves cilantro, and a lot of people think it tastes like soap. More people like cilantro than dislike it, but a vocal minority hate it, brewing up passion and polarization on both sides. But no matter what, to some, cilantro will always taste like soap and there’s nothing any cilantro advocates can do about it. Cilantro is today’s social discourse — a lot of debate, but no change, when people would rather be eating pastries, anyway.

***

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I don’t think we’re as far from consensus as we think, but we do live in a demonizing culture — an “othering” culture. Watch “Deliverance” one of these days. If you took that movie as gospel, you probably wouldn’t care much at all for the future of the Appalachian people.

But “Deliverance” wasn’t meant to be a cautionary tale. It was a portrayal of the dominion that urban areas have over their rural counterparts, and how when city folk overstep their bounds, the “othered” will always fight back. That interpretation made audiences uncomfortable, though — because it placed people like them in the victim’s position, at the mercy of those supposedly inferior to them.

In the fall of my first year at Tech, I took an eye-opening course: Intro to Appalachian Studies. It was a classroom environment unlike any I’d ever experienced. Out of the 30-ish person class, I was one of three non-white people — 0.5 of 2.5, if we want to get into semantics. But honestly, if you’re not fully white, no one will see you as such. My high school class was maybe 40 percent white. For my whole life, I’ve lived in the liberal D.C. suburbs, but in our Appalachian Studies class’ 2016 presidential “straw poll,” Gary Johnson took first place, with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton tied for second.

Ironically, our professor seemed very liberal, often putting him at odds with much of the class. We learned about Appalachian culture in the context of a class and labor struggle. We discussed the “othering” of the Appalachian people — how in Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign, Appalachian whites and minorities found common ground. We talked about the coal mining corporations’ control over the livelihoods of its workers and their families — and how the moment it became cheaper to mine elsewhere, the companies bolted, leaving behind a scarred landscape, ravaged environment and abject poverty. The tale of the Appalachian people was one of exploitation, of loss.

Depictions of them, as in “Deliverance,” albeit very misinterpreted, prevent the struggle of Appalachians from seeing the light of day. They’re “hillbillies.” They’re “backward.” They “can’t be helped.” 2016 didn’t help either. White, non-college-educated voters were Donald Trump’s strongest demographic in the election, and Appalachians — at least to coastal liberals — fit the stereotype. They “took the country back,” back from minorities, back from liberalism, back from progress. If urbanites once scoffed at Appalachian whites — writing them off — they’re now looking them directly in the eye, middle fingers in the air.

I remember back in October of that year, one of my friends came to my dorm room. He was sad — sad that he hadn’t been able to celebrate his first college birthday with anyone. If you read my high school memoir, it’s the same friend from the beginning of that story, who I couldn’t take to Pittsburgh (funny enough, as I’m writing this, I just got back from Pittsburgh) — I had no car at the time. But, by the close of that piece, my car was in Blacksburg, and when that friend came knocking at my door on his birthday night, it was only a few weeks later.

“Let’s go for a drive,” I said.

We took Prices Fork Road down to Highway 110, then Route 11 through Radford before merging onto I-81 South. I exited off at Highway 100 South toward Hillsville, and we drove until we nearly hit the North Carolina border. We talked about everything under the night sky — life, school, happiness, anxiety, depression, friends, family. Truthfully, we didn’t even know each other well before that night. We had gone to the same high school, but we were really just friends by association. At Virginia Tech, we had only talked because he was close with my roommate. But during that drive, I felt as close to him as I had with anyone. Being in a car with someone can do that.

I remember, as we drove down Highway 100, seeing hundreds of Trump/Pence signs lining the road. It was the first time that I truly came face-to-face with the Trump phenomenon. Being from NOVA, that always seemed distant — the possibility of a Trump win was as foreign as a Russian spy. But on that highway — driving through small towns, rows of Trump signs stretching as far as you could see — the idea that Virginia is a “blue” state is just as outlandish. It’s just extremely divided, with one group of people slightly outnumbering the other.

Everyone’s angry at each other nowadays. That’s what happens with today’s communication apparatus — everyone can be aware of one another, but no one has to see each other. We can create detailed, preconceived notions about people without much context. We can know everything about someone without ever understanding them. In other words, no one goes on long drives in the countryside together anymore — no one tries to find common ground.

We’re digging in, stuck in echo chambers on either side of the aisle. We’re self-affirming rather than questioning. Arguing more, discussing less. Every political and social fight today is just a proxy battle for the larger struggle: Left vs. right, urban vs. rural, rationalism vs. spiritualism, progressivism vs. traditionalism and, dare I say, “correct” vs. “incorrect.” But no one’s talking about happiness — the one thing that could bring us all together.

If we’re happy, there’s less reason to be angry. Hate, the most passionate type of anger — directed at others — often rises from insecurity, whether personal or financial. If we, as a society, focus on making people happy, on creating equal economic opportunity for everyone, on sweet, fluffy pastries rather than on all the divisive cilantro out there, then you’ll see a lot less anger in the world — a lot less hate.

I’m not sure there’s much else worth fighting for.

***

Epilogue

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In the first draft of this piece, each section was preceded by a lyric from two albums: “808s & Heartbreak” and “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” both by Kanye West. There have been many times in my life, especially over the last few years, where his words, his music, have saved me — saved me from a pretty dark place. As divisive as he’s become, none of that has changed. In times where I’ve felt empty, his yearning production on “808s” and the lavish sound of “MBDTF” have made me feel whole.

It wasn’t until I did some copyright research that I realized I could get the CT sued by keeping the lyrics in the piece. I suppose all good things do have a limit. I’d encourage you to listen to the albums, though — you could use your imagination and, perhaps, fill in the blanks.

After looking over all I’ve written, I’ve come to realize that I never told you much about the woman behind that counter. I suppose I just got lost in some thoughts. But she was, for lack of a better term, one of the aforementioned Appalachian whites. She wasn’t old, but she was weathered. As I walked up to the counter in that gas station, she looked tired from a lot of long days. I know she probably barely remembers our encounter, and that’s okay, but I do hope that in that moment, I brightened her evening as much as she brightened mine.

It just goes to show that, as different as we can be, we can all relate to one another on some level. At the end of a long day, we all just want to go home, eat something sweet and fall asleep with a nice, warm feeling.

In closing, I think of those mountains — they’re rounded, yet uncompromising — and I wonder if that’s what we should be. Rounded, yet uncompromising; resolute in our beliefs without being so rough around the edges — seeking true happiness, above all else. Maybe that’s the answer to it all — and to find it, you’d need to leave the coast, leave the city and look inward to places with higher elevations. The mountains really are different up close.

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