Losing America

Mountain Lake in Southwestern Virginia substituted for the Catskills in the Patrick Swayze movie, Dirty Dancing, in 1987 but the lake today is little more than a pond, the victim of a draining leak and prolonged dry conditions that leaves the waterline far from the dock and gazebo at the lake’s hotel.

“Kinda like America,” said Ezra Lukins, a West Virginian visiting the lodge on Sunday. “It sure ain’t what it used to be.”

When time and weather permits, I climb aboard my Harley Super Glide to tour the back roads of Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and other Southeastern states, looking for the America that was.

What I usually find is the America that is — empty storefronts, rusting factories and abandoned homes and farms.

100609whitesulphursprings2.jpgIn White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, I shared a mostly-vacant Main Street (right) with a scarecrow in place for Halloween. Empty storefronts lined both sides of the street at this home of the fabled Greenbrier resort, placed in bankruptcy by CSX Railroad to a West Virginia developer who hopes to return the hotel to glory by building a casino.

In Greenbrier County, where churches outnumber the remaining businesses, gambling ranks up there with dancing with the devil and the locals aren’t sure sin belongs on the road to financial salvation.

“Won’t do us much good here,” says Rose Langley as she puts $10 worth of gas into an old Ford wagon at the Exxon Station on Main Street.

In Bassett, a hub of Virginia’s once-thriving furniture industry, shells of empty buildings resemble a bombed out city from war. Empty, decaying furniture factories line the streets of nearby Martinsville. Downtown, a dog digs for food in an overturned trash can.

“All we got left here are the races,” says John Abbot, a lifelong Martinsville resident who retired from Hooker Furniture before it closed.

“The races” are two NASCAR Sprint Cup races a year at the local speedway, a half-mile track built in the early days of stock car racing and one that some fear will soon be part of the past, not the future, of the racing series.

“We lose the races we got nothing left,” Abbot says.

While TV talking heads discuss the problems of Wall Street and mega-banks, small town America suffers as much — if not more — than the rest of the country. In many rural areas, people barely get by in the best of times.

Small towns and counties end up with the dredges of federal aid and state assistance and many find themselves overwhelmed by the rapidly-multiplying request for food stamps and welfare.

Tour the back roads of America and you find auction signs staked out in front of family farms and small lots with single-wide trailers. Cash-strapped families set up yard sales not only to get rid of junk but also to raise cash to pay the mortgage and utility bills.

In Wilkesboro, North Carolina, once a major part of that state’s textile industry, Lyle Appleton works three part-time jobs. His wife has two. They lost the family farm two years ago and now live in a single-wide with four kids on a friend’s land. His 1981 Ford pickup needs tires but groceries and school books for the kids come first.

“My grandma used to talk about life in the depression,” Appleton says. “Now I know what she faced.”

The Appletons don’t have health insurance. Neither does John Abbot. They put off routine checkups and needed dental work because they can’t afford it. Studies say more than half the families in rural counties lack insurance.

“Just gotta stay healthy,” says Arlie Lawson as she buys cigarettes at a store in the White Top Mountain community in Virginia.

On U.S. 11 outside of Chilhowie, Virginia, Carl Brooks looks over a set of dishes at a yard sale and tries to haggle the price down to $10 for the plates and cups. The owner won’t go below $15.

“More than I can afford,” says Brooks.

At the annual Chilhowie Apple Festival, a woman who says she doesn’t want to give her name serves funnel cake and says the crowd is down this year.

“People can’t afford the gas to drive here and if they make it here they don’t have any money to spend,” she says. “Times is hard and they ain’t about to get better.”

Ask who’s responsible for the troubles that cripple America today and you get a variety of answers. Some blame Obama and the Democrats. Others lay the fault with Bush and the Republicans. Others say it’s the banks. Still others blame the system.

“Can’t rightly say who brought America down,” says Gene Vest of Wise County, Virginia. “Maybe it’s all of ’em or maybe it’s all of us. All I know is that it ain’t what it used to be. I sure miss the old days.”

Talking about the old days has long been an American pastime but what is missing in discussions nowadays is any optimism about the future. Gone is a feeling that things will improve. Missing is a hope for better days.

“My granddaddy fought in World War II,” says Sam Beale of Franklin, Tennessee. “My daddy served in Korea and I spent two tours in Vietnam. My son is in Afghanistan. I have no idea what he’s fighting for or if America is worth fighting for now. The America we knew is gone.”


  1. DejaVuAllOver


    d.) aids or herpes from the usual whoring around with crack-addict prostitutes…. (we have some of the best crank labs in the WORLD, I’m told….)

    e.) shot / stabbed in bars…. (ones I frequently play piano in, I might add….)

    Anyway, I could go on, but the point I’m trying to make is that the wild, wild West hasn’t completely died…. just a lotta brain cells of it’s inhabitants!

    Nice little slice of Americana, Doug…. here’s my two bucks (as in dollars, not deer!)

    Dave Ellis

  2. Lcoast

    Nothing new, it’s just reaching an intolerable pain point. If you were to drive through any rural state you’d see the same things, deserted buildings, dispirited people and crippled economies, lots of crystal meth heads. As much as this is the function of the rigged game Reagan introduced 30 years ago, we have no one else to blame but ourselves. We’ve forgotten everything–how to work, how to be decent, how to take control over our lives, how to have a conversation without invective, how to sacrifice for our neighbors and the common good. All that is now called “weak” at best and socialism, at worst. We’ve traded everything right and good away for a good set of abs and a shot at American Idol. The wake-up call happened 8 years ago and no one heard it.

  3. Carl Nemo

    Thanks Griff for what could be described as Amerika’s “root canal” procedure without anesthesia… :-s

    Carl Nemo **==

  4. griff

    Welcome to post-industrial Amerika. Ain’t it pretty?
    Had enough of the golden age of globalism yet?

    By the way, our latest Nobel Peace Prize winner just authorized 15,000 new troops to Afghanistan. Way to go Peacemaker!

  5. Warren

    Did you forget to take your meds again last night?

    The America that a previous generation knew has always been different from the one the next generation knows. For better or worse in some ways and others. The thing that’s constant is change.

    Your depressed emotional state seems to hang on economic conditions. America’s ‘comparative advantage’ in manufacturing and then in high-tech have disapeared and those activities have moved on to China and India. But America has other comparative advantages that will make their way to the forefront. In an ever more populous world the U.S. has HUGE advantages in agriculture and, believe it or not, energy. Look for the new America to be grocer to the world, self-powered with excess energy to sell. It’ll take some more years of transition, but just watch. And invest if possible.


  6. AustinRanter

    The casualities of progress, life, death, and war is everywhere. I’ve lived in a rural area for over 20 years. I’m watching it being eaten alive…right before my eyes.

    Developers from Austin have moved in just a few miles from my country sancturay…and is building for reasons unknown to me as in the area there is an extreme overbuild in commercial and residential structures.

    Lake, streams, rivers…so on…disappearing all around the Hill Country areas.

    The cattle ranchers and farmers are struggling.

    The little tourist shops at my nearest town are closing at rapid pace.

    Kids that I’ve watch growing up in the nearby town that holds only one high school, Jr. high school, etc, grocery store, gas stations, and few cafes…a number of them now serve in Iraq and Afhganistan. I don’t know what the loss and casualty numbers are, but within a 25 mile radius…I’d say the losses are porortionate to other areas in the nation.

    And the beat goes on.

  7. woody188

    Appliance Park in Louisville, KY had some 80-90 machinist jobs that start at $13 per hour, down from $17 per hour in union concessions for new hires making washing machines. Over 10,000 people applied for those jobs.

    Areas of Detroit, MI look like a war zone complete with razor wire and razed buildings. Homes can be had for $1,000 if you are willing to live in a hell hole. Many thousands showed up for 5,000 city assistance applications and it got violent because they didn’t have enough.

    The worst is yet to come. By 2012, we’ll be begging for mercy. But that is the whole idea.

    Our Liberties We Prize and Our Rights We Will Maintain

  8. Sandra Price

    Lcoast. I was growling at Issodhos who loves to knock my glorious golden state of California. I’m one of those horrors who loves diversity.

  9. John1172002

    “S’prize,s’prize,sp’rize!” What else would anyone expect from the big companies who really run America? And don’t give a s–t if you starve to death? Don’t believe me? Look at this, then think again! It does have some of “those nasty words”, so don’t look if you are easily offended or don’t want to know the truth.


    And watch the companion video (link at the end of the video above). It’s the same routine, but with overlays showing some of those who actually are running America. And why we are f–ked.


  10. DejaVuAllOver

    As a transplanted Easterner who keeps getting MORE lost, you’re always welcome to come and cruise Montana, Doug. It’s pretty as all git out, but be careful….. we always have an bunch of casualties every year from people getting:

    a.) Munched by Grizzly bears. (2-3 per year sometimes)
    b.) Driving their boats (drunk) into the shore at 45 mph (no joke… the guy just got three felony convictions….)
    c.) Falling into frozen lakes (happened to a guy while STILL trapped INSIDE THE PICKUP TRUCK!… down the street from me…)
    d.) Riding their bicycles at night and falling to their death into a ravine in Glacier Nat’l. Park (happened to a friend of mine…)


  1. […] Some of Doug’s titles are such downers that you can’t bring yourself to read the column, “Losing America” for example. Trust me. I read it and now I have all I can do to keep from having a second […]