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.
In 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.”