It is a privilege to write these articles for the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition. The real joy of this position is learning about and taking to the people that make UACC work and the people who make up the Appalachian community in Cincinnati. For just this once, I wanted to take some space and reflect on the times, as it were, and part of my experience from the past several months.
When the demonstrations broke out in Cincinnati in reaction to the murder of George Floyd, much of what unfolded downtown took place right outside our bedroom window. We live in the downtown business district of Cincinnati, and when the rock throwing started, the rocks hit our building. My wife and I spent the entire night sitting up watching the crowds and the police run up and down our street, and we waited for the rocks to come through our windows.
All of this came after about two months of uncertainty and no small measure of fear that surrounded the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic. My place of employment shut down, and we were not sure what was going to happen to my wife’s place of employment. None of this is to suggest we were in any way special. These conditions are what everyone in America are looking at every day, and for many people, the situation is far more dire. After all, there are very real victims of police brutality, and families all over the country continue to grieve the loss of loved ones from coronavirus.
But we were afraid, and we had hit a limit after the first night of the protest. We got out of town, and we both thought of the same destination. We found a log cabin for rent in Eastern Ohio, in the Appalachian region of Ohio to be precise, and we headed out to Patriot, Ohio. Such an ironically named place, in light of the events of the moment…
Its about a four-hour drive out the Appalachian Highway to Patriot. It is a beautiful drive. I think it likely that most folks go this way to get to Athens for college or for the parties. We were headed for as close to the middle of nowhere as we could get. These days it takes at least forty minutes to get beyond the subdivisions and multi-lane boulevards that now stretch out from the city for many miles—well beyond the I-275 beltway. So much of what was rural when I was a kid is now cluttered with housing and consumer destinations. If the land is not covered with Walmart it is covered with sprawling office parks in which the land and all that grew has been removed and replaced with carefully landscaped pseudo-nature. Around everything is a parking lot that covers acres.
Once we got close, we pulled into a Piggly Wiggly to stock up on a few things. Neither of us drink alcohol so coffee was the main concern. The presence of a small grocery store was our first indication that we were far from the city. These kinds of places are increasingly difficult to find within any interstate beltway. This is to say that the small grocery store that only has basic groceries has been swallowed by the mega-stores that offer furniture, jewelry, clothing, fireworks, and include a restaurant and bar that features craft beer and fine wines.
Patriot is a small farming town not far from the border of Ohio and West Virginia. You can look up the details online, but what was significant to us was that nothing was going on in Patriot but trees, birds, and farms. Our cabin was on one of those rural roads that look like a one-lane road to a city boy like me but somehow not only accommodate two lanes, but two lanes that are frequently traveled by full-sized pickup trucks and tractors. The cabin was at the bottom of a tree-covered hill with a barn on one side. Just in front of the barn was a small pen filled with chickens, including a rooster who made himself known frequently during our stay. Our hosts welcomed us, showed us around, and gave us a tray of fresh-baked cinnamon roles (I have a bad sweet tooth. These got eaten).
The people that owned the farm and rented their cabin as an Airbnb mowed trails through their land for guests. Our time in Patriot was spent walking the trails that wound up into the hills and woods that surrounded the farm. We had no internet connection and no television. Just woods and fields (and quite a few ticks). One of the trails took us to a pond. It was still early Spring, and the peepers were vocal. We had found a refuge in the pillow of rural Appalachian Ohio that we needed.
While I admit that I idealize rural life, I am aware that it is an extremely difficult life. I recall when I lived in the southern Adirondacks, the hot-button issue of the time was a push to save the family farm from a huge paper company that was buying up farms to turn them into a landfill. A letter appeared in the Albany Times Union one day from a local farmer who detailed the grueling life of a small farmer. After providing a detailed list of the profound difficulties of small farming life, he asked what others would do if a huge corporation offered them a few million bucks for their farm. It is a serious question.
In addition to the rural ideal that we had the privilege to enjoy, there was much more to Eastern Ohio that became apparent to me. I mentioned the small Piggly Wiggly for a reason, because in all directions, spreading all over these rural counties (and rural counties all over the country), something else is happening. Every few miles we passed new housing subdivisions sticking up in the middle of former farmland. Not far from any of these subdivisions there is a new strip of four-lane road built specifically to accommodate the new Walmart, Target, AutoZone, Wendy’s, etc. The suburbanization of America is swallowing parts of Appalachia in the same way it is swallowing the rest of the country. The choice between the hard life of an Appalachian dirt farmer and migrating to a city is being replaced with the choice to stay where you are, get a job with something that supports consumerism, and go up to your ears in debt for a nice two-bedroom ranch-style home in a brand new subdivision. The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition has always been deeply committed to the issues that face displaced Appalachian people. It seems that now the problem of displacement is happening right under our feet.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.