We’re just back from a week in Hot Springs, North Carolina. It took ten hours going and twelve coming back, most of it through some of the loveliest country imaginable, down through the Shenandoah Valley and into the Appalachians. Hot Springs is in the mountains at the very western tip of North Carolina where Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina come together. The big attraction down there is Asheville. We had been there about ten years ago and Asheville remains a very hip town; good restaurants, arts, crafts, lots of music, coffee shops, book and record stores, a cool place.
Hot Springs, where we stayed is about thirty-five miles northwest of Asheville, deep in the mountains, absolutely beautiful country, but very much a part of a still depressed Appalachia. With a population of just over six hundred, Hot Springs has escaped, though not completely, some of the visible poverty from squalor of the “hollers,” if only because of its proximity to the Appalachian Trail. The trail comes down into town to cross the French Broad River on the bridge at Hot Springs, and then climbs back up into the woods on the other side of the river.
We were vacationing in the North Carolina mountains in the first place was because my niece’s husband knew somebody who knew somebody who had a house to rent, an Octagon House. Octagon Houses were a sort of nineteenth-century architectural fad, one whose idea never really arrived. There are just a few surviving. The one we were in was built in 1857 and was eccentric in the extreme, just the right touch for our stay.
The town of Hot Springs itself, about a block and half of ramshackle sprawl, includes a couple of decent restaurants, a whitewater rafting outfitter and well-equipped store filled with hiking equipment and supplies. There is one very upscale bed and breakfast and spa a block in from the main street. What the presence of the Trail does for the town is that it creates an interesting mix of locals and hikers, and those who serve the hikers. Think of a hardcore country music audience mixed in with a Dead show crowd. It’s a jarring combination of rural hardscrabble caricatures with dreadlocked through-hikers. At breakfast one morning in the local diner, the smoking section had enough toothless, jug-eared old locals to conjure up the Walker Evans Depression photos, while the rest of the place was filled with bearded, tattooed young guys in tie-dyes and technical gear. Everybody seemed to get along. If you said hello to people in either group, you usually got a smile and a response.
The presence of the hikers is everywhere. At first, I thought the empty parking lot of the dumpy motel meant no guests, but going past just after dark, every window was lit. Hikers come out of the mountains after however many days, looking for a shower, a bed and some restaurant meals before getting back on the trail. I chatted with one kid who looked about twenty. He was coming off at Hot Springs after sixteen days on the trial, alone. It was his first time doing extended hiking and I asked him if things got a bit weird after a few days alone in the woods. He grinned and said, “you bet.”
Most of the properties in the town and along the winding switchback roads leading in and out of town are marked by run-down trailer homes, usually surrounded by lots of old cars and pickup trucks. One place I walked past all week defined hard-core Appalachian shack squalor. It looked like nobody in three or four generations had ever thrown anything away, including empty stacks of old twelve-pack cartons lying everywhere. The drive from and to the Interstate is gorgeous in terms of scenery, but heavy on collapsing shacks, trailers, though most do have satellite dishes, and rusting old cars.
It would seem that the problems of Appalachia are rooted in an obvious truth: there are just not enough jobs for far too many of the people still living there. It also seems that if you are there and fortunate enough to land a paying job, life can be quite good. Even the clerks in the Dollar General store had that gloss of prosperous respectability that most of their customers seemed to lack. However, if you are on the outside looking in, there’s not much left but a subsistence lifestyle supplemented by state and federal programs. The storefront offices of social service agencies appear to be the dominant business and administrative activities in many of the communities we drove past. If there seems little evidence of the current economic downturn, it could be because Appalachia is a region that has been pretty consistently bypassed by the good times. And, the region’s history of moon-shining adds credence to rumors of a thriving cultivation of backwoods weed.
One evening, we attended a bluegrass jam in an adjacent town, the county seat. Aside from the coffee shop where the jam was held, another restaurant and the county court house, most of the commercial buildings on both sides of the main street were empty. I’m sure that the town of Hot Springs, where we were staying, would be a ghost town if it weren’t for the Appalachian Trail traffic bringing in the outside money it does.
Another night, we drove close-in to Asheville where a friend’s band was playing old-time acoustic swing from the 20s and 30s; two guitars, a jazz banjo and a bass. The proximity to Asheville assured that the town was quite up-to-date, but a drive of just a few miles would put you back among the old trailers in the left-behind hollows.
Back up here, the cities isolate the poor and render them almost invisible. In the Appalachian back country, the reality of poverty is inescapable, third-world hardscrabble in such a beautiful place.