The Climb from Salt Lick: Appalachian Readings

As part of my 2018 resolution of reading one Appalachian book a month, I just finished The Climb from Salt Lick: A Memoir of Appalachia, by Nancy L. Abrams. This is another beautiful book from my friends at WVU Press, which has just been on fire lately. (I started this journey with another of their titles: On Homesickness, by Jesse Donaldson.)

My MFA classmate Sarah Beth Childers said it best in her blurb:

“This memoir is a love story—for a West Virginia man, for a West Virginia journalism career, and ultimately, for the state itself. Abrams’s palpable love for West Virginia allows her to combine the wonder of an intelligent, respectful outsider with the passion of an Appalachian native.”

For many of the books I’ve read so far this year, the theme of outsider versus insider emerged (the worst of which is still Hillbilly Elegy). Abrams redefines that category. When she starts the memoir, she is very much an outsider, a young college student with no real knowledge of the Appalachian region, its history, or its people. And yet, when she arrived to work as a photography intern at the Preston County News for a summer, she recognized the beautiful complexity that is Appalachia. Rather than coming in to fix the town or educate its people about how they were living life wrong, as many outsiders in the history of the region have been wont to do, she was in awe. In fact, reading this memoir allowed me to fall in love with Appalachia all over again, through the eyes of a newcomer.

When her summer internship ended, she penned this goodbye in the newspaper: “I can’t imagine what I’m going to do back in Missouri when I look out a window and don’t see a mountain” (38). She continues, writing,

“What I didn’t say, what I didn’t know how to say, was how the beauty of those mountains affected me. The green hills, undulating forests, and the music of the water as it tumbled over rocks felt like nourishment.” (38)

She soon chose to return to West Virginia, to the small town of Terra Alta, to begin her adult life. In a telling scene, she brought other newcomers out to the land she lived on, and became disappointed in them when they didn’t recognize the beauty of the mountains around them:

“I had come to understand that the mountains nurtured me. I waited for exclamations from my guests. Nothing. . . . These brothers couldn’t appreciate the landscape I loved, couldn’t understand why I had chosen to live here.” (74)

She never does say straight out what it was that brought her back, other than the land itself, noting, “During my stay in Kansas City, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I no longer belonged in the Midwest” (40). She had been claimed by Appalachia, and the majority of her chapters are composed of vignettes of her experiences as a photographer and journalist first in Terra Alta and then in Morgantown. She makes friends, marries, and starts a family, all while enjoying her career as a “big fish in a small pond,” as she is fond of saying (201). Each little story is like a photograph that captures the emotions of a moment in time. And again refuting the stereotypes of outsiders, especially photographers, she was not interested in poverty porn. Instead, her narrative captures the magic of snow rollers, the struggle of the board of education, the mystery of the Mullenax murder, the whitewashed utopian experiment of Arthurdale, the delicious stench of ramp festivals, and more. In each story, she brings the characters and the landscape to life. She shares her world with the reader as the gift it is.

I couldn’t help but think of my parents while reading, as they are around her age and were experiencing their own adventures in rural homesteading in East Tennessee as she learned the curves of West Virginia. Abrams’s tales of hippie friends, of meeting folks working all aspects of coal (my mom does drafting for coal companies), and of learning to live with few amenities meant I could easily picture Mom and Dad in her world.

My parents, circa 1979. Unicoi County, TN.

I also enjoyed reading about the area of West Virginia I spent three years in while earning my graduate degree at West Virginia University. I wish I had explored the road less traveled more often during my sojourn there.

Most of all, however, I identified with her need to record, to capture. She holds each memory up to the light, as if it is a delicate negative, and allows the reader to step into the frame, remembering with her. More and more, I realize that is my reason for both writing and my interest in photography. I want to be able to take these moments out later and share them.

When her marriage eventually crumbles, Abrams bravely moves herself and her two little boys out, but never considers leaving her community. Despite the trials of a modest income, leaving West Virginia was never an option. West Virginia was more than home; she had finally found a place she belonged.

Just as Sarah Beth notes, The Climb from Salt Lick really is a love story, and her beloved is West Virginia.

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