This is the last part of our Struggle to Stay series, and the final chapter of Derek Akal’s Struggle to Stay. Derek, 22, is from a coal-camp town called Lynch, in Harlan County, Kentucky. If you haven’t caught his earlier stories, here’s a quick recap: Derek says he wants to leave eastern Kentucky to find work. A few years ago, he moved away on a college football scholarship, but then a neck injury led him to move back home.
We learned that a combination of dreams, booms, busts, and racist violence have led Derek’s ancestors and many members of Lynch’s African-American community to move away, generation after generation.
The last time we heard from Derek, he was planning to move to California.
But to do that, he needs to save up enough money.
Many Jobs in California
Derek first got the idea to move out west when he heard that there were jobs working on oil rigs.
“The oil industry is like the coal mines down here, but the only thing that’s different is the oil rigs are going crazy,” Derek said.
Derek visited California over New Years, and once he got there, he learned about other jobs he could get in the energy industry, like working to produce solar and wind energy.
He also learned about job opportunities in the world of fashion.
“I can get down with a modeling job down there, and make as much money as a coal miner easily,” Derek said.
Few Jobs in Harlan County
I met up with Derek in January, soon after he came back from California. I went to the house he was living in with his mom, grandma, and little brother. Derek told me that visiting California had made him even more committed to finding a way to move there.
“I’m gonna be leaving in the summer, before June 12th,,” Derek said. “All I gotta do is just get some money, get a plane ticket, then I’m already there.”
But January turned into March. Then June came and went. The only reliable income Derek could find came with his uncle’s pair of hair clippers.
But it wasn’t making him the money he needed to buy a car and move across the country.
California Dreams Postponed
“Today would be the day that I’d be going to California,” Derek said in late summer.
Derek had just done another big round of job applications, and even got a new buzzcut, in hopes that it would help him get hired. He had been growing his hair out for months, and he loved the towering curls that used to rise off the top of his head. At one point in our conversation, Derek happened to look at a picture of himself from before he cut off his hair. He told me that just looking at it made him sad.
“I’m telling you, every time, I just miss my hair even more. I had to cut it off for the job search cause everybody kept saying, ‘Oh man, your hair’s in the way.’ ”
Even with short hair, Derek still couldn’t find any steady work. But he stayed hopeful, and he made the most of a beautiful summer. He wasn’t making much money, but he had time to spend with his family, and to enjoy the natural beauty of Harlan County.
“I’ve literally been all over these mountains -- fishing, snake hunting. That’s really where I spend most of my time at, is on Black Mountain.”
Thoughts on the Mountaintop
The top of Black Mountain, just above Lynch, is the highest point in Kentucky. The next time I visited Derek, that’s where we went.
You can see pretty far into Virginia from the overlook, and most of the view is forested ridgelines, but there’s one big area that dominates the view, and looks more like a moonscape.
It’s a mountaintop removal site.
This overlook is one of Derek’s favorite spots, and he doesn’t mind seeing the mine.
“Looking over where that strip mine is at, even though they killed that mountain, it’s still beautiful to me.”
For Derek, part of the beauty is in the possibility he sees in the big flat area that coal mining left behind.
“If they put some wind fields up in these mountains, I’m telling you, then, I think business would be booming. Literally just cover that up, right there with wind or solar.”
But that’s not what’s happening.
“All the kids that I grew up with you know, we all leaving because there’s no jobs here. But, without coal, you know the town is just going to be a ghost town.”
Change of Plans
Derek and I went to the top of Black Mountain in July 2017, and by that point, Derek had given up on finding a job in Harlan County. He’d moved on to another backup plan.
“Around here, there’s just nothing here, so I’m just gonna pack up and go to Georgia.”
Derek has family and friends who’ve moved from Lynch to the Atlanta area. He has an Aunt who offered to let him stay at her house, and help him get a job nearby, so that he could save the money he needs to move to California.
I could hear a tinge of sadness in Derek’s voice when he reflected on what it would mean to leave. “This week will be my last week down here,” Derek said, “but I’m gonna be visiting like crazy though, cause I’m a really big momma’s and grandma’s boy, and I love my brother to death so I can’t leave him.”
The next few months Derek kept busy in Atlanta — working and saving money. I caught up with him by phone in early November, about 10 months after he started trying to save up enough money to move out West.
After we said hello, I asked Derek how he was doing.
“It’s been crazy, [I] can tell you that,” Derek said.
He’s been in Georgia for about two months. He’s been living outside Atlanta with his aunt, working for a power company, and hanging out with Vince, the friend he’s planning to move to California with.
Derek tells me, things had been going pretty smoothly until this last week. That’s when he learned that his boss had been pocketing some of the money he was supposed to have gotten. He quit that job, so he’s currently unemployed, but he says he’s already got leads for a new job. And he’s still planning to move to California.
“Oh yeah, most definitely, I’m gonna be leaving soon, probably like in January or February. What I’m basically doing is working to get my ticket and everything, and to get a car. Even though my boss owes me money, which I’m gonna get, I’ve been saving up quite a bit of money, so I’m doing good with that.”
Reflecting on The Struggle to Stay
Derek tells me, the response he’s gotten from people hearing his story has also helped him to feel good about how things are going.
“There’s been a lot of people that messaged me and talk about how much I inspired them. It’s people that I don’t even know, and they’re telling me about their situations and stuff like that, what they want to do. It’s like the people that are scared to do something message me, who are scared to go out their comfort zones.”
“I just tell them to never give up,” Derek said. “Never give up on your dreams, cause I’m still on my dreams, and I’m not far from them. You just got to have the patience to chase your dreams. Because it’s not always gonna come to you just so quick. And like I say, always have a couple plans with you, because there’s always going to be some situations that’s going to switch up your dreams.”
Derek Akal’s Struggle to Stay was produced by Benny Becker, from WMMT in Whitesburg, Kentucky; and the Ohio Valley ReSource. The ReSource is made possible with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Music in the audio version of this story was provided by James and Emma Meadows, and Marisa Anderson. Click here to listen to all 26 stories from our website.