Dear Appalachia: Our Love is Complicated


Today we’re talking about love – but wait, it’s not what you think. This episode is kind of one big love letter to Appalachia. We’re showing off some of that Appalachian pride by talking about our complicated love for this place.

Love Letters from Thomas

Valentine’s day is not a favorite holiday for all people- especially not people who aren’t in a romantic relationship. But what about a bundle of unexpected letters, written by strangers from a little town far away? Well a town in West Virginia is about to receive about 700 love letters. Roxy Todd reports that these letters express well wishes– even for those who claim to be left out of Valentine’s Day.

Unexpected Love for Winter

Now another unexpected love … winter. Not everyone is cut out for the deep freeze. Former Allegheny Front intern Charlene Ward counted herself as one such person. That is until an unexpected winter camping trip she had to attend as part of a student environmental group. She’s a student at Penn State now but back then, she was still in high school. Here’s her account of how winter and nature won her over … at least a little. 


Students on an SCA winter camping trip warm up by the fire. Photo: Charlene Ward

Preston County Winter

So what’s one of the worst things about winter? The darkness? The cold? How about traveling in the cold– especially in remote, high-altitude regions. Of course, there is something oddly charming about how helpful strangers seem to appear when you need it most. Glynis Board had a moment like that when she went to Preston County West Virginia recently.


Racehorse Zenyatta winning the 2009 Lady’s Secret Stakes at Santa Anita Park. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Dear Zenyatta

Next, here’s an audio love letter to a horse– a retired race horse who is sometimes referred to as the Queen of Racing. Storyteller Julie Shapiro recounts the incredible racing history of the charismatic, record-breaking mare named Zenyatta.

Dear Z” originally aired in  the podcast Re:sound #138 – The Running Show. Shapiro wrote that essay shortly after Zenyatta retired from horse racing in 2010. Zenyatta now lives on a farm in Versailles, KY. In the last few years she has given birth to three coals.


A new pair of Bald Eagles have taken up house in Streaky and Whitey’s old nest. They’ve been named Brooks and Sandy.

Eagles and Hawks Have Love Stories Too

Humans of course aren’t the only animals who have long-term monogamous relationships. Eagles do, too! Roxy Todd visited the Three Rivers Avian Center this week. There she talked with Ron and Wendy Perrone, who have directed the Center for 24 years, almost as long as the 28 years they’ve been married.

Ron says humans aren’t the only ones who form powerful, long-term bonds with their mates. Surrounded by rehabilitating raptors, he and Wendy told Roxy the story  a couple of “married” eagles who made the New River Gorge their home.


Wendy Perrone holds an American Kestral named Gimli. Photo courtesy of the Three Rivers Avian Center.

What’s in a Name?

This week for What’s in a Name, we’re stepping outside of Appalachia a bit– to Sweet Lips, Tennessee. Did it get its name for a hot little number at a kissing booth? To help us this week, we hear from lifetime area resident Nancy Canada, the Director at the Chester County Public Library.

Young Musicians Who Fell in Love with Old Time Music

Now we’ve got a story about two young musicians who fell in love with an old-style of ballad singing and storytelling- and formed a lasting friendship around that music. Elizabeth LaPrelle and Anna Roberts-Gevalt became friends when Elizabeth’s car broke down in town where Anna lived. They shared songs and harmonized. And then came Anna’s crankies: cloth and cut-paper scrolls depicting scenes from ballads.

Reporter Laura Candler produced this story about Anna and Elizabeth’s music, and their friendship that was formed around it.

Candler’s story originally aired on WUNC in 2013. Now, Anna and Elizabeth have a new album that will be released on March 17th on Free Dirt Records. Anna has also since moved to Baltimore. They’ll be performing a show in Lewisburg, West Virginia in late March.

Love Letters to Appalachia

Rance Garrison grew up in Lee County, Virginia. He’s currently an AmeriCorps VISTA at WMMT in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Rance also works to help organize The STAY Project (Stay Together Appalachian Youth). Here’s his love letter for Appalachia, called “Home”:

For better or for worse, through sickness and in health, for richer or poorer. Committing to a place and a community is a lot like committing to a marriage. It takes work. It takes willpower. It takes dedication. But above all, it takes love. As a relatively newly-and-happily married man , I can tell you first hand that love is the not-so-secret ingredient in any relationship. The struggles of day-to-day life, the bouts with sickness, the financial stress that most newlyweds face, it can all be conquered by love and love is ultimately what has kept my wife and I going strong for six years now as a couple and for eight months as a married couple.

I’m reluctant to compare living in Appalachia, or anywhere else for that matter, to something as sacred as marriage; however, when I really break it down and examine marriage as the beginning point of many families including my own; when I trace my own family line back through over a century of people who lived, and died, in these ruggedly beautiful mountains; a line that includes farmers and prison guards and automobile mechanics and coal miners and storekeepers and mothers and fathers and husbands and wives, I can see where you definitely draw the similarities.

As I approach my twenty-ninth year on this planet, family is becoming more important to me than ever before. Having all ready lost most of my grandparents, I know that I will not have the wisdom of older generations to draw on forever, and there will come a time in the near future when I will have children of my own to guide and to mold to the best of my ability. And there will come a time, hopefully several decades down the line, when my own life will draw to a close and it will be time for me to exit the stage, hopefully with grace and dignity, having left things in my community and in my world at least a little better than they were when I got here and having left something of value for the generations to come.

My family is here, and that is why when I think of Appalachia in general and southwestern Virginia in particular, I can only think of home. This place isn’t perfect. Its economic struggles have been well-documented and its spiritual ones have been as well. But show me a perfect city. Show me a perfect community. Show me a perfect family, or a perfect marriage, or a perfect person. And I will show you a carefully crafted facade. Perfection, at least in this realm, does not exist and never will. 

But Love does.   And home is wherever love is.  

And for better or worse, I’m home. Till death do us part. – This essay is by Rance Garrison, AmeriCorps VISTA with WMMT, and volunteer with the STAY Project.

Willa Johnson is another volunteer for the STAY project. She is an East Kentucky native currently working as an  Appalachian Transition Fellow in North Carolina. She sent us this essay for Valentine’s Day, called “Love Story for the Mountains”:

Appalachian love stories exist beyond people; sometimes our love stories are between the land and us. Heaven knows staying in our communities isn’t an easy path to take. For me it’s a long twisted trail up the mountain behind my Papaw Hillard’s house. My path starts where the gravel ends on the hillside, and the smell of rotten apples fallen from the trees attracts bees in August.

There sits a cemetery, its small and hard to get to when your purpose is laying someone in their final resting place. I have stood here several times in my life. I remember when there was just one headstone here. One solitaire stone for a man I never knew. Then one warm October day just past my 9th Birthday my Great Granny Hat took her place next to that headstone. Years have passed and more headstones have appeared.

Tears have been shed many times there on that hillside over looking the plots of land that I spent my childhood playing hide and seek with cousins, the faint smell of Sunday cook outs still roams through the air even though the practice was abandoned years ago. Laughter has been shared here too, after all this was also prime sleigh riding land, one winter as a teenager a surprise snow storm had hit and we didn’t have a sleigh in site. We piled on layers of clothes and visited Papaw for trash bags from under his kitchen sink. Dollar store trash bags, a foot of snow and us girls made memories that we draw on every winter to cheer each other up.

The garden is adjacent to this cemetery, when I was little a possum was caught in a live trap there. I wasted hours one day admiring his frozen stance in the cages as he stood on his hind feet with one hand clasping the top of the cage, staring without blinking, so still that one little trickle of drool hung from his gaping mouth at the end of his tongue. Every year there’s a count of how many copperheads are killed in that garden.

Past the cemetery is the tree line and the mountain trail. When I was a little girl I would walk the trails with my dad as he hunted. He would take his 12 gage and I had my wooden toy rifle. Once we had barely cleared the tree line when a bee stung me through my white bobby sock and got stuck in the material so my dad pulled it out with his bare hands also getting stung. We turned around and made our way back down the hillside to our house, so that mom could take care of my sting and give my dad a shot with the EpiPen, because he was allergic. These hunting trips were pretty unfruitful in terms of killing, but full of memories about how to swing from a grapevine.

In my twenties my Papaw called to tell me he had hiked that mountainside after hearing something in the middle of the night, he found a giant boulder there that landed not too far from a near by mining company who had blasted the mountain. When I went with a camera to take pictures the next day he told me he suspected it was gone, he had heard machinery working in the night. Sure enough his property had been trespassed and the boulder was gone, but Papaw said to leave it alone, he was too old to fight about it.

That mountainside was the constant in my childhood. It provided me with scenes for my imagination to run wild, fresh water that could be piped to our house when the tank in our city water system went dry for two months, a place to grieve and honor family members and a place to see growth every spring and summer when my papaw’s garden began to bloom. I sometime’s don’t credit that mountain enough, but it was character in my life as much as any human has been. That mountain it what keeps calling me back.– This essay is by Willa Johnson, Appalachian Transition Fellow with The Highlander Center and Opportunity Threads and the Carolina Textile District.


Releasing a young broad winged hawk back into the wild after he was rehabilitated. Courtesy of Three Rivers Avian Center

Music in this episode of Inside Appalachia was provided by Walt Koken, John Wyatt, Andrea Tomasi, Jake Schepps, the Glennville State Bluegrass Band and Andy Agnew Jr.

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