Sometimes I think it is funny where life has taken me. I am a New Englander by nature (visiting Maine and Massachusetts made that abundantly clear), and with that can come stereotypes. People think of Bostonians as cold, mean, taciturn. These are not complimentary terms.
New England may be getting a bad rap out there for poor attitude. However, people in Appalachia are constantly taunted with these negative stereotypes that are largely unfounded. Living in Kentucky, the local NPR station has a lot of diverse programming, including the show Inside Appalachia. Last night on my way home, I was listening to a program about outsider photographers and Appalachian stereotypes. This made me think about my own experiences in Appalachia.
In my sociology class this past term, we were charged with helping Elkhorn City, a small community in Eastern Kentucky. The City already has a master plan and a city plan, which are focused on utilizing the natural beauty of the Breaks Interstate Park and the Russell Fork River to rebuild Elkhorn City as an eco-tourism destination. We went to Elkhorn City to interview residents as part of the Elkhorn City River Oral History Collection and to work on additional projects chosen by the local leaders.
On a cold day in November, we traveled the three hours from Lexington to Elkhorn City. The main draw to Elkhorn City comes multiple times a year as kayakers and other outdoor enthusiasts descend upon the Russell Fork to enjoy Class III to VI rapids. Now, I’m not a kayaker, and I’m enough of a geek to not really be much of an outdoor enthusiast. However, the region even in November was beautiful enough to want to visit again during their in season.
Due to sickness, we missed a chance to see a play at the Artists Collaborative Theater, but did make it next door to Time Out Pizza. Now, I love theater. Back in Boston, I did a show a year with the MIT Gilbert & Sullivan Players. I really wish I could have seen a show. They look like they have diverse productions throughout the year. Even when theater isn’t in the cards, I love to eat. Time Out Pizza has everything you would expect from a small town pizza place, including enough seating to host a passel of kids from a school event. The pizza we enjoyed was a nice crispy thin crust with enough garlic in the sauce to feel like you were eating well. My friends and I also tried the mozzarella sticks (which are a bit harder to find in Lexington than in the Boston-area).
The best thing though was their milk shakes. I have a huge sweet tooth, so it was great to see such a huge selection of milk shakes. I got a peanut butter milk shake, which was a great salty-sweet combination (they also offered Reese’s milk shake, which was all sweet). The people who worked at Time Out Pizza were friendly, and helpful.
This was matched the following day by our trip to the Gold Ring Diner. Now, as a vegetarian it is always a bit more challenging to find things to eat, but Gold Ring had these wonderful fluffy pancakes that I enjoyed while my friends were eating biscuits and gravy (which was undoubtedly wonderful, but not vegetarian). Everyone we spoke to there was full of grace and humor, and were genuinely nice people. I also might have drank nearly an entire pot of coffee on my own.
Listening to the NPR article though, it made me think hard about our role as a class in this community. We are invited in by the town, but we as part of our course projects act as outsiders, writing consultation papers suggesting improvements or courses of action to take in order to help them see their vision. Are we doing these tasks from a place of respect and understanding, or are we like a foreigner trying to remake their community to match our own ideals? Thinking about my final paper, I would have to say it is a little bit of both.