Fourth of July

The idea for a project came to me a couple of days, or even just the day before the Fourth of July. As photography projects go, the idea was a simple one. I’d simply drive a predetermined route through America, on the Fourth, and document the state of our country on that day.
The idea came to me, I suppose because I was already scheduled to be on the road on the Fourth. Circumstances dictated that there was only one possible weekend I could travel this summer; so I had made the best of a limited calendar and planned a long weekend in North Carolina. A journey to the very northernmost mountains,  just south of the Tennessee/Virginia border.
Because I needed to be home on the fourth, the route set itself.  I’d drive, on my inaugural Fourth of July project, from tiny Warrensville N.C. to exurban Milford Ohio, just outside of Cincinnati- some 390 miles. A nice cross section of America; basically a drive up the gut of the Appalachians Mountains.
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Along the way, I thought, I would photography America on the Fourth. I wasn’t so much interested in  photographing the Fourth of July as I was interested in photographing America on the Fourth of July. Most of the nation, I figured, would be off work and out and about doing something I reasoned, so it should be, I thought, a great day to visually take the pulse of America.
The route home was a route I did, and didn’t, know well.
I have frequently traveled throughout the south and, in particular, the western NC region over the last twenty years. Normally, however, I roamed the extreme western edge of North Carolina: Robbinsville, Snowbird, Graham Country and  as far east as Asheville, I normally came down 75 and head east on I-40, sometime evening gutting though and over the Smoky Mountain National Park. 
 
Some trips I spend hours sitting bumper to bumper crawling through the commercial shitholes of Gatlinburg, Sevierville and  Pigeon Forge.  Faux alpine villages chock full of hillbilly supper clubs, gun  and knife stores and countless shops peddling endless sugar filled forms of poisons.
Approximately 75 percent of all cases of diabetes in America originate as a result of the fried and sugar coated crap passed off as food in these towns. (Located conveniently in Dollywood’s Rivertown Junction, Dogs n’ Taters is a quick service restaurant serving up delicious foot-long corndogs, hot dogs and chili dogs with a side of fried potato twirls).
 
That this drive through such a wretched place ends in Cherokee N.C., another artificial town created to celebrate the capture and slaughter of a cultured indigenous tribe only adds insult to reason (Street chiefs and dancers perform on curb side stages outside retail shops and souvenir stores, entertaining crowds of shoppers. The shows, often featuring the traditional, ‘friendship dance’ (with audience participation, below), ‘eagle dance’ and ‘hoop dance’, are free; yet tipping is encouraged, particularly when the “chiefs” pose for photographs. It’s a tradition that began years ago with the late Chief Henry, who was once billed as “The World’s Most Photographed Indian.)”
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I had no interest in capturing  any such visions on this day. I was, in fact, certain that such a drive down Tn 441 on the Fourth could amount to nothing more than a stop and start nightmare through some of the most heart-breaking soulless, plastic, imitation  constructs of a never before existed America.  .
 I wanted, rather, if possible, to also capture, crystalize, on this single holiday, some of the madness that had been fermenting over the last several years. To capture us not at exactly each other’s throats, but at truce during the culture wars. It wasn’t hyperbole to say that many of us hated one and other these days, I wanted to capture a break in that war.
I wanted to capture America on the Fourth, during Armistice. I didn’t want standard American Fourth of July fare, I didn’t want sparklers and hot dogs or drunks.
If I saw a parade, I’d shoot it; though I wasn’t going to go out of my way to look for parades, commemorative events or firework displays. I’d treat this day, as I treated all travel, I’d get up in the morning and head out without an itinerary. I’d shoot what came across lens; I’d photograph those who crossed my path. 
Besides, I really didn’t have the time to work up an itinerary anyway. So I thought I’d wing it. Gas up the truck, go down to the not so local Food Giant and get some fried chicken, apples, and Gatorade for the ride home: just in case I couldn’t find any open backroad restaurants. I’d also need a six pack of good beer, for once I arrived home.
 
And so I did that. I obtained provisions and took off the next morning.
I knew from prior rambles in these mountains  that I needed to head east on Hwy 88 to 194 North which would take me into Tennessee, After that I’d fake it. Head north on back roads, try to avoid the four lanes for as long as possible, and then search out  Hwy. 58 headed northwest. That was pretty much the extent of my geography in starting out.
              
Warrensville N.C. was far east of my prior adventures in N.C..  I knew that to get north,  I needed to head up through terra ignoramus (my ignorance), up through a good swatch of Virginia and then through the mystical  and largely unknown (at least to me) lands of eastern Kentucky, through Whitesburg, Prestonsburg, Hazard. I’ve spent decades hiking and fishing, camping and photographing all up and down the Appalachians. But I had largely missed eastern Kentucky and western Virginia.
 
I knew this area to be coal mining territory, traditionally known as  a region of very independent, and private, men and women. A place I’d always wanted to explore, but had for any number of reasons, missed out on.  Partially, to a small degree, I had avoided the region out of trepidation; but mostly because the roads through those counties generally didn’t lead to where I needed to be.
But now that I had ventured so far north and east in NC, it made sense for me to see this country. Once I began up 194, I came immediately upon Lansing  NC.  A small broken, more empty than full, village which ran along some old railroad tracks.
I took a few photos of downtown; just a few tired house, a couple of closed and/or dilapidated business- the tough the pizza place was, I was told, good.
 
One home up the road had the Stars and Bars doubling as curtains in its bedroom windows.
 
In my last several visits to the deep South,  I noted that the fucking flag seems to have spread like mushrooms.  I saw it hung in front of homes and flown from broom poles sprouting from the back of outsized pick ups.  It was flown in tandem with the Stars and Stripes.
I checked out the local park and ballfield. Nothing, not a soul outside anywhere.  While I wasn’t interested in the usual Fourth of July rituals, I did want to speak with people, get an idea of what was on their minds. In Lansing it was apparently sleep.
 
 
I headed up 194 and promptly came upon a sign directing me down a rural highway which allegedly took me to route 58. It was choice which came upon me unexpectedly, too early in the day. The choice tested my resolve. Small roads, or smaller roads.
 
If I picked the wrong small road, I could doom my trip and project from the start. I could get lost in the mountains, lose hours getting back on track.
But if it was the right small road, treasures might abound. A classic Frostian dilemma. Obviously, I took the road less traveled and ended up following a number of small winding roads through small farms, neat and not.
“Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God,” said Kurt Vonnegut Jr in Cat’s Cradle. If, so, this drive was a dance well beyond my limited dancing abilities. To get from Lansing NC to Whitetop Virginia, I took the following route: Head southwest on E St toward NC-194 N continue to Big Horse Creek Rd, right onto Big Horse Creek Rd,  continue on Rip Shin Rd. Take Farmers Store Rd to State Rte 726 in Wilson Creek which led, more or less, to route 58 which took me to Whitetop Virginia, I think. But then who cares, but cause the drive was stupid beautiful and led me to good people.
 
And at some point you just have to let go of the maps and GPS and trust in the road Gods. In any event, I did end up in Whitetop Va.,  and found myself at an old mercantile store, which was surprisingly open, and which  had a sign that said Whitetop General Store. The lot was large and full. I aimed for a large sign at the end of the lot, parked  and went to visit.
The landmark signage at the edge of the lot said that this region was the heart of bluegrass country. That Dr Ralph Stanley, among others, had been through and played in this region countless times.
On the porch of the mercantile store were benches and populating those benches were a group of older men. They appeared to be standard issue southern gentlemen so I waited for a break in their conversation- which was a while coming, and asked:
Had they known Ralph Stanley? 
“I used to go and listen to him and George Jones play together when I was a young schoolboy. It cost a  whole quarter to see the show then.” one said.
I told them about my several encounters with Ralph Stanley and how I was fortunate to photograph him and hear him play.
Was he a good man, I asked
The best another said.
Another gentleman, a big man in suspenders and a bright green T-shirt, said that Stanley had tried to sell him a banjo for 3200.00.
Must of been a beauty for that kind of money I said.
It was, he said, but I told him I wasn’t going to buy, it, that I already had one, one that I had been playing since 1960 and wasn’t going to put it down anytime soon.
So you play I asked?
Always, he said, I grew up in it.
He looked down at his aging hands and then added. Only I just did sell that thing, to my nephew. I can’t play it anymore, too much arthritis.
That must be hard for you. I said.
I lifted up my camera. It’d kill me to have to give this up.
He nodded in agreement, but said nothing else. The wound, I gathered, was still too green for discussion.
A long minute passed and I asked. “Do they still make instruments around here?” I asked, 
You bet, I was told.  There’s a man named WC Henderson up the road still makes beautiful instruments.
He has a bank vault full of them they told me,  worth a million dollars.
Go up and ask to see it,  it’s just twelve miles back on Rugby Road.
 I told them I couldn’t stop today, I had a long way to go, and besides, I said, it’s a holiday and I don’t want to barge in on a holiday. I promised I’ll be back though.
I grabbed a couple of cheeseburgers from the general store (which was fortunate as I left my chicken and beer in the fridge in Warrensville) and headed north toward Damascus. The road to Damascus twisting through large hills and small mountains and then abruptly turning back upon itself and diving and rising in and out of river valleys.
How fitting I thought to be on the road to Damascus on the Fourth of July. Striding the boundary between God and Government, in these hot and hate filled days, just as Saul had done 2000 years ago.
Would I find redemption as did Saul?

In that one blinding, falling moment Saul became another man. The hunter of Christians, the heresy detective became in one instant full of yearning to be a Christian.

He had seen God. And trembling before that glory, stripped naked of his intellectual pretenses, he had cried out in the hope and fear of all believers:

“Lord, what would You have me to do?”

The odds were definitely against such an occurrence….

And then I had another uniquely southern moment. I noted that somewhere along the way, route 58 had become The Jeb Stuart Highway. A perfect display of state’s rights I thought.  Also a fitting moniker for this twisting highway as Stuart’s own career as Major General in the Confederate Cavalry, during the War of Northern Aggression, had also been full of twisting ups and downs.

Promoted to colonel under Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson,  Stuart commanded cavalry units in the Army of Shenandoah. He soon was commanding all the cavalry brigades for the Army of Northern Virginia. After a few successful missions, Stuart was promoted to major general. His career, however, came to an ignoble end. Standing at the end of a long chain of errors committed by a number of soldiers, Stuart came to be regarded as the scapegoat of Gettysburg.
Stuart’s died at the Battle of Yellow Tavern on May 11th 1864 after being mortally shot from his horse by a dismounted Union private.
 
He whispered his last words “I am resigned, God’s will be done.”
God and Guns, God and Guns. One Hundred and fifty-two years gone by and nothing changes.  Hi ho silver-o deliver me from nowhere….
So be it. 

 

From Whitetop to Damascus was 31 miles via route 58 and Chestnut Creek Road. In between was the small fertile hamlet of Green Cove. A literal wide spot in the road. There was no one around, so I shot the small and handsome Green Cove Christian Church (If the donkey and elephant fail you try the lamb).

 

 

 

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I took Green Cove Road away from Volney and came shortly to Damascus. Damascus was a small town hip deep in bicycle shops and outfitters, all doing a bang up business under glowering silver blue skies. I gathered from signage that there was a major rails to trail nearby- the Virginia Creeper Trail.
Subsequent research proved me right ( The VCT runs from Whitetop Station to Damascus and then onto Abingdon Va.  There’s also apparently cross country riding in the form of the Iron Mountain Trail).  
I drove through and took some photos and headed toward Abington.  One gets from Damascus to Abingdon by continuing upon the aforementioned Jeb Stuart Highway, which, of course, bypasses the Glenrochie Country Club outside of Abingdon.  
I began to realize that I was rapidly losing my sense of objectivity and that despite my love of history and the South, my long standing dislike for Virginia was beginning to rise in my throat.  The truth actually being that I’ve never dug Virginia, though I had begun the morning trying to keep an open mind.
It is my experience that truly stupid and oppressive ideas usually spring from a limited number of places and Virginia is one of those places. It was one of a handful of states in the country that can make Ohio, on occasion, look backwards. I recall reading five years or so ago about how, over Christmas holidays, undercover cops went into bars in Reston Va. and Herndon, Va., giving sobriety tests to random patrons. The patrons at the time had not been causing problems. Rather they were simply sitting on their barstools enjoying a Christ libation.  Those who who failed were charged with public intoxication, a misdemeanor. 
Virgina, for me, was one of those places it was hard to be objective about. I’d wager pretty large money, for instance, that no cop ever went into the Glenrochie Country Club to administer unsolicited breathalyzers.
And yet for all its rednecks and bigots and stupid cops, it is a beautiful state. In between lay Damascus and Abingdon lay the Jefferson National Forest and Mt Roger’s Recreation Area. The VCT apparently cut through the parks following a clear beautiful rhododendron lined stream that bordered Hwy 58. It was lovely country. 
I pulled into a parking area within the Mt Roger’s Recreation Area and found groups taking breaks from riding the VC trail.  I circled the lot, took some photos and upon leaving noticed a family of five alighting from their SUV.  They looked at though they we getting ready for a family hike. 
I came upon them again as they were walking through the parking lot towards the trail. They eyed me as I came up beside them.
I rolled down my window. They looked at me and contemplated the forty feet that stood between them and their van, their safe harbor.
Excuse me I said.
Yes, the father said warily.  The mother and two daughters looked vaguely worried.
You left your driver’s side door open, I said.  
In coming around the lot I saw that they had walked off with their car open. A favorite trick of mine.
Really?  he asked suspiciously
Yep I said driving off.
I left them standing there, alone in the parking lot with the shame of being beholden to a polite yankee on the fourth of July.
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If I was to know that this was to be pretty much the nadir of my human interaction for the rest of the trip I would have stayed. I wouldn’t have gone out on such a smart ass note. I would have minded my manners like a good southerner.
Abington was a ghost town. I drove through it’s pretty, proud downtown looking for anything going on. The closest  I came to culture, or any sort of gathering that morning, was a crowd of folks clustered under a fireworks circus tent which had been pitched in a grocery store parking lot.
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I took several photos of the fireworks stand/tent (50% off Today!!) and shot the large stately Abingdon Baptist church on my way out of town. I saw no one on the streets, anywhere. A soft rain began to fall.
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I hit Widner’s Market on the way out of town. As I gassed up I looked up and down the breadth and width of Jeb Stuart Highway. Nothing, no one- just an old tired beat soul going into the Wholesale House of Discount Tobacco. 
 Across the broken four lane was a lot selling prefab wood sheds. No credit needed. Further on, Jeb Stuart Highway rolled onto distant hills under a moody sky. I wanted to be happy to love this land and it’s people, but it was beyond me. Fucking Virgina,  I thought. I needed, wanted, to be gone.
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A half hour up the road, the sky began to darken. It was 1:30 pm and it looked like 7 pm. I had been on the road for nearly three hours and had only covered 50 miles. A pretty standard photographer’s pace- for me anyway.  But if I was going to see and document anyone and anything I needed to get my ass in gear.
I spent the next two hours heading north. Taking Hwy 58 to Ky 15.  I crossed the spine of the Appalachians. I found myself surprising alone. Yet, if I was unhappy about being hard up for people to chat up and/or photography; I do have to admit to being happy  about avoiding the interstate highways on my way home. My trip down, via I-64 to I 77 had been nearly apocalyptic. 
Driving I-64 into West Virginia is always gambling with one’s life. The road is small and tight and potholed and the traffic is always phrenetic and unforgiving. The ride down I-77 is little better. Headed south through WV I had found the usual bumper to bumper traffic on twisting I-77 through WV’s ancient battered and beautiful mountains. A back up just outside of Charleston forced me off the highway at Cabin Creek, boyhood home of basketball great Jerry West.
I stopped at a small store just outside of Cabin Creek. The lot and store were packed. There were lines of 5 to both the mens and womens room. I stood in line for the men’s room. After ten minutes I thought that the young boys ahead of me had simply neglected to see if anyone was actually in the restroom. 
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Several minutes later, however a flush and sounds of struggle came through the door. The doorknob jiggled once, twice and then three times. A woman of sixtyish- with wiry grey hair, wearing sweats, and weighing a solid three hundred pounds backed a wheelchair out of the men’s room. 
There was a man in the chair who was every bit of five hundred pounds. He had white hair and a thick white moustache and beard. His wore camouflage shorts. His right leg was in bandages. His calf was swollen larger than my head. A diabetic on the verge of amputation, I thought. A common story in these parts.
My God I thought, how does she do that, how does she care for him on her own? The couple sat conversing outside the restroom. I watched them from the corner of my eye while I waited for my turn.  It was a heartbreaking drama.  Who were they, I wondered and did they have people who cared for them?
Walking out to my car, I looked about the lot. An endless display of apparent poverty.  Families milled around old crumpled trucks, some dumping ice into coolers, others chatting in small groups. At the edge of the lot was an old battered trailer with an old double-wide  with a warped porch facing the store. There was an equally old  and faded sign that said barbershop.
There was a general feeling of people escaping their usual lives and heading out.
A man of about 40, with long unkempt hair, worn jeans and a T-shirt sat on the edge of the double-wide porch, his legs dangling off the edge, his arms crossed on warped deck railing. He sat with a wide immobile grin on his face surveying the parking lot crowd. His bearing and posture caused him to look like a simple six year old.
I reached for my camera and stopped. I felt myself torn between not wanting to offend anyone’s dignity and not wanting to remember this place, I didn’t want to remember the guy on the porch, the guy in the wheelchair nor the poor kids filtering in and out of the battered trucks.  It was all too damn heartbreaking.
I drove off detouring down hwy 79, trying to decide whether I was a poor human being, a poor photographer, or both. Driving through Cabin Creek I saw no memorial to their famous native son. I drove on through Chelyan along the muddy Kanawha River (formed at Gauley Bridge, by the confluence of the New and Gauley rivers; although the Kanawha shares none of the beauty of her originating rivers).
I rejoined the highway and swore I’d find another way home. I wasn’t longing so much to avoid the ugliness and poverty of West Virginia as I was in need of an aesthetic fix. I needed some beauty. My soul longed for uncluttered mountains or desert.
Now some four days later, headed home, I was two hundred miles to the southwest of Cabin Creek and my soul had been slightly satiated by the North Carolina mountains.  I headed for south Kentucky. I hoped to find some crowds, some event, in Prestonburg, Whitesburg or Hazard.
Just south of Kentucky, on a whim, I pulled of route 58 and into Coeburn Virginia. I stopped at the top of a hill overlooking a small old downtown. A fourth of July parade stretched downhill. A large yellow fire truck to the rear. marchers and floats for a mile before me. I stopped my car and took a couple shots. Late, late, late.
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Virginia finally gave way to Kentucky and 58  turned onto Highway 15.  As I made Kentucky 15,  the clouds finally let loose. Just outside of Vicco, nearly to Hazard, I stopped to get gas. While I was in the store, a monsoon arrived. People stood about the store watching the rain come down in windblown torrents, non plussed, silently calculating how long they would wait inside before trying to get to their cars. Impatient as always, I got a large hot coffee and swam for my truck just outside the door.
I waited out the worst of the storm in the parking lot and then headed for Hazard. Before coming to Hazard I was surprised to find a large lake/dam complex with several large marinas. Not the type of country one envisions when contemplating coal country.  I stopped in the lot and pulled into the marina.  
A sixty foot houseboat nearest to the parking lot floated in its dock flying both the American flag and the stars and bars. Which is it, asshole, I thought, because you can’t have it both ways.
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Further up the lot four black pick up trucks, each with an empty boat trailer, sat empty and parked side by side. I took some photographs and headed for the exit. As I did so, I noted that a county sheriff had drifted in behind me. Was he suspicious that I had been photographing, suspicious that I was not local? Images born of watching too many episodes of Justification floated through my head.
I pulled to the side of the lot and he followed. He sat for a long moment behind me- maybe running my tag- contemplating the bump sticker on my tailgate which says “I deny everything as my DVD player is a piece of cheese- (a gift from a disabled artist)- and then slid by on his way. 
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I then drove through downtown Hazard proper trying to photograph it fairly; trying not to portray it as a beat collection of crumbling buildings;  a dying town built on a dying industry; a place forgotten by so many who were doing so much better. I wanted to do justice to all the people on this day.
The problem was that it looked all of those things. Mostly it looked deserted, like Akron and Cleveland at the end of the rust belt days. I did the best I could photographing Hazard in the little time I had. I then headed northwest.
It was 4 o’clock and I was every bit of 200 miles from home. I fought back frustration. Not every project pans out I thought.  Yet,  It was hard not to see this project as a failure. 
I headed north following KY-15 N to KY-402/KY-9000 W in Wolfe County for 50 water logged miles continuing on KY-402/KY-9000  finally to Lexington where I gave up completely and took 1–75 towards Covington where I took  exit 191 from I-75.
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I made my way to Mainstrasse, the city’s social center, in search of life, but I found none. The normally crowded patio at the Cock and Bull Pub was empty, the chairs and stables sitting stacked in the rain. The surrounding streets were nearly empty, as were the surrounding bars.

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 I crossed the big brown and muddy Ohio-recently named the nation’s most polluted waterway-and made my way to the center of town to Fountain Square.  Cincinnati has undergone a great renaissance in the last 5 years and Fountain Square, at the city’s core, is now normally crowded nearly every night.
I found, however, nothing this night save a small water logged crowd. There was even less of a crowd at Washington Park, Cincinnati’s newly renovated uptown park across from Music Hall. No one at home, nothing going on. Had the weather held there would have been thousands milling about the lawn.
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Some years are just rain outs, I thought.
I headed home, traveling the 25 miles from downtown Cincinnati to my exurban home of Milford. The quaint historic downtown was empty. Nada Nothing Zilch.

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A bust- what had I learned?
Maybe that I shouldn’t expect more of America, at least right now. 
America was after all, at this point, a pretty damn frustrating place.
Stupidity in so many ways seemed the norm. Mad men commanded the attention of millions. In my home state, Donald Trump was running neck and neck with Hillary Clinton.
Maybe we didn’t deserve more. Maybe this was God’s way of putting everyone in time out so we could collectively rethink the idiocy which was now America.
Dark clouds were gathered on the horizon. Alton Sterling would be killed the next day, for no apparent reason, in Baton Rouge. Five Cops would then be killed in the Dallas ambush just days later, Two deputies in a courthouse in St Joseph Michigan just days after  Dallas. Philndo Castile would be gunned down shortly thereafter in St Paul.  Two weeks later, three cops would be gunned down in Baton Rouge. Probably the last thing any of us need was togetherness. In an America of empty streets at least everyone lives till tomorrow,  I thought.
untitled shoot-062
I knew all of these places of slaughter and had visited them in the past. They were not so different from many other places I had lived in and visited. I did not know or find the people in these places to be any worse than people elsewhere.  We weren’t that sick, that fucked up, but…. these days, for whatever reason, we couldn’t help but cheating one and other nor keep from killing one and other.
Why? The question alone was enough to jack one’s blood pressure, break one’s heart.  Why had I thought had that I would find anything but frustration and anger and unhappiness on this day, simply because my heart and my head wanted happiness?
God bless America.
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