In Appalachia, people watch COVID-19, race issues from afar

BUCHTEL, Ohio — The water, so cold that it nearly hurts, spills relentlessly into a concrete trough from three pipes driven into a hillside near the edge of town.

People have been coming to the trough for at least a century, since horses were watered here and coal miners stopped by to wash off the grime. People still come – because they think the water is healthier, or makes better coffee, or because their utilities were turned off when they couldn’t pay the bills. Or maybe just because it’s what they’ve always done.

It’s a common view in the little towns that speckle the Appalachian foothills of southeast Ohio, where the pandemic has barely been felt. Coronavirus deaths and protests for racial justice — events that have defined 2020 nationwide — are mostly just images on TV from a distant America.

For many here, it’s an increasingly foreign America that they explain with suspicion, anger and occasionally conspiracy theories. The result: At a time when the country is bitterly torn and crises are piling up faster than ever, the feeling of isolation in this corner of Ohio is more profound than ever.

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This story is part of the Looking For America project, produced with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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It’s easy to dismiss COVID-19 in these sparsely populated rural counties, some of which can still count their deaths from the virus on one hand. Local politicians hint that even the small death tolls might be inflated.

Many of Nogrady’s neighbors think the pandemic is being used by Democrats to weaken President Donald Trump ahead of the election. Some share darker theories: Face mask rules are paving the way for population control, they say, and a vaccine could be used as a tool of government control.

“I think they want to take our freedoms,” Nogrady says, a baseball hat turned backward on her head. “I believe the government wants to get us all microchipped.”

These fears reflect a desolate worldview: People who a generation ago believed in the president’s promises to change their region forever now have a deep distrust of Washington – and a defiant sense that they are on their own.

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We came to this part of Ohio because it’s where President Lyndon Johnson decades ago first mentioned the Great Society, perhaps the most audacious federal push to remake America since World War II.

It seemed a good place to start a road trip across the country, as the most divisive election in decades is looming.

We wanted to look at the issues that exploded onto the national consciousness this year — COVID-19, economic meltdown, race-related protests — through the eyes of different regions, myriad Americans. Three of us from The Associated Press planned to go to Ohio and Illinois, to Kentucky and Georgia and Mississippi, and then out West, looking for windows into a country that can seem so contradictory, so confusing.

When Johnson gave his speech in 1964 at Ohio University, the hills of Appalachian Ohio were some of the most fiercely Democratic places in America.

“We must abolish human poverty,” Johnson proclaimed, foreshadowing a torrent of federal programs that would eventually include Medicare, Head Start preschool, environmental laws and a push for equal justice.

These hills were then a patchwork of closed coal mines, undernourished children and houses without indoor plumbing. But applause surged through the thousands of people in the audience. They believed.

Not anymore.

Now, except for the county of Athens, where Ohio University nurtures a more liberal electorate, the region is fiercely Republican. And the idea that Washington can solve America’s problems is blasphemy.

“It’s impossible!” said Phil Stevens, a deeply conservative Republican who speaks in exclamation points, then apologizes for doing so. “Ridiculous!”

Stevens, 56, runs a small auto repair business and used car lot in a narrow valley where his family has lived for generations. He talks about the anger and suspicion that thread through the hills, about a deep distrust of the government, about friends stocking up on weapons and ammunition. A former Democrat, he now derides the party as a rabble of left-wing extremists who won’t even stand up for police officers during riots.

“I fear our country’s not far from collapse,” he said. “We’ve taken it and taken it. And there’s going to be a lot of people that just ain’t taking it no more.”

Like so many other Americans, Stevens is trying to make sense of the chaos of 2020.

“You’re just sitting here minding your own business, and things start crumbling all around you,” he said, shaking his head. Only God knows, he said, when America will return to normal: “And I sometimes think we’ve got Him scratching His head because this is a bunch of craziness.”

The political ground of southeast Ohio began to shift decades ago, and the region was largely Republican by the 2012 elections. But in 2016, counties where Democrats once had sizable minorities swung hard to the right — part of a broader national wave of working-class regions that helped Trump take the White House.

Trump was unlike any candidate they’d seen before. He didn’t offer the Great Society, or a War on Poverty. Instead, he said he was as sick as they were of Washington and the political elite. He was the perfect candidate for a region that not only expects little from the government, but also mistrusts it deeply.

In many counties Trump took more than twice as many votes as Hillary Clinton.

“I think he’s one of the best presidents we’ve had,” said Nogrady, 38, who makes a living buying and selling goods online and takes care of her elderly mother. “He’s got a mouth on him. I mean, he tells it how it is.”

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Rural Appalachians have long bristled at the way outsiders have portrayed them, replacing their complicated reality with stereotypes about poor and ignorant mountain people. Chris Chmiel, a small farmer and Democratic commissioner for Athens County, believes deeply in the benefits of Appalachian life — the fierce tenacity of its people, the beauty of the hills, the ties to hometowns and families in ways that are increasingly rare in America.

“We have a lot of things that other people don’t have,” Chmiel said on a recent Saturday morning at a weekly farmers’ market. “That is priceless in my opinion.”

Yet it’s impossible to paint a picture of this swath of Appalachia without describing its deep and pervasive poverty. While COVID-19 itself hasn’t hit hard yet, its economic impact is further squeezing a region that can barely afford it.

Unemployment skyrocketed to highs of nearly 18 percent amid early virus shutdowns, doubling in some counties from March to April. While those rates have come down since, nearly every county in the region is still worse off than at the start of the year. Six months into the pandemic, businesses from used car lots to barbershops to organic farmers are battered.

“We’ll tough it out,” said Stevens, who has seen business plunge by 30 percent or more. “We don’t make a lot of money here. But we learned to live on just a little.”

Appalachia is certainly far better off than when Johnson gave his speech.

Even if it didn’t completely win the War on Poverty, the Great Society brought everything from near-universal electricity and indoor plumbing to more preschools and greatly expanded medical coverage. There’s a sizable middle class now in the hills of southeast Ohio, even though many people have to commute a couple of hours a day to Columbus or other cities for decent-paying work. They are teachers and factory workers, nurses and janitors, who have carefully tended homes and yards and who save to send their children to college.

But after a history of outside exploitation by coal barons and later pharmaceutical companies selling opioids, Appalachian Ohio also still has some of the state’s poorest counties, with child poverty rates higher than 30 percent. I’d seen poverty in much poorer countries, and had reported on families from rural Pennsylvania to Texas who would have gone hungry without local food pantries. Even there, the child poverty rates were less than half what they are here.

The poverty is visible in the houses near collapse, the trailer homes fixed with duct tape, the buildings consumed by vines. These not-quite ghost towns were once thriving coal communities, now slowly dying decade after decade, leaving behind streams that still run a putrid orange from the drainage of old mines.

We saw empty schools and boarded-up churches. Main Street in Shawnee, an old coal town that once boasted an opera house, a vaudeville theater, dozens of stores and plenty of taverns, is now one abandoned building after another.

In the riverside town of Corning, many homes looked empty, with paint that had been peeling for years, maybe decades, warped wooden porches and roofs with shingles flaking off. Yet when nightfall came, lamps were switched on inside those homes, and dim light began leaking through so many timeworn curtains.

People talk endlessly about the lack of opportunity.

“Mostly gas stations,” said Nogrady. “That’s all there is around here.”

Often, the most crowded parking lots are at the ubiquitous Dollar General and Family Dollar stores, signposts of financial hardship as common here as Starbucks in well-heeled suburbs. Shoppers walk aisles spilling over with $5 ceramic pumpkins and 10-cent freezer pops.

“Low prices on milk and eggs!” promises a plastic banner in front of the Nelsonville Dollar General.

“It sucks being poor,” said Tasha Lamm, a 30-year-old raising two sons on public assistance in the town of Bidwell. She’s a skinny, talkative high-school dropout who is sure the government is using the pandemic to take more power, and who has been promising herself for years that she’d get her equivalency degree. Her work history jumps from gas stations to fast food outlets to one of those Dollar Generals.

“I’ve had this problem with jobs – like authority,” said Lamm, who has been largely on her own since 14 and saw her father, brother and the father of her children succumb to heroin addiction.

She shares a small subsidized condominium with the boys and her girlfriend. They were homeless for most of last year, living in a car, before a local social service agency found them the home they’ve crowded with decorations, from a poster of a stained-glass Jesus rescued from the garbage to a Winnie the Pooh snow globe.

The refrigerator holds little more than a package of eggs, a half-eaten apple and dozens of single-serve TruMoo chocolate milk containers donated by a local school. “Belief thy lord” is spelled out in colored stickers on the wall above the dining table.

In her diary, Lamm dreams of taking her family and leaving Ohio, the scene of so much personal pain: “I’m ready to leave this place and everyone in it, because I know there’s something better waiting for me.”

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Although the coronavirus has not killed many people here, its shadow has fallen over the region’s fight against another scourge: The opioid epidemic.

A 2019 study done across Appalachia found that the death rate in 2017 for opioid overdoses was 72 percent higher in Appalachian counties compared those outside the region. Ohio, meanwhile, had the country’s fifth-highest rate of drug overdoses in the country in 2018.

Experts say that the stresses of COVID — unemployment, schooling issues and especially isolation — can be especially hard on drug users.

“Loneliness is taking its toll,” said Diane Pfaff, deputy director of the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board that serves three regional counties. She noted that frontline workers are seeing a spike in the number of relapses.

People addicted to heroin— “zombies” they’re often called derisively around here — survive on the fringes, living under bridges, or moving from relative to relative, friend to friend. As we made our way through the region, person after person brought up drugs in conversation.

In the town of Nelsonville, a homeless young woman named Brittany Cunningham waved cheerfully to her former neighbors as she waited on a residential street corner for her heroin dealer.

“I’ll take anything,” she said, scanning the street for the dealer, who was late. She spoke faster as she grew more anxious, topics shifting from one to the next: how many songs she knows by heart, her mother’s drug habit, small town life, a pet cat named Dusty.

“My mind goes so fast that (heroin) slows me down,” she said.

Her jumbled stories range from a life steeped in addiction and badly chosen boyfriends to a deep love for music. She sings in a beautiful raspy voice filled with pain.

Hard life stories, many of them tied to addiction, are repeated here in town after town: the living room snapshot of a baby in her coffin; the young woman in prison for child abuse; the rape; the endless overdoses; the children living with their grandmother because something bad happened, though no one will say what.

At one point, Cunningham showed off two of her many tattoos.

“LOVE FAITH,” it says in curly green letters on the right forearm. “LOVE YOURSELF,” it says on the left.

“Those are to hide the suicide scars,” she said simply.

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Like COVID-19, the other great story of today’s America – racial tensions and protests – is notable here for its absence. Black life is something most people simply don’t see in southeastern Ohio, where the 2010 census showed a Black population of less than 1 percent in many counties.

Around here, talk of protests against police brutality and Confederate statues immediately shifts to criticism of the violence at some protests. While there have been a handful of protests in the area, and most people will concede that America has racial problems, many also believe they are wildly exaggerated.

But things look very different in that small Black community.

Geoffrey West, 34, runs The Court Barbershop in Athens, cutting hair on the third floor of an old downtown office building. He’s a quiet-spoken man in a New York Yankees baseball hat who likes Athens, and said he’s faced little direct racism since moving here three years ago.

But he still believes there’s plenty of racial misunderstanding, among both Black and white people, and he joined one of the handful of protests in the region against police violence over the past few months. He’s frustrated by white people who don’t see the reasons behind the protests.

“We need the police,” he said. But white people “don’t have a fear of walking out your front door and getting killed.”

As we traveled across the region, views about race sometimes took unexpected twists — like the Confederate flag hanging in a ground-floor window of a battered home.

Confederate flags have become a symbol of a certain America: white, often rural, sometimes southern, normally very conservative. This time, though, it turned out to be a young Black woman who was flying it. She sat on the front porch and angrily said it was her way of “giving the finger” to everyone, including white Southerners who believe they control the flag and its symbolism.

And here, as elsewhere, race and religion are complicated.

In Phil Stevens’ little office, crowded with desks piled with paperwork, the occasional car part and the sweet smell of engine oil, he derided the idea that everyone can just get along.

“I’m not going to have a Muslim best bud, you know, because there’s a line that you can’t cross,” he said. “But by the same token, the Muslims don’t want nothing to do with me. And I’m okay with that because they’ve got their reasons for it.”

Yet, it turned out, he’d fallen in love with a woman who is part Native American. They’ve been happily married for nearly 44 years.

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This is still not the Appalachia that Johnson promised so many years ago.

John Sullivan, who is almost 92, sometimes looks around and wonders how much the Great Society really accomplished. Sullivan, who could pass for 70, is one of the rare small-town Democrats around here, a Korean War veteran and former police chief who detests Trump. He lives up the road from the Buchtel water trough in a neat, double-wide trailer home.

There’s not much business left in Buchtel except for a gas station and gunshop.

“This used to be a thriving little village. It had four bars in it, and two nice big grocery stores, two service stations,” he said. “Not anymore.”

Yet if life in these hills is weighed down for many by poverty and addiction, it’s also marked by a powerful resilience, a pride, a knowledge that they will make it through the pandemic, economic collapse, protests and anything else that gets thrown at them.

To outsiders, ambition means escaping places like Shawnee or Buchtel or Nelsonville, to leave the poverty in the rearview mirror. But to those who want to stay, bound to the hills and hollows where their families have lived for generations, ambition means finding a way to remain behind.

Before leaving town we talked to Larry Steele, a quiet man with a gravelly voice and armfuls of tattoos. A bout with COVID-19, including three weeks in the hospital, has left him rail thin, and his belt is wound around his waist.

He and his partner, Penny Hudnall, survive by supplementing her disability payments with foraging in the woods for wild foods — walnuts, hickory nuts, paw paws, persimmons, spiceberries — and selling them to local farmers.

One of his daughters is in jail. A son died this summer of a heroin overdose. He and Penny struggle to get by.

But he wants to stay, and foraging lets him to do that.

“You don’t have a boss,” he said, standing in the shade of a maple tree outside his elderly mother’s mobile home.

“What can I say?” he said. “It’s just peaceful.”

Tarah Nogrady has spent her life in True Town, a speck of a hamlet just over the Sunday Creek. This part of Appalachia is achingly beautiful, with its rolling hills, quiet back roads, air that smells of thick forests and towns where everyone knows nearly everyone else. She’s not going anywhere.

“It’s like heaven, basically,” she said. “I’ll be there until I die.”