The Forgotten Town, The Forgotten Backwater
“Don’t go there; you wouldn’t fit in,” my city friends told me, slightly amused by the prospect of my moving to this side of the Appalachian mountains, their eyebrows raised with intrigue and bafflement. “They call it the town that time forgot,” a realtor told my husband and me as we took a tour through Grundy, Virginia, only to find that well water still flowed through the faucets of some homes, staining dishwashers and bathtubs, and mold (and in some cases water) still lingered in basements that hadn’t been lifted after the town’s most recent flood.
Yet the “forgotten town” was intriguing because it reminded me of Liberia, the “forgotten African backwater,” as Polish journalist, Ryszard Kapuściński called it, where I was born and raised—the country I was then having difficulty writing about. I didn’t know how to express it, but as I lay in my room at the Comfort Inn (the only hotel in the town), somehow I sensed that Grundy would be the place to help me forget; forget who I was now, so that I could write about who I was then. I just knew that the town’s generous mountains, flowing creeks, warm skies, light mist, and spunky birds would help me complete the first draft of my book about a formerly peaceful Liberian childhood assaulted by war and trauma.
Upon entering Grundy, you know that you’re in the belly of southwest Virginia, with mountain roads uniquely steep in some places and obtrusively curvy in others. You don’t need an almanac to tell you that once you drive along routes like 460 or 624, you won’t experience anything else as thrilling and terrifying, with V-shaped terrains that take you to Bristol, Tennessee, or Bluefield, Virginia, if you continue to Route 19. Grundy is coal country that stands proud and tall, where fumes and gray sheets of dirt from passing coal trucks rise with the sun in the morning. It is a town that exists around the strong, the brave, the miners—where you’re at first taken aback by the “black lung” signs posted by lawyers, doctors, and insurance companies; where the first time you walk into the post office the postal worker at the counter says “ya reckon” in the middle of a conversation with a customer, and you’re completely dumbfounded with excitement because this is the first time the phrase has jumped out of one of your books and skipped around your eardrums.
We came here at a good time, they tell us, because Grundy has grown up. It has been over a decade since the law school where my husband teaches was introduced to the town. Now there is now a brand new Walmart, a shopping plaza, and a choice between Mexican, Chinese, or American cuisine. Daily construction along Route 460 has been initiated to improve the infrastructure and accommodate new buildings and a potential housing development. The town that is said to dislike outsiders has graciously accommodated lots of us: some young, some old, some graduate students, some professionals, everyone nestled closely into the mountainside.
To most people, our decision about where my husband should accept a law school faculty position was obvious: say yes to one of the schools in one of the “normal” cities. Yet even after we had driven through the town for the first time, on a dark, snowy evening, staring wide-eyed at the houses nestled comfortably in the valley below us, perturbed by the crookedness of the roads and intimidated by the bravado of the truckers, we chose Grundy.
How could I tell them that once in Grundy, I felt God in its mountains and creeks, looming next to me on its mountain trails, flowing from its springs, swinging from its many tree branches and church steeples? How could I explain the same soothing presence that kept me sane when I sought shelter at a church compound for two years during the 1990 Liberian Civil War?
Nestled between the former French and British colonies Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, Liberia is the first African Republic and the only American-influenced West African country. It is known for its flatlands, its lagoons and oceans—a country that has suffered no major natural disaster. Founded in 1847 with the help of the American Colonization Society, Liberia is the West African country where American freed slaves built a home for themselves. They brought with them bits and pieces of the only world they knew—America—causing a divide between themselves and the indigenous Liberians. However, once we found ourselves huddled together at our church shelter during the war, seeking cover on the floors and beneath beds and benches, this divide seemed miniscule.
Now Liberia, once the heartthrob of West Africa, nicknamed “Small America,” is Africa’s prodigal daughter and America’s forgotten sister. Liberian natives scarred by war often ask each other, “Why would you want to go back there?”
The same thing happens in Grundy.
“You go to school here, sweetie?” a Grundy native and Walmart store clerk asked me.
“No, ma’am,” I answered again with a slight smile, because I knew what was coming next.
She stopped bagging my groceries, gave a quick glance over her shoulders, and faced me with the concerned eyes a grandmother reserves for her sick grandbabies. Her eyebrows were pulled together in silent thought when she placed her hands on my arm and whispered, “Why are you here?”
Some mornings, when I feel Grundy beneath my feet as I walk my dog or exercise, I’m reminded of Annie Dillard’s words, “They say of nature that it conceals with a grand nonchalance, and they say of vision that it is a deliberate gift,” because in order to truly see Grundy, you must have the kind of vision that surpasses its narrow roads and limited shopping; in order to see the gift that its nature conceals, a gift so rare that once the veil is lifted from your eyes, you see the town for what it really is: a treasure valley. Hidden compartments that conceal the most obscure revelations, valleys that dazzle with the kind of sensations that force you to slow down for a minute to, say, write a book.
When I write about something as personal as childhood and family, of something as traumatic as the loss of childhood and family, the mountains of Grundy become as necessary as the shell of a turtle, its shelter as private as the inner compartments of my mind. There are no rules in Grundy’s mountains, no codes to entrap you. You can’t even count on your iPhone weather app to be close to accurate like you would in other cities because, like Danny Glover’s character said in the movie, Switchback, “Weather don’t make the rules, mountains do.” Mountain life is an existential burrow that propels you forward, deeper and deeper into its folds, until from beneath its shadows, while you await the sun’s slow dance around its peaks, while you gaze in awe at its sharp, rugged beauty and encompassing breadth, you become deeply aware of who you are, who you are not, who you can become, because nothing explains the baffling world better than its indescribable nature.
As I sometimes ponder the road I traveled to get to Grundy—from Liberia to New York City, then Columbus, Ohio, now Grundy—I know that I am not alone. Grundy is as global as its inhabitants: the law students from Africa and Asia; the mission school that boards international students just across the street from where I live; the bird that wakes me up on hot spring mornings with its part-whistling, part-humming, the same one that woke me up on mornings during the rainy season in Liberia (one day I will learn your name, dear one).
Sitting next to Slate Creek with my eyes closed, sniffing for words, sounds, thoughts, and feelings, I am aware that, just like Liberia, Grundy will live on, despite its refusal to conform, its dare to be different. If Grundy can survive its deviance, if Liberia can survive its incongruity, so can I, I quietly deliberate. In moments like these, I am fully aware of how this Southern town has transformed me, and unexplainable joy crawls from my belly, sweeps across my face, and becomes one with the creek, slowly treading its way through Edgewater Drive, through Grundy, through Buchanan County, through Virginia, and onwards, ready and willing to connect with a destiny that is bigger, more expansive, and even more challenging.