Digging Deeper

Last night, at an Abingdon restaurant, Jeffrey bought a plate of spaghetti and vegetables so large that he could eat only half. He saved the other half for a late-night post-blog snack.

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Jeffrey met the Egyptian immigrants who own the restaurant and the attached karaoke bar. One of the bar customers is married to a lawful permanent resident, and asked Jeffrey questions about how her husband can become a citizen.

These were not encounters we expected to have in rural Abingdon, Virginia.

This morning Jeffrey had a nice chat with four Mexican carpenters. They had some legal questions, and one had a sad story to share. Later, Jeffrey asked Donna, the motel desk clerk, about immigrants in the area and the attitude of her church and her neighbors.

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Donna said much more than we will recount here. A few highlights: She’s a pastor’s daughter from Massachusetts, used to handle insurance for a doctor’s office, is raising 2 grandchildren, her son is in the Navy’s submarine service, she wonders whether those Mexican carpenters are “born again” and she wishes all newcomers spoke English . . . but she likes and accepts as hard-working family men the foreigners she has met, and has a friend who is teaching her some Spanish. She thinks Abingdon is split about 50-50 between people who accept newcomers, and those who don’t like “outsiders” or change.

We pondered this as we rode toward the Tennessee border. We passed this sign

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and others, reminding us that we’re in Appalachian coal country. Note the double entendre in the Website name, “faces of coal”.

After some ups and downs – it seemed that there were more downs, meaning we had ridden up pretty high from our start at sea level – we came to the border.

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We had more fast downhills, covering long stretches at 30 mph. Then long uphills at 5 mph. But the trend seemed downward as we came to Kingsport. We passed a few local eateries along the highway, but Jeffrey opted to stop at a chain. He doesn’t eat meat, which is the basis of the local cuisine.

As soon as Jeffrey walked into the Kingsport Applebees, he attracted attention. He was seated by Anastasia (seen below), who is fascinated by the idea of a long bicycle trip. She is busy raising two young kids, but as she said, when they’re grown she’ll still be young, and she does well at spinning class!

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Kathryn, the server, is from Wisconsin via California and Las Vegas. David, an Applebees employee from Paterson, NJ, and Queens, with family from Hoboken, was tipped off by Anastasia and stopped to shake Jeffrey’s hand and to chat. He brought a colleague along, a former “Army brat” who has lived all over the U.S. and in the Philippines, too. Each had a tale to tell of how Kingsport came to be home. It was refreshing to talk to all of them.

And all are supporting the Ride. They gave Jeffrey his lunch on the house, and offered whatever supplies he might need to continue our journey. (Kangaroo puppets need nothing, but today was a dehydrating day for humans.) As Jeffrey left the restaurant, he held the door for a man who had seen the signs on the Lightning; the man said, “Bless you for what you are doing.”

This morning’s talk with Donna had left us uneasy. The kindness of the people at Applebees cheered us back up.

The road rolled along with mountains on either side. To our citified eyes, it was a shame to see strip developments messing up the view. But Tennessee has so many mountains, so much greenery, that maybe it doesn’t matter.

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In Surgoinsville, we stopped at a convenience store for a drink, and met Hazel and Solomon. Here’s Solomon, the owner.

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He fled Ethiopia, lived in Atlanta for years, and with spouse and child, followed relatives to Tennessee for easier living and better business opportunities. He bought the store from Hazel, who stayed on as his employee.

Hazel, who hates to be photographed, is a real character. She moved to the area from Tallahassee, FL, in 1969. Nineteen years later, she ran for a local political office and was trounced, in part because people called her an outsider! (Even 43 years in the area is not enough for some people, who think you belong only if born there.) She accepts everyone who treats her decently, and answers locals’ questions about Solomon by telling them that he’s American, which he is. She said there’s a lot of bigotry in this part of the country. Solomon agrees, but it doesn’t bother him; in Ethiopia, he saw far worse.

Hazel thinks it’s crazy to waste our resources chasing and jailing agricultural workers and busboys and nannies. She scoffed at the Alabama “crackdown” on immigrants, talking about a farm that plowed under its cucumbers because the pickers had fled the state. But she despairs of having common-sense immigration laws. Officials, contractors, and jailers will refuse to give up the money and power they enjoy under the status quo.

Our takeaway from talking with Hazel and Solomon is that local people may not be against foreigners so much as they are against change and nonconformism altogether. If so, a more accepting society may require the replacement of this latest Generation of the Desert (every generation has its own desert) with kids who think it’s normal to shop at a place run by someone born in Ethiopia.

Til then, we hope good people like Solomon and Hazel will hold the fort.

At the edge of Rogersville, we saw this sign:

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The sign is correct so far as it goes. Theism also is illogical. What makes sense is agnosticism. No one has all the answers. Encouraged though we are by the relative acceptance of those foreigners in Abingdon, the warm support of our new friends in Kingsport, and by the intelligent common sense of our new friends in Surgoinsville, that Baptist church sign – one of hundreds of Baptist church signs we passed today – suggests that a significant number of people down here aren’t yet ready to concede that we can’t dictate the truth. Truth has to be worked out in each of our heads. In immigration policy, as in other spheres, truth may best be found by letting good people find their own way to making a life for themselves, without micromanagement by bureaucrats and cops and jailers.

4 thoughts on “Digging Deeper

  1. “We passed a few local eateries along the highway, but Jeffrey opted to stop at a chain. He doesn’t eat meat, which is the basis of the local cuisine.”
    Not true. Appalachian cuisine is, in fact, relatively low in meats by American standards. Collard greens, kale, soup beans, home fries, cornbread, barbecue beans, etc. are the regular fare here, and in most all traditional Appalachian meals the meat is there to “doctor up” the vegetables (salt pork in soup beans, beef or pork in cabbage rolls, and so on.)
    Most vegetarians could very easily get along quite easily here due to this fact.

    • Daniel,

      Thank you for the excellent and enlightening comment.

      Alas, to Jeffrey, food flavored with meat also is taboo.

      So glad you are following the Ride!

      • Jeff, your journey is inspiring and your stories are so interesting. Good luck to you and Joey, we’ll follow you all the way to Nashville. George is now retracing your steps on mapquest.

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