This story is part of “The View From,” an election-year project focused on how voters’ needs of government are shaped by where they live. The series started in Illinois and this week, NPR took a road trip across three Appalachian states.
Letcher County, Ky., is shaped by generations of migration — not always voluntary. There is an almost tidal pull drawing young people out, in search of jobs. But there is also a new generation of return migrants, those eager to create economic reasons to come home.
Appalachia, the mountain region that stretches across 13 states, is rarely front and center during presidential election campaigns. It is a region that includes several blue states that have recently flipped red. It’s one of the most economically deprived regions of the country. It is an older, whiter, version of America. It’s deeply religious and conservative.
In Letcher County, thousands were once employed in coal mines. But the mines have been gradually shuttered, and miners like Gary Bentley have lost their jobs. He first went to work in the coal mines when he was 19, crawling through tunnel spaces only 3 feet high.
“Crawling on your hands and knees for 12 hours, it can be intense,” he said. “But when it’s the only thing you know you become accustomed to it, and it’s another day at work.”
Not to mention the good pay. Like most miners, Bentley made $70,000-$80,000 a year in a place where the average income is more like $25,000.
He has struggled since getting laid off in 2012. Now 32, and with a 6-year-old daughter, Bentley is working in a Dixie cup factory in Lexington in an effort to rebuild his work life. But his heart remains with coal. Many of the tattoos on his neck, arms and knuckles attest to his roots in Appalachia and coal.
“You grow up in this area, and the coal miners are the ones who are able to provide their families with things that not everybody else can have,” he said. “The idea that these people go to work everyday, knowing that they might not make it home alive, in order to provide for their families and make a better life … there’s something about that just kinda tugs at you.”
Shawna Gabrielle Coots, a 20-year-old single mom, does not feel the tug. She wants out of this county, in which 30 percent of the population lives in poverty.
“My baby daddy, he wasn’t someone I thought he was, and it didn’t work out,” she said, matter-of-factly, staring straight ahead. “Never comes around. So I’m doing everything on my own. I can do it. That’s why I want to go into the military.”
Coots has a plan. She is taking classes at a community college in Whitesburg, where she does maintenance to help with tuition. After she graduates, she’s planning to join the military. Her mom will watch her 6-month-old while she’s away, she says. Then she wants to become a state trooper — but not in her home county, where drug abuse is a serious problem.
Becoming a cop here, she said, would mean “arresting some of my friends, honestly. A lot of my friends is gone downhill. And it would kind of suck if I put one of my used-to-be-close friends in the back of a cop car. So that’s why I want to go away and be a cop. It’s like everyday you see on the news, like people getting busted for meth. And I don’t want to be around here no more.”
Migration made Appalachia what it is today. European settlers pushed farther and farther into these hills, seeking a better life. Now Letcher County has lost 5 percent of its population in just a few years.
Yet something happens to many migrants from Appalachia. It happened to Shawna Kay Rodenberg after she went to college and got out. Something kept drawing her back.
“I love it here,” she said. “There’s nowhere else that I really feel like myself. In Letcher County, I don’t feel like I have to have any kind of artifice, pretend to be someone that I’m not.”
To keep up her connection with the place, Rodenberg now commutes in to eastern Kentucky, driving hundreds of miles to teach English once a week at a local community college.
In a Whitesburg restaurant, two Letcher County natives sat down to tell us that they have returned home, full-time and for good.
Elizabeth Sanders and Brad Shepherd have each made choices to try their fortunes in this mountain valley. Sanders works for Appalshop, a local media organization dedicating to telling the stories of Appalachians.
“My parents felt like they needed to move away for certain opportunities,” Sanders said. “I was really clear with myself when I came back that I wanted to figure out how I can be here and raise a family here and hopefully that’ll happen.”
Shepherd made his own opportunity here in Whitesburg. He decided to open a restaurant on the main street. It’s called Heritage Kitchen, and the food is homey and fresh.
“Growing up, you don’t know what you want to do,” Shepherd said. “It just doesn’t seem like the place, there’s no opportunity, unless you wanted to work in the coal mines, so I was like, well, I’m getting out of here where there’s nothing to do. But you just keep wanting to come home.”
That theme — coming home — is one that echoes throughout the hills of Letcher County.