D. A. BECHER - MOUNTAINS AND LOVERS
MOUNTAINS AND LOVERS
“My love dwells in the majesty of the Rocky Mountains; I, in the forest-blanketed highlands of the Appalachians.
The whispering of the wind—rather than the steady chirping of birds.
The crunch of rock movement under foot—rather than the crackle of old leaves.
Splotches of conifers on rocky slopes—rather than lush, leafy green
Clear, crisp air with a hint of pine—rather than pollen-filled, fertile air.
Both ranges have their charms, but she has chosen the one that speaks to her soul. I am torn by a love of both—my mountains and her.”
Darrell Marcum was sitting at a bar in Beckley, West Virginia when a comely, athletic-looking woman with brunette hair walked over and sat down on the stool beside his. “Know what the three biggest lies in the mining industry are?” the woman asked.
“Can’t say I do,” Darrell said.
“Well, the one told by the mine inspector to the mine operator, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you;’ the one told by the mine operator to the inspector, ‘Glad to meet you;’ and the one told by the union safety man, ‘I didn’t call him! I swear!’” The woman burst out laughing, but the joke hit a little too close to home for Darrell to generate more than a smile.
“Didn’t I see you in a class I’m teaching down at the mine safety academy?” the woman continued.
“That’d be me,” Darrell said, extending his hand, “Darrell Marcum.”
The woman took Darrell’s hand, holding it just a second before giving it a shake, and then holding it perhaps a heartbeat after.
“Samantha Livingston,” the woman said. “But most of my friends just call me Sam. What’re you drinking?”
“Just a beer—something called Miner’s Daughter.” replied Darrell. “Actually I guess it says on the side of the can here that it’s a stout.”
“Mind if I try a sip?” asked Sam. “I have no communicable diseases I’m aware of.”
“Sure; but how do you know I don’t?”
“Healthy looking guy like you—nooo way.” She sipped and then promptly stood. “See you in class,” she said and left.
Darrell watched her go—unable to take his eyes off the switching movement of the backside of her jeans as she walked out.
The National Mine Health and Safety Academy is operated by the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) near Beckley. It provides training for mine safety personnel, including members of employee safety committees.
In mines represented by the by the United Mine Worker of America—usually referred to simply as the UMWA—employee safety committees are elected by the membership. Darrell, although considered somewhat of a loner and strangely bookish to be working in a mine by some, was respected for his intelligence and even temperament and was elected to be the safety committee chair at the mine where he worked.
Sam was an MSHA mining engineer whose office was in Denver, Colorado. The Academy trains not only safety personnel from the eastern coalfields, but such personnel among hard rock mineral miners and western coalfield miners. She was on a six month loan to teach at the Academy.
One evening Darrell was sitting alone in the Academy’s dining hall reading a book while eating his dinner when Sam walked up.
Mind if I join you?” She asked.
“Sure,” said Darrell.
Sam glanced at his book: Flight Behavior, by the Appalachian-based author Barbara Kingsolver. “I’ve heard of that novel,” Sam said. “Something about monarch butterflies?”
“Yes,” Darrell replied, “but it’s also about a woman trapped in restrictive circumstances in rural Appalachia, and the opportunity she gets to develop her own metaphorical wings. She meets and is given the chance to work with a scientist who comes to study the butterflies’ migration to her family’s land.”
“‘Metaphorical,’ now there’s a word I don’t hear much around miners,” Sam said. “I’m curious though, I understand the book involves the impact of global warming. You think your work contributes to that?”
“I read books other than novels. I have no doubt that it does,” replied a somber Darrell.
“Then why do it?” asked Sam.
“Well, this is my home. I live with generations of relatives on land that I know and love. If I stay, there’s nothing else. You can’t expect industry to locate in these mountains with limited roads—and with this terrain, it costs a fortune to build a four-lane through them. So it’s do this or go somewhere else and start over by my lonesome. I hate what I’ve learned, but I suppose I made my deal with the devil when I succumbed to the lure of the money to be made and the chance to stay in the only place I’ve ever known.”
“I kinda know what you mean,” Sam said. “I miss my mountains; not these bumps you easterners refer to as mountains, but MOUNTAINS!” She raised her voice and both arms. “I can’t wait to get back after I finish this six-month instructor stint.”
“Tell me about your mountains,” Darrell said quietly.
“Well, they’re majestic—no other word for them. The air is clear. The snow on their peaks is almost year round and sparkles in the summer sun. Your hills are okay, I suppose, but they don’t inspire the sense of awe that my mountains do.”
“Well, mine are soft—maternal,” countered Darrell. “The trees cover the hills like a downy green blanket in the summer and a crazy quilt in the fall. The air is filled with pollen, which bothers some folk, but I smell life. Ol’ John Denver didn’t refer to this state as ‘Mountain Momma’ for nothin’. I would like to see your mountains someday, though.”
“I’d like to see more of yours too,” Sam replied. “All I’ve really seen is what little is visible from here and what I saw on the drive down from the Charleston airport.”
“I’d be happy to show you more if you’d like,” said Darrell.
“I’d really like that. The weekend is coming up. I believe you’ve got what, two more weeks here? How about this weekend?”
Darrell agreed. “Meet you here in the cafeteria at seven on Saturday morning. I’ll scrounge up a couple of small tents and some camping gear and, if it’s okay with you, we can spend Saturday night somewhere on the road. But I gotta ask—you don’t really know me, you sure you want to head out with someone you just met? Does not seem like a wise practice to me.”
“Not a general practice with me—I’m making an exception. And what about you? I could be a deranged serial castrator.” Darrell felt himself flush.
“See, somebody as easily embarrassed as you is probably a safe bet. But I plan to leave word with a few friends as to whom I’m headed off with, so if I happen not to come back . . . .”
They met in the cafeteria Saturday at the appointed time. Darrell had packed his gear in the back of his pickup truck. They headed out for the Highland Scenic Highway about two hours away.
While they were riding Sam asked, “What’s your story Darrell? You just don’t seem like the typical coal miner I meet?”
“Well what do you want to know?”
“We could start with the beginning.”
“Okay, I was raised and live in Red Wolf Holler near Jodie, West Virginia,” began Darrell.
“Holler?” interrupted Sam.
“Well, its spelled H-O-L-LOW, but pronounced ‘holler’ around here. Hollers are narrow valleys that run between Appalachian hills. My great grandfather, Henry, settled in Red Wolf Holler and there had his son Clifford. Grandpa Clifford had his own children, including my father, who settled in the holler and then they had their children, most of whom found space to live in the same holler.”
“Did you always want to be a coal miner?
“No,” he said. “In grade school I loved to read and write stories. In high school I started writing poetry too. I won a few writing contests and was planning to go to college and be a writer. But at the time I graduated from high school coal mining was booming and when Grandpa told me he could get me a well-paying job with benefits at the UMWA represented mine where he worked, that’s where I went.”
“What about you? What attracted you to mining—at least to the engineering part of it.”
“It’s a bit similar to your situation. Where I grew up in Butte Montana, there just wasn’t much else. It sits on what was sometimes called ‘the Richest Hill on Earth.’ There are an estimated 49 miles of vertical shafts and 5,600 miles of horizontal underground workways chasing mostly silver and copper under the town.”
Sam continued, “My family wasn’t exactly poor, but with me and four brothers to support, there wasn’t a whole lot to go around. My brothers went into the mines. I wanted to go to college, but had to live at home to make it work. The only college in town is Montana Tech—formerly called the Montana State School of Mines—so you can guess what their strong suit is. I came out a mining engineer.”
“Well, why didn’t you go to work for some large mining company—would have to pay more than the government?”
“What I didn’t mention,” Sam said, “is that Butte is trashed, environmentally speaking. In addition to all the underground mining, we have the infamous Berkeley Pit—a large crater-like feature containing water laden with heavy metals and dangerous chemicals that leach from the rock. We have the distinction of being the largest Environmental Protection Agency Superfund cleanup site in America. So I couldn’t quite bring myself to work for any of the big western mining companies who seem to create such messes.”
“What about a coal mining company?” asked Darrell.
“No offense, but I’ve learned that coal-fired power plants are the most efficient engines of air pollution on the planet. I know that some mining is necessary, and I feel that with MSHA I can at least help assure it’s done safely and hope that my compatriots at the EPA strive to see it’s done with as little impact on the environment as possible.”
“Life does seem to be one compromise after another,” Darrell said just before turning off the main road onto the Scenic Highway.
He pulled off near a sign indicating “Red Lick Overlook,” and got out a thermos of coffee, a bag of pastries and two camp chairs. He offered Sam a seat, poured her some coffee and gave her a pastry. She took a bite and her face immediately screwed up. “This isn’t a sweet roll! What in God’s creation is this?” she asked.
“Pepperoni roll,” replied Darrell, “the height of West Virginia cuisine—except, of course, when ramps are in season; then anything with ramps in it is tops.”
“Pepperoni rolls do not sound like food indigenous to a mountain people,” Sam stated incredulously. “And ramps, never heard of those.”
“Well, quite a few Italians immigrated to West Virginia in the early 1900’s to work in the mines. This was something their wives could make for them to take underground that wouldn’t spoil. Easy too; just wrap dough around some sliced pepperoni and bake it. You find it at all the better gas station markets,” he said with a playful smile. “And ramps naturally grow in the woods and are harvested in the spring. Kinda like a cross between leek and garlic. I suppose our taste for them may have come from the Italians too.”
As they ate and drank their coffee the fog dissipated in the valleys between green mountain ridge after green mountain ridge that stretched off into the distance.
“It’s beautiful. Not the majesty of my mountains, but gently inviting and soothing to the soul,” mused Sam.
After they admired the view in silence for some time, they headed out again. They stopped at a small gravel parking lot with a placard indicating the trailhead for “Red Spruce Knob Trail.” Darrell shouldered a small backpack and they set out.
The first part of the trail was a series of steep switchbacks. At the top of the rise, the trail was less arduous and began to wend its way through a red spruce forest. The forest floor was covered with emerald-colored moss as far as could be seen in the gently undulating terrain. It was as if someone had laid a velvety, plush green carpet to create the undergrowth through which the trail ran. The trail itself was covered with reddish spruce needles, which gave the whole scene a fairyland-like appearance. “Now this is truly special,” Sam whispered.
They stopped at an overlook. There was nowhere to sit but in the moss, so they did, looking out down a long notch in the ridgeline towards the highlands in the distance.
“Can we just stay here for a while?” Sam asked in a hushed voice.
“Sure,” replied Darrell.
After a while, they reclined in the pillowy moss. Sam tentatively slid her hand into Darrell’s. He grasped it lightly. They lay this way for a while until Sam rolled on her side and tenderly kissed him. “I’m certainly not a virgin, but I don’t want you to get the idea I sleep around. I’ve slept with a few men since high school. I cared for each of them and knew them for some time. Strangely, after only knowing you a short period of time, I now find myself caring more deeply for you.”
Darrell returned her kiss. “Well, I didn’t Biblically lay with a woman until what is considered quite late in life around here. It was the night of my senior prom, and she seduced me. Then there was another girl that I dated for a couple years, but we eventually broke up. So experienced in love, I’m not. Again, quite the outlier.”
“Maybe we can improve your stats a bit,” Sam said between passionate kisses.
Later, after they had disentangled themselves, Darrell softly stroked her hair as he gazed at Sam’s uncovered bosom. He recited gently, “Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies. Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, I will get me to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense.”
“Now that does not sound like an original composition,” a smiling Sam said as she retrieved her shirt.
“Song of Solomon—King James Version,” Darrell informed her. “But I, on occasion, do a bit of writing.”
“Would you write something for me?” requested Sam.
Darrell answered, “That I will.”
Later that evening, they set up only one of the two tents Darrell had packed.
Darrell closed his eyes as he lay in one of the waterfall-fed pools of Goldbug Hot Springs high in the mountains of Idaho's Salmon-Challis National Forrest. When he opened them again, two sights stirred his soul—a spectacular view down the valley he had hiked up to reach this isolated Shangri-la, and the woman next to him with whom he had fallen in love.
Sam and Darrell had continued to date while she finished her time at the mine academy. After Sam returned home to Denver, she invited him out to sample the beauty of her mountain milieu. They traveled north from Denver along the edge of the Rocky Mountain chain. They went to the Grand Tetons and worked their way up into the Lemhi River Valley in Idaho.
Darrell learned why Sam had described her mountains with such awe. He too was moved by their grandeur, their snow-covered jagged peaks; yet he still felt the tug of the Appalachians. He came to the conclusion that attempting to compare the two ranges was like trying to compare the genders of humankind—impossible to rank relative to each other. He came to think of Sam’s home range as masculine—thrusting up from the earth; his as feminine—rounded mountaintops that were veiled in a covering of flora, making them all the more alluring.
After Darrell returned to West Virginia and resumed his work as an electrician at his employer’s mine, he could not get Sam out of his mind. Even more confusing to him, he could not shake the almost reverential feel he had developed for the landscape in which she dwelt.
In my larval stage of life she met me, nurtured my better instincts and won my love.
I entered my chrysalis in the belly of the earth without her, without hope, tossed aside by those whom I had sought to save.
In the depths I metamorphosed. She found me, pulled me from the earth, dried my newly formed wings and cast me free on a westward flowing breeze.
After his western trip, Darrell and Sam continued their relationship via nightly FaceTime calls. They discussed their work, politics and the state of the environment. Darrell had never had such a conversation partner before. Most of his acquaintances liked to discuss sports (Darrell couldn’t care less), deer hunting (an occasional interest of Darrell’s), the Bible (Darrell’s theology did not match that of his neighbors’ and relatives’ hard-shell Baptist beliefs), and whom they had bedded the night before. Darrell relished Sam’s calls.
One evening Darrell told Sam about his concern that Red Wolf Creek, which ran through his holler, had begun to increasingly flow with rust-colored, thickening water. The stream had never been pristine, but this phenomenon deeply troubled Darrell because his young cousins often played in its riffles and pools. From what he had read, he feared this might be acid mine drainage. Worse, he suspected this was a result of water seepage from his employer’s mine, which was located at a higher elevation in the creek’s watershed. He was reluctant to pursue his hunch since anyone raising any negative issue regarding coal was viewed as attacking the livelihood of those who labored to extract it.
Darrell lamented that he at least wished he could get the water tested. “I’ve friends here who are active with the Sierra Club’s Water Sentinels. They monitor water quality of streams.” Sam offered, “I’ll see if they can locate a similar group in West Virginia.”
Sam’s friends suggested Darrell contact an organization called the Kanawha-New River Basin Watershed Watch. He did this and the group agreed to test Red Wolf Creek’s water. They reported back that flowing down the creek was highly acidic water containing arsenic, copper and lead; classic pollution from mining operations. The organization presented its findings to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. The agency, however, ultimately accepted the company’s argument that the acid runoff was more likely from closed mines in the area. When told this, Darrell’s reaction was, “Hell, I’ve lived here my whole life. If this was coming from old mine works, why would it just start now?”
The Watershed Watch agreed to approach a public interest law firm with access to an outside expert on sources of mine runoff pollution. After reviewing the report from its expert, the firm agreed to take the case. Darrell met with one of the lawyers along with some Watershed Watch people.
The attorney advised that a problem with getting the case started involved finding a plaintiff who could assert “standing.” Perhaps noting the eyes of his listeners glazing over while giving a textbook explanation of the issue, he summarized, “In short, we need to put the name of someone impacted by the pollution on the court documents.”
“Well, what about these folk?” Darrell asked nodding towards the Watershed Watch representatives. “They’re trying to keep the streams in the area free from pollution. This certainly interferes with their efforts. Isn’t that good enough?”
“I’m afraid not,” the lawyer answered. “It can’t be a generalized connection, such as an organization having a concern for a forest or a stream, but the connection of someone actually facing damage from the consequences of the illegal action—in this case, a resident of Red Wolf Holler.”
“What if no one in the holler wants their name on a suit against the only large employer in the area?”
“Well,” the lawyer said, “if we can’t find someone in the holler willing to step up, there can be no legal action.”
Darrell tried to convince one of his non-miner relatives in the holler to enter into the suit, but none wished to become a pariah in their coal mining community. He spoke with Sam about it one evening. Sam commiserated, “I’m not certain I can give you an unbiased answer. My hometown is ground zero for the effects of mining-related water pollution. So, if someone needs to step up, well, I’d give that person my full support and, if it’s the right person, might sweeten the pot a little beyond that and take another turn teaching near him.”
So Darrell became a named plaintiff in a lawsuit to stop the mine in which he worked from polluting the stream on which he lived, and Sam volunteered for another six month assignment as an instructor at the Academy.
One Saturday after the lawsuit had been filed, Darrell was having a hamburger at the local Dairy Queen when two miners he knew from the area walked in. One stormed up to Darrell and the other followed. Leaning with his balled fists on Darrell’s table, the first man snarled “Just what the fuck are you trying to do to us?”
“Not trying to do anything—just trying to eat my burger and fries,” Darrell said between chews.
“Well, you little pissant, I think you’re trying to take food from my family’s table. You go screwing around with our last operating mine in the area and we’re all fucked. What are we supposed to do? Draw welfare—try to go on disability? I ain’t that kind of man!”
Darrell looked up and swallowed, “Look I’m not trying to take anybody’s job. I’m just trying to make sure my relatives in my holler don’t have to live near a creek that’s become dead and dangerous to their health. Hell, you guys live on the stream our creek flows into. The company can fix this—should fix this! These companies have been taking from our land for years and leaving us a spoiled, dangerous place to live where we get to watch our relatives die of cancer before their time. I’m just trying to change that.”
“Better to take our chances with that, than starve,” the first man said while raising his fists.
The second man held his companion back. “Come on Joe, not here,” he said. He continued, “You just watch yourself Darrell. We’re not the only guys who think this way.”
Both men turned and left.
Thereafter, disquieting things began happening: flat tires on Darrell’s truck in the mine parking lot; fellow miners avoiding him during breaks and in the bathhouse; consistently being assigned the least desirable and most dangerous work.
A few weeks after the restaurant incident, Darrell, a helper, a continuous miner operator and the crew chief arrived in a shuttle car at their mine section. They stopped near the “suicide pillar.” Darrell worked in a mine that utilized room-and-pillar mining. In this method of mining, continuous miners—machines with a rotating device on the front with studded metal bits that chew through coal—form a grid pattern of tunnels, leaving pillars at the tunnel intersections to support the roof of the mine. When the cuts are finished, retreat mining begins. This involves taking the coal that forms the pillars. As a consequence, the ceiling of the mine collapses behind the work. When the last pillar standing in a section—the suicide pillar—is removed, the remaining ceiling crashes down. For safety’s sake, this is often done with a remote-controlled continuous miner.
The crew chief sent Darrel and the helper to pull out an electrical box near the pillar before its removal. Darrell began work on this when he noticed the helper had disappeared. He then heard the whine and crunching sound of a continuous miner beginning to dig coal. He turned to see the shuttle car rapidly leaving the area with the other three men on it. The miner continued to chew on the pillar. Knowing what was about to happen, Darrell’s blood ran cold. He desperately scurried through falling rock and choking dust to a refuge chamber. Bruised and bleeding, once inside he fell prostrate, just before the roof completely collapsed.
Darrell thus became entombed in one of the mine’s emergency refuge chambers; a small reinforced metal room with an oxygen supply, water, first aid kit and supposedly a phone to the surface. When Darrell looked up from his prone position he saw that the phone had been smashed. He fought back an overwhelming urge to retch.
After Sam finished for the day at the Academy, she had a message from one of Darrell’s cousins: there had been a roof collapse at Darrell’s mine and he was unaccounted for. She begged the head of the Academy for one of their cars and sped toward Darrell’s mine, about an hour and a half away.
When she got there, MSHA personnel from the Charleston office were already present. She identified herself to the head official on-site as an MSHA mining engineer from the Academy.
“Tell me what happened,” she said with just a slight quaver in her voice.
“Well, there was a crew of four in a section of the mine where they were doing retreat mining. The crew leader tells us that they were down to the last pillar and about to pull out to a safe area to take it out with a remotely controlled miner, when the miner unexpectedly started into the pillar and the roof collapsed. The leader says that he and two others in the crew managed to escape, but the electrician was in an area directly impacted by the fall. From what they saw, they’re sure he was immediately killed; but just in case they’ve repeatedly tried to call the emergency refuge chamber in that section and there has been no response. Anyway, it was such a catastrophic collapse that the refuge chamber itself was probably crushed.”
“Well, what’s the plan?” Sam asked.
“We plan to wait until things stabilize a bit and then make a final determination on whether there might be a way to safely recover the miner’s remains. We don’t want any more fatalities.”
“No, no, no!” roared Sam. “We are not talking about remains here yet. There must be a seismic location system to detect trapped miner’s signaling available somewhere in the area. I know there’s one at the Pittsburg office. I headed up a team which deployed that one to locate trapped miners in Utah. It’s one of my areas of expertise at the Academy.”
“Well yeah, I think we could get one here, but what’s the point?”
“Just do it, damn it!” Sam bellowed.
When Darrell saw the destroyed phone he panicked and he prayed. In a small notebook he always carried he penned notes to his family, and of course to Sam. But he doubted that his notes would be found. Because the collapse had been so powerful, he knew that they might very well never risk recovering his body; especially since there was no communication from the chamber. They would assume no one was in it.
After a time, he decided that he could not just passively wait for the end. He took the metal handset from the demolished phone and began to bang on the chamber’s walls in the faint hope someone might actually try to locate him. In his mind, it was a way to go out fighting.
After seismic equipment was found and delivered, Sam headed up its deployment. She was the first to detect Darrell’s banging. From this they managed to pinpoint his location.
A small borehole was drilled to an air space just outside the refuge chamber and a pipe inserted. Darrell heard the drilling and managed to make his way to the pipe and communicate with those above-ground. The drilling of a rescue shaft began.
For three days Darrell’s relatives and members of the press maintained a watch at the drilling site. On the third day, a rescue capsule was lowered into the shaft. When it was hoisted back up, Darrell staggered into the sunlight.
The workers who had conspired against Darrell were nowhere in the area when he emerged from the capsule. They were located several weeks later by the West Virginia State Police and charged with attempted murder.
Sam took Darrell home to her mountains, with a promise that they would often visit his. She proposed that he be a kept writer and he agreed. He spent his time in their home near Denver composing poetry and prose to honor both of the highlands of their hearts.
The lawsuit involving acid water runoff into Red Wolf Creek settled. The company agreed to an abatement plan that involved keeping water tables in the mine low by pumping, thus avoiding much of the runoff to begin with; and then creating an artificial wetland to help alleviate acid formation in the water that did escape the mine. Implementing these fixes, while costly, was not so much so that the mine could not continue to operate.
Consequently, Darrell and Sam were welcomed back to Red Wolf Hollow a year after the abatement plan was put into effect. They had traveled to Charleston to attend a book signing event promoting a compilation of Darrell’s work and made a side trip to the hollow. There, Darrell sat with Sam on the creek bank and watched the latest generation of his extended family playing in the water. He looked at Sam’s swollen belly and smiled at the prospect of his own soon-to-arrive progeny returning someday to splash with the child’s cousins.