Going to the Mountaintops

Maria Gunnoe, in front of her barn in Bob White, West Virginia

Maria Gunnoe, in front of her barn in Bob White, West Virginia

I knew I was straying from the beaten track when I got an e-mail telling me to bring my own food and water because “you wouldn’t want to drink ours.” Later that night my husband and I tried to find my destination—the dubiously named Comfort, West Virginia—on a road map and couldn’t.

By the time I checked into the motel 24 hours later, I was looking over my shoulder for I don’t know what—somebody in a pickup with a gun pointed my way? I shut the curtains tight, double-locked the door, and poured a scotch—forgetting that the ice cubes were probably contaminated.

Welcome to coal country.

I’d come to interview Maria Gunnoe, an environmental activist (though she hates the term) who’s had death threats because of her 15-year battle with the coal industry over its practice of mountaintop-mining removal, in which whole mountains are blasted to rubble in the quest for coal. Hence the region’s poisoned water and air.

Except for a couple of crossings on the turnpike 30 years ago, I’d never been in West Virginia before.

On the drive down from Michigan, I plugged in a CD of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which touches on mountaintop removal and Big Coal. The book kept me gratefully awake as I tunneled south through Ohio toward Charleston and the dark hollows of Boone County.

While my eyes took in the ancient and beautiful hills Maria Gunnoe is fighting to save, my ears absorbed Franzen’s blistering account of Bush-era America, with its greed and military miscalculations and environmental assaults. I thought a lot about freedom—the many freedoms Franzen’s characters seek and find and discard, and how fickle those freedoms prove to be; my own freedom at being able to get in a car and fuel up at will and head off on the interstate to visit a woman who’s risking her life to show Americans what our independence costs; the freedom of speech for which the 44-year-old Gunnoe is willing to gamble her existence.

Two weeks later, snug in my suburban house that runs on electricity powered by the coal that’s being ripped from the mountains in Maria’s backyard, I’m still thinking.

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