When you live in a place like the D.C area, you sometimes forget that the vast majority of the country feels very different. In some ways, D.C is a bubble: Relatively wealthy, highly educated, opportunities for most (arguably), culture, sophistication, diversity, convenience and of course, congestion….so much congestion. But overall, a very definite first-world feel in most places. But not all of the U.S feels like the one I’m used to. I was in West Virginia this past weekend and in some ways, it was like entering a different country. I’ll post some pictures and observations from my trip in the next few days, but a visit to a coffee shop in the small town of Elkins (pop. 7,100) really got me thinking about how different the world is today compared to how it was 50, 30 or even 10 years ago. After drinking three margaritas ($7.50 for all three!) at El Gran Sabor (a Venezuelan restaurant in the middle of rural West Virginia — I know even the tiniest, most rural town has a Mexican and Chinese restaurant, but Venezuelan?) I walked over to the coffee shop to wake up a little; you really don’t want to drive through the twisty mountains of West Virginia at night after three margaritas. Darkness takes on a whole new meaning when you leave the lights and infrastructure of the city and suburbs.
Anyway, I walk into this café, which really isn’t anything special; some high tables against the wall, a few bar stools and some regular tables here and there. There were some musicians playing folksy country music at the front of the coffee shop, a few customers, mostly men, hanging around talking and listening to the music. Really, the most remarkable thing about the places was that the coffee was only $1. With refills. I was more talkative than usual after my three Margaritas and struck up a conversation with two ladies I’ll call Lori and Mary. Lori was the server and was inconspicuously hanging out behind the coffee bar, and Mary, who appeared to be the owner or manager of the place was running between the kitchen and the bar. Lori had a reserved, quiet presence while Mary seemed to have a more take charge-make-things-happen attitude. The way they were dressed, their hair, their manner — especially Lori with her perm, glasses and outdated clothes –they could have been living in any decade between 1960 and 1990. Lori’s husband was one of the musicians in the folksy-country band in the front of the café, as was his daughter (Lori’s step-daughter) and their son, if I remember correctly. I’ve had a fascination with small town life ever since I was a kid who read too much and interacted with the real world too little, so I have a tendency to envision small town life as an idyllic, picture-perfect existence. I was interested in hearing Lori’s thoughts on small town life — Mary seemed too busy — and life in Elkins in particular. I decided to visit Elkins because I read that it’s a Certified West Virginia Arts Community, whatever that means, and it was supposed to have an impressive arts scene, at least for a small town. But as I walked around Elkins, I kept thinking, well, maybe we haven’t quite reached downtown; maybe we’re still on the margins of town and that’s why things don’t quite look all that charming and quaint and artsy. Or maybe it was the Margaritas; maybe everything would have looked much better without them.
The friend I was traveling with must have felt the same way because he asked Lori where downtown was and Lori informed us that we were, in fact, in downtown and that Elkins was the largest town in the area. She went on to inform us that when something really bad happens to you and our small area hospital can’t handle it, they send you up to Morganstown or Clarcksburg, 80 or 90 miles away.” 80 or 90 miles away?? That seems like the difference between being very alive and very dead! Lori then said, almost apologetically, that back in the day, when she was a little girl, downtown Elkins was a vibrant, bustling place full of all kinds of shops…shoe shops, hardware stores, places that sold little knickknacks, that kind of thing, but then Walmart moved in and most of the small shops closed. It was hard for me to tell if Lori thought this was a good thing or a bad thing, or if she just felt bad that downtown Elkins didn’t have more going on for visitors.
For some reason, this made me very sad. Once upon a time, Elkins was this busy little town in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by beautiful mountains, valleys and rivers, with its own shops and its own character and its own way of being, and then one day Walmart moves in and all those little shops can’t survive anymore. Intellectually, I can understand how a Walmart in a rural place like Elkins makes sense; it’s more efficient, more convenient and probably cheaper than small businesses, but the more romantic part of me can’t help asking, where’s the creativity and uniqueness in Walmart? Where’s the sense of place? A few years ago I was watching a documentary about an indigenous tribe living somewhere deep in the jungle. It was narrated by some big rock star, maybe Sting, who said something like, you know, we’re always saying that we need to protect these people’s way of life, that we need to preserve if before it disappears, but this way of life sucks. It’s hard. It’s brutal. Spending hours spear fishing to catch one fish a day and watch your children go hungry because it’s tradition? I find that attitude very patronizing. OK, so I’m paraphrasing, I have no idea if the narrator was actually Sting and I have no idea if it was spear fishing that was being discussed, but you get the picture. Maybe my whole preserve small town America instinct is along those same lines; it’s a nice, nostalgic, warm and fuzzy idea, but is it really a worthy one? I don’t really know. I know that the whole Walmart/Big Box thing is likely an inevitable reality nowadays, that these big stores come into small towns and often destroy small business, making life much more convenient (if less quaint and picturesque) for the locals, but there’s just something very sad about the whole thing to me.
After we left and I went back to my regular life in the comfortably middle class suburbs of D.C, I couldn’t get Lori’s words – and the image of a bustling, vibrant Elkins – out of my mind. Yesterday at work I was thinking about how we live in this results and goal-oriented world and I just can’t help feeling that those of us who take most of our joy in the process — those of us who live for the small details and learning process rather than the overall results — how, if at all, can we stay relevant? I guess adapting is the only way because the world — or at least the U.S — is leaning more and more towards a cost-effective business model which leaves little room for intricacies and processes. Which makes sense in a way, because in absolute value terms, process doesn’t really matter — only results do. Over the last few months, I’ve thought a lot about jobs that have disappeared and will never come back. Remember those beautiful hand-drawn flora and fauna pictures in encyclopedias? There’s really no need for these kinds of artists anymore because a computer’s rendition will be much more perfect (and cheaper) than a human’s. Dressmakers, blacksmiths, film developers, type setters, film projectionists, newspaper workers, even factory workers…these are basically things of the past, things humans only need to be involved in minimally because we’ve found better, more efficient and more cost-effective ways to do things. A machine can do so many things better than a human. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s like human beings are becoming less and less of a necessity in the day-to-day functioning of the world. Just look at photography: Back in the 1800s, there was so much involved in creating a photograph. You stood still forever until the picture was captured, film development was a process and an art and human hands were involved in every step of the process. Things got easier and soon it was feasible to own your own camera, then cheap point and shoot cameras came on the market, followed by the digital camera revolution and finally, camera phones became the norm. Anyone and everyone is a photographer and suddenly the world filled with trillions upon trillions of photos preserved on social media for all eternity.
It’s in my nature to resist these kinds of changes because I live for finding the small, overlooked details hidden in the bigger picture…a forgotten barn on a hillslope, a little-traveled gravel road by a major highway, a rarely visited overlook, an under-appreciated small town…things that, in the scheme of things, don’t really matter. But I know that if I resist, I become irrelevant, a relic, a joke in a world that’s always moving, always changing, always becoming more and more efficient and I don’t want to be like that cranky old lady down the street who is always complaining about how the world is going downhill, how the good old golden days of yesteryear were oh so much better. But it still makes me a little sad that humans have gotten so good at everything that the world just doesn’t need us in the same way as it used to.