THE NIGERIAN APPALACHIAN REMIX (THE OXFORD AMERICAN. September 29, 2016)

othing I met in Egypt, Kentucky, was like I imagined, except the cliché of rolling hills and craggy mountains. Except the poke, and other ground cover, green. No guns were visible except the Confederate flags that flew, that hung limp, wrapped in a wan clutch, not fluttering, clinging to their poles. I’d known, in theory, that melons must be too heavy to hang off trees, but here watermelon and banana cantaloupes lay on the ground. To see them harvested in a quick snap from their thin snaking placenta, lifted off their floored womb, was both ordinary and fantastic.

I’d been invited to dinner here, at a family farm called Big Switch at the head of its Egypt holler. The two-story home’s exterior was weathered wood, and the house sat on its haunches against a hill, overlooking the habitable portion of the farm. From ridge to ridge, the land was watched, gossiped on. The panorama of extractable minerals buried underneath malachite greens; it’s the way in these parts.

Big Switch exists as a haven—for hemp, for apples of a hundred varieties, sweet peppers, sauce and slicing tomatoes, those melons I mentioned, and for its owners, Lora and Joe, community organizers and parents to Wiley and Alma.

Lora and I met a few months back in the beautiful but tame Rivendell, Tennessee, at a supersecret retreat that we still wonder about to each other—a slight convocation of cooks and writers, holed up with expensive meats and a few bourbons from God’s bar. I like to hitch myself to stars, and Lora was bright. A month after we met, I invited myself to Big Switch. I would be in Louisville on September 9 to cohost a collaborative dinner with Edward Lee. Maybe I could come down then. Lora never hesitated. The day after my dinner, she drove the 150-mile trek between Egypt and Louisville to bring me to her home.

The roads that lead to Big Switch are not roads; they are endless lanes of boomeranged tar that wrap around hills so mighty. Wrap around hills so mighty that everyone in the vehicle stays pressed to the side of the car opposite the tall rocks. When that mess of a meander is done, you fall to the flat bottom of tall mountains, and your attention—previously loaned to death due to the incessant, narrowly missed collisions with expert oncoming traffic—is now tuned to the natural canopy that rises. These trees grow high, and they are insulted by you. But the mountains are inevitably stone-faced oath-breakers, and they eventually open into freedom, the peace of Big Switch.

By the time we reached Jackson County, night was with us. As we glided over the farm’s gravel drive, a cool breeze blew up from the expansive cockpit of Lora’s late model Toyota Prius. I alighted into all the normal noise of dark woods. This part of Appalachia was wholly uninterested in my fantasy of what Appalachia was supposed to be.