The story below is an excerpt from our January/February 2017 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, log in to read our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app. Thank you!
Maybe the thing that made me most sure I was in a different land was that the infield was red.
Not sort of red, and not painted red and not metaphorically red. Just red-dirt red.
This was in Radford, Virginia in the mid- to late-1950s when my maternal grandfather made sure I got to play baseball while I was transplanted southward for the summer.
The infield, on a diamond just up the hill from the New River, was red clay. By not too long into the game, the ball was reddish too.
I think color has something to do with defining Appalachia as I came to know it. As in the richer, deeper green you saw when you came down from Baltimore to southwestern Virginia. Or the bright red of “Dr Pepper” and “10 2 4” on the green bottles that sat in the corner of my grandmother’s kitchen. Or the whitest flour you ever saw, coming out of a cannister on the counter across the kitchen most every day for baking something or other for us to eat.
The things you heard were brighter too. The crickets and cicadas rose up in a loud chorus as you sat out on the front porch next to the blooms on the abelia, where earlier in the day the bumblebees had made their own big scary music.
The natural greens were greener than at home as well. On the big pines, the apple-tree leaves, even the leaves of my grandfather’s carefully tended roses.
At the end of summer, the red-black berries of the black cherry fell nearly like rain on some windy days.
And most any time of any day, you’d all of a sudden hear the plaintive call of the mourning dove, as if the call was going out to you instead of another bird.
It was these intensities, along with the regular trips we got to make to the Clover Creamery for ice cream cones, and going out in the boat with my grandfather to catch big brim out of Claytor lake, that brought southern Appalachia into focus for me as a boy. Of course we did not call it that—it was just Radford.
And certainly every place we visit in this part of the country is indeed a unique place. But then they do seem to share those intensities along with a few others: Friendly people who say “hey” every time you see them, or the only time you see them. The shadows and sunsets can come early with those mountains looming; and said sunsets can get spectacular from up on those mountains.
Sad that the red infield has been left behind, not just for the little leaguer, but the aging softballer as well. But in its place, the trails of the region are equally compelling, and as often as not black-dirt in color. That includes both mountain trails such as The Great Trail itself—the Appalachian—and also the ever-growing number of greenways and other urban trails, of rails-to-trails and others that are relatively flat and pass by many other of the bounties of the region, like, well, the occasional baseball diamond and the good Southern place to stop in for a locally sourced meal and a cold, deep-brown craft beer.