So similar, yet so very unalike

I have just returned from a trip out west to Rocky Mountain National Park. Like the Smokey Mountains of our region, the vistas are awe-inspiring. Likewise, Estes Park is not dissimilar to Gatlinburg, lots to do, but more than a bit kitschy. Numerous tourist traps, but also a gateway to a remarkable landscape.

Yet, there are striking differences. First, the environment. There is great natural beauty, but the views are so starkly different. Although not Montana, Colorado is also” big sky” country. The sweep of the heavens and mountains seems to go on forever. The view of the Front Range from the flatland is imposing.   I can only imagine the trepidation of the early pioneers as the great edifices grew ever larger by the day as their wagons slogged towards what must have seemed an insurmountable obstacle. Many chose to cross, others to stay and like their Appalachian cousins, they were a hardy bunch

Our vistas are more limited, but all the more imposing because of the uncertainty beyond the limited scope view. Frequently, the true nature of what you have gotten yourself into only reveals itself after you have reached a point of no return. The mountains appear to roll on forever and it seems as impossible to go back as to plod on, so on they went.

Perhaps the most striking difference is the vegetation. The Rockies are semi-arid. Stands of Ponderosa Pines give way to scraggly patches of Lodge Pole Pines and eventually to Alpine Tundra. Only our “balds” resemble the land above the tree line. Even the environment along the creeks seems sparse, nothing akin to the rain-forest-like dampness and abundance of an Appalachian stream with its dense stands of Rhododendron and moss-coated rocks. I love the western mountains, but I miss the luxuriance of our hills. This is never more apparent than in the Fall when the paltry yellow patches of Aspen trees pale in comparison to the vibrant reds and oranges of the East.

Aesthetically, the differences seem to counterbalance each other: dissimilar in the specifics, but alike in their ability to evoke the wonder of God’s creation.

However, the man-made environment tells a far different story. Appalachia reveals little of the frenetic economic activity that defines the communities from Denver down to Colorado Springs. There is construction everywhere. Jobs are plentiful and the real estate market is on fire. I only wish I had bought a house when I was stationed out here in the early 90s.

In sharp contrast, no city in our region has nearly as much to offer in way of opportunity except perhaps the tourist locations like Asheville and even they have more in common with the Piedmont communities on the east side of the Appalachian range than the organic communities over the mountains.

History, and the nature of the built environment have a significant influence on the composition of the respective demographics. We have little diversity; it is a defining characteristic of the mountain West. Hispanics are an integral part of their heritage and community; they are sometimes viewed as outsiders in our region (here to take the jobs). Perhaps, we feel that we have few race problems because (with less than 7% minority population) we have little racial diversity to contend with. While this situation may let us feel comfortable, it may be to our detriment. There is evidence that diversity helps promote innovation and entrepreneurship, an ecosystem we lack in our region.

Another stark contrast can be seen in the general appearance of the population. Health and exercise appear dominant themes in their mountain communities. In this I primarily refer to voluntary activity/sports. In terms of outside endeavors, our region certainly outpaces most urban areas; however, obesity and unhealthy lifestyles are also hallmarks of our region.

One has only to look at Ballad Health system’s COPA (certificate of public advantage) to understand the magnitude of the problem. They will be spending tens of millions of dollars on rural and population health initiatives, particularly including diabetes. Realistically, long-term public health is key determination of a viable workforce, and we do not measure up well in that regard.

I’m sorry; we may have invented Mountain Dew, but it is among the plethora of sugary-soft drinks that are at the root of our obesity and diabetes epidemic. The Mountain Dew hillbilly creates a stereotype of our population and I’m not sure that it shines a positive light on our region.

Despite the many similarities, there are substantive differences between the two great mountain regions of our country. A comparison highlights both the relative positive and negative qualities. The economic disparities are the most concerning. We must focus on making our region more attractive. Workforce training and health initiatives are critical. We have made much progress, but we should also recognize the severe limitations that our current situation poses.

First, without a heathy, trained and motivated workforce we will not be attractive to outside businesses.

Second, we need to encourage diversity. This applies not just to ethnicity. We must promote different ways of thinking and embrace new ideas, something difficult with our conservative mindset. We must also seek to diversify the economy. Our focus on industrial recruiting leaves us incomplete. Furthermore, the efforts to subsidize the retail/hospitality sector is having significant negative side effects: low wages and lack of opportunity and upward mobility.

Finally, we must be critically introspective. We are misleading ourselves in thinking that, on the whole, we remain the hard-working pioneers of Scotts-Irish descent that originally settled the wilderness we love. We may still be fiercely independent in our spirit, but the reality is one of significant dependence on government largess in the form of public assistance, disability and medical care. The dearth of opportunity that spawns the cycle of dependency, despair and drug addiction that has eroded urban America is becoming Appalachia’s self-fulfilling prophecy.

We are beautiful and we are proud. We should honor, but not regale in our past. We must also become forward-looking, not to a future of dependence, but of growth and innovation. Like an addict, we must first acknowledge who we are, then we can take the steps to become who we want to be.

You may also like...