Listening to Pete
Updated: Apr 25
Natural and cultural historic preservation is at the heart of every guided tour that Appalachian Understories leads. This starts with listening to the people who are apart of the places that we visit on our tours.
Pete Crain and I met for a hike on a warm, damp, and overcast morning in early April.
The forest floor was carpeted in wild flowers: spring beauties, trout lily, twinleaf and the daffodils (Pete called them easter lilies). Pete didn’t pay much attention to the spring ephemerals as we hiked through the brushy understory, daffodils being the exception.
The pockets of daffodils were indicators of Pete's previous life in Red Row Holler and clearly sparked his vivid memories of growing up here.
When we walked to a spot in the forest with a cluster of yellow tea cup like flowers it felt as if we were walking up to the doorstep of one of Pete’s closest friends' houses. This feeling grew from the countless stories that Pete shared of the families that lived in the houses of Red Row Holler that now lay in piles of rubble, slowly being reclaimed by the forest.
Walking with Pete through the woods is as close as someone could get to strolling through his memories. He would say things like “The Hunter family used to live right over there, I’ll show you their house,” spoken as if the house was still standing and full of life. In his depictions and story telling of the families, their animals, their struggles and triumphs, he did indeed erected the house back to its glory and fill it full of life before my eyes.
Pete shared many stories including a boy who was his older sister's neighbor and one of his numerous childhood friends. The more stories Pete shared the clearer it became that all of the children who grew up in the holler were an intertwined support network that functioned as an extension of family. As Pete put it “They were a troubled family with 12 kids and not enough to go around.” His stories of this family were of friendship and community support, such as sharing his lunch with his friend and his father allowing the family to take some of their chickens every now and then. Pete painted a picture from his memory of sitting at the bus stop with his friend in the winter as he watched the boy make circles in the snow with his barefoot. I asked if he was allowed to attend school without shoes on and Pete explained that it was typical for many of his classmates to attend school without shoes. Pete then told me about the “grease sandwiches” that his friend would pack for lunch: two pieces of bread with leftover bacon grease spread in the middle. He jokingly said that he would try to eat all of his own lunch before his friend would ask him to trade. As Pete shared his stories of what life was like for him and his friends in the holler I could see the joy that it brought him to look back on these memories.
Everyone of Pete’s stories took place outdoors. With no electricity, no running water and no indoor plumbing it seems that most people in Pete’s community (especially the children) spent the majority of their days outside in the woods. From the way he described these memories, Pete knew no boundaries of where his yard ended and the Wayne National Forest started. From foraging for berries and harvesting wood to hunting and trapping, the heart of Pete’s memories lay within the forest and amongst his community members. This connection to the forest was exemplified as he shared a story of how he would hike back from town at night and look up to use the dense tree canopy as a map that guided him home.
As I sat on the forest floor at Pete’s feet listening to his old Air Force stories I quickly noticed the humus of this forest was not only speckled with small chunks of coal but also clay tile, large pieces of old glass jars, and various other artifacts that served as a sort of time capsule of rural life in the 1950’s. My appreciation and admiration for the spring ephemerals to be able to grow through the substrate deepened as my sense of place did while listening to Pete.