It's not very far from Kansas City to the Ozarks; it's so very far, indeed. I make that pilgrimage this time of year. A few hours in a car covers a different kind of vastness. I find my writing material in the hills. There aren't many real hillbillies left. Who else is there to write their stories? My grandmother's ninth decade draws to a rapid close. I know there aren't many coming behind her who form their words like she still does, who remember raising mules like she and grandpa did before their neighbors could buy a second hand tractor to plow the river bottoms or put up hay. She finally broke so many bones that she consented to let my dad bring her fire wood in, but she insists on firing her furnace herself. I can't make up a better character than her. I want to write that story.
Every year I see my aunts and uncles, my cousins and their kids, trickling into a tiny shack until it's about to burst, and I see the end of the old-time hillbillies written in lines around their lips and eyes. Every time they have to decide between staying in the hills and taking a job, the outcome is written in their flesh until one day their flesh doesn't return to the hills for Christmas. The young, unlined faces think of college, maybe, and I know where that path leads: to Kansas City and beyond. That's the slow motion death of our clan, even as the diaspora continues to send my old grandma's line through many dozen great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. Despite my families impressive numbers, the hillbillies are ending. We are ending every time one of us kids heads off to a fancy college and then raises our own children outside of the hills. My own children speak Latin better than hillbilly; I'm as much to blame for the death of our culture as anyone else. Someone needs to write that story.
My kin who remain fight a rearguard action for a battlefield already lost. It's not the secularists or the intellectuals or the gays or any other minority that ground the old hillbilly culture away until all that remains of it is a few octogenarians. It was satellite television and what passes for country music these days that changed my parents generation. It was equal parts desperation and hope that changed mine. Now creeping Dixie has annexed the Ozarks into the South; I don't particularly object to the South, but I wish it stayed in its traditional borders. The Ozarks were a land and a culture apart for centuries, but now the hills are just a province of Dixie. I want to write that story.
We all must take the bitter with the sweet. Hillbillies aren't the first culture to pass away. The people who lived in those hills five hundred years ago are almost all gone now, just a few mounds and arrowheads hinting that they were there before my people set up their stills and their trotlines. I just hope to leave a few of my words behind for whoever comes next.