The road to Inez cuts through hard rock, and the Appalachian Mountains close in tight on those stubborn enough to live in the land’s creases.
Thelma Moore has lived here all her life. She is not sure why. “I didn’t know any different. I started having children, and that was it.”
She wants her two sons to get out, but they have not gone far.
This is coal country. And Trump country. And poor country – “dying,” in the assessment of the mayor of Inez, Ed Daniels, who spent 43 years in coal plants. It is a fitting place to end a reporting journey listening to Americans talk about their country.
Few on this route have more cause for hope than the people of Inez. The town of 718 spreads ramshackle along a creek in the pocket of rugged hills near West Virginia. It is a smattering of double-wide trailers and weathered frame homes, with just a handful of handsome brick houses. The average household income is less than $23,000. The poverty rate is more than 30 percent, and those with jobs expect to get laid off regularly.
Lyndon B. Johnson came to Inez in 1964 to launch his war on poverty. Folks here merely shrug when asked what good it did. Donald Trump won Martin County with 89 percent of the vote. His vow to “Make America Great Again” was irresistible. A year on, few have second thoughts.
“The reason I voted for Trump was because I wanted a change,” says Ms. Moore, who is the assistant manager of the only motel in town. She has worked there for 23 years. “I love this job,” she says.
Her husband works at a coal plant, as does one of her sons. Her father worked at a coal plant.
Her grandfather was a coal miner. Coal dust is ground into the seams of this town, and Mr. Trump promised to revive the dying industry.
“He is working on it and he has helped it some,” Moore says. “I do have more hope for my husband’s job. I really do.” And she applauds Trump’s gutting of clean power plant rules crafted by the Obama administration to restrict greenhouse gas emissions. “I think that’s going to help.”
But Trump remains popular here as much for his disruptive style as his avowed goals.
Residents of Appalachia have watched from behind their mountains as the country has changed, and Trump’s thumb-in-your-eye combativeness brings cheers.
“He doesn’t care about what he says – he tries to not hide it,” Moore says. “He says what’s on his mind, and that’s what I’m going to try to do this year. That’s my New Year’s resolution.”
If the cries from Washington are over Trump’s falsehoods, the investigation into his campaign’s dalliances with the Russians, or his schoolboy taunts of North Korea’s nuclear-armed dictator, those voices don’t make it up these hollows. People seem genuinely surprised when asked about Trump’s disdain for facts; they see his rhetoric as honesty.
“One of the things I appreciate about him is he is real,” says Jim Booth, a man who comes closest to owning Inez. “You know exactly what he’s thinking.”
Mr. Booth is a long-time supporter of Trump. He has personal reasons: Booth owns several of the coal mines in the region, and says he has used his coal money to buy motels, restaurants, insurance, and other businesses – from Miss Ida’s Tea Room to the string of Zip Zone convenience stores. He owns “just about anything that’s worth owning in Inez,” says one town resident.
A soft-spoken man, Booth flashes anger at Trump’s predecessor, while chatting in his Inez office adorned with a photo of Booth as a young coal miner and a thank-you note from Diane Sawyer for an 2009 interview.
“We hit some really tough times when Obama was president. He said he was going to bankrupt us and, by God, he just about did,” he says. “If we hadn’t gotten a new administration, I don’t know where I’d be in the coal business – probably not even in the business.” (In a 2008 interview, then-candidate Barack Obama explained his support for a cap-and-trade system to charge industries for their greenhouse gas pollution. Under such a system, Mr. Obama noted, "If someone wants to build a new coal-fired power plant they can, but it will bankrupt them because they will be charged a huge sum for all the greenhouse gas that's being emitted.")
Booth closed the last coal mine in Martin County last year, but workers commute to other mines in West Virginia and Kentucky. Booth says he expects this year to nearly double the 4-1/2 million tons of coal pulled from his mines in 2016. “We’re making a comeback,” he says. Because of Trump? “Oh yeah.”
If that does bring a small flush of money to Inez, it will help weave the pattern of booms and busts. A visitor to Inez nearly 30 years ago saw a town choked in dust from a relentless parade of coal trucks hauling the results of a coal boom then.
But Moore has seen enough. Her two sons have started families not far away. She wants them to leave Appalachia, even though she did not. “I know now. I’m older and I know what it’s going to be like 20, 30 years from now. They are going to look back, and they are going to wish that they had moved.”
“Yes, I do. I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything, I guess. I know I have, but I feel like that sometimes. Maybe because I’m still here in Martin County. I’m not where I want to be.
“But isn’t that the goal of everyone?” she muses. “To keep on dreaming and going?”