Appalachia is a cultural region of the eastern United States. Geographical reference books claim it runs from Mississippi to New York. But those who most often write those books don’t live there or understand those who do. The heart Appalachia is the mountains of West Virginia; the only state fully inside the referenced territory. There, in those hills, is where Scotch-Irish and German immigrants settled, lived off the land, raised families and fought Indians. It’s also where they took up different sides and fought each other during the War of Northern Aggression.
Hillbillies are what folks who live there are often called and the term “hillbilly” is one of the most misunderstood. In 1900 the word first appeared in print in the New Your Journal and was used to explain a, “free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, had no means to speak of, dresses as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him.”
That sounds exactly like how a Yankee would define a real, outdoors, gun using kind of man and truth be told, it’s probably still the way a lot of New Yorkers envision the mountain folk of Appalachia.
Born and Raised a Hillbilly
I’ve lived in Appalachia most of my life. Grew up in a clannish family and was raised by what I’d would call real hillbillies. In fact, the truest hillbilly I know has been my truest friend for as long as I’ve been walking these hills. His name is Johnny Walker.
Walker was born of German and Scots-Irish decent. His German ancestors were gun makers and the rest were farmers. One ancestor fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War and another run moonshine during the depression. Walker grew up on a farm and grew up hunting. He grew up outside. Four years my elder, he was not so much my mentor as my partner in crime. My feet struggled to fill his footsteps wherever they led, and probably always will.
All grown up now we still share adventures. Mine have ranged worldwide but Walker has mostly kept to the rugged Allegheny hills. Like the Germans on his mother’s side of the family, he builds traditional muzzleloaders from scratch. He rifles his own barrels by hand, carves his own stocks from curly maple, and then uses those rifles to out-shoot all comers. He lives on a farm, raises crops, cows, and sheep and, he teaches horse and mules how to act around humans. In fact, Walker has mastered the art of gun-breaking horses. If you want to ride and shoot at the same time, he can show you and your horse how it’s done.
He knows how to shoot because he was raised as a hillbilly. His grandpa showed him how, his daddy showed him how, and he learned the rest on his own. I’ve had the opportunity to out-shoot some competitive professionals, esteemed gun writers, and even some well-regarded trainers. I don’t brag about those accomplishments. In fact I don’t really consider them much of an accomplishment at all. However, on occasion, I’ve out-shot Walker. Because I’ve seen what he can do with a gun – on demand when it mattered – I’ll brag about that.
But his talents do not just lie in weaponry and husbandry. He is a college educated engineer who has ramrodded a pipeline company most of his life. Hard days, hard work, and a damn hard life, where every foot you dig in a day means money in your pocket. A lifetime of driving men who drive big equipment has taught him a thing or two about these hills, he can look at a patch of ground and provide you a geological assessment in minutes.
To some, all those skills might not seem applicable to modern living. After all, to make it in this modern world many would have you believe all you need is a computer and a smart phone. They don’t even know why a fellow would carry a knife. But, there are still places where a professional, college educated hillbilly is needed. And, when that type of man is needed, no one else will do.
North to Alaska
Through his church, Walker became associated with a Baptist Mission in Kodiak, Alaska. On this little rugged island the Mission used to have a sustaining farm but bad times, harsh conditions, and a lack of men with the right stuff, pushed them to the brink. Walker felt a calling to go up there and sort them folks out. And, for the last several years that’s where he’s spent his summers.
Not only has he brought leadership, guidance and faith to that hamlet of ocean bound hopelessness, Walker has found a place where a real hillbilly can once again make a difference. To ride, shoot straight and speak the truth, that’s what Cooper advised. A few summers back Walker rounded up horses on that grizzly infested rock and taught youngsters how to ride them. With some help from Mossberg (God bless ’em.) he took them to the range and showed them how to pull triggers. And yes, with his – I’m no better than my word – credo, he taught them what it means to tell the truth.
About four years ago Walker quit his job, sold his farm, packed up his stuff, and moved to Kodiak, Alaska. He’s been living there ever since, running the Kodiak Baptist Mission, and doing what hillbillies do. Johnny Walker is a real hillbilly. He’s the kind of man companies that operate in the outdoor industry wish they had working for them. He’s the kind of guy gun and outdoor magazines wish they had writing for them. He’s also the kind of guy I like to have as a friend. And, while some folks would have you believe there’s no place anymore for a real hillbilly, Walker is living proof that’s not the case.
When times get bad again – and they will – you’ll wish a man like Johnny Walker was your friend too. Nobody gets to be a cowboy forever but hillbillies – real hillbillies – are eternal.