Useful Notes: Appalachia

Appalachia is a cultural region in the United States that stretches from western New York down to central Alabama. It is named for the Appalachian Mountains, which technically includes most of New England and a tiny bit of eastern Canada as well, but "Appalachia" commonly refers to the central and southern portions of the mountain range.

The region is the Deep South's cooler, healthier cousin, and they share many characteristics, but not all. Appalachia fought for the Union in the Civil War, and the region is an egalitarian, skeptical, cautious, conservative sort of place. The Scotch-Irish — the traditional white inhabitants of Appalachia — are hospitable, witty, friendly, and brave; they work hard and play harder; but they don't care much for anyone who puts on airs, nor for anyone who tries to tell them what to do. The region's Native Americans held, and continue to hold, much the same values.

The basics:
  • Appalachia is stereotypically characterized by rural isolation, poverty, and coal mining. Inbreeding was a major problem historically; the "blue people" of Kentucky are a famous case of a recessive gene showing up due to this. Nowadays, inbreeding isn't much of a problem anymore, but various other health issues arise due to mining hazards, abysmal poverty, diabetes, and rampant drug abuse. The New Deal brought electricity to the region in the 1930s-1950s, and so TV and radio broke the region's isolation somewhat — although the hilly terrain makes transmission and reception difficult. The construction of Interstates 64, 77, and 79 (the former only completed in 1988) also opened up the barely-touched interior of West Virginia to the masses, and various rural-development efforts are ongoing throughout the region today.
    • The isolation created by the mountains sometimes has its upsides: thus the National Radio-Quiet Zone and the Green Bank Telescope, in the heart of the Appalachian plateau in West Virginia.
  • Pittsburgh is the largest city in Appalachia proper, with a metro area of over 2 million, but doesn't have a very Appalachian culture. (It's proverbial that Pennsylvania is "Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburg in the west, and Kentucky in the middle.") "The Upstate" of South Carolina (Greenville–Spartanburg), with about 1.4 million population, is the most culturally Appalachian of the three Appalachian urban areasnote ; the third is Birmingham (no, not the British one-—the one in Alabama), with about 1.2 million.
    • Other major cities border the region, such as Washington, Atlanta, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Columbus, and Louisville. Many Appalachians seeking the urban life will relocate to one of these cities. Important smaller cities in the region include Huntington, Wheeling, and Charleston in West Virginia; Knoxville, Chattanooga, and the "Tri-Cities"note  in Tennessee; Asheville, North Carolina; Huntsville, Alabama; and the Roanoke-Blacksburg-Christiansburg area in Virginia.
  • The most important economic activity in Appalachia is coal mining. The coal town is a major part of the region's lively folklore; coal still provides a significant proportion of the region's income and jobs, and small ghost towns, left behind after coal seams and oil wells dried up, dot the regional landscape. Timber and iron production, as well as natural-gas and oil drilling, are also significant. There used to be a fair bit of industry there; nowadays, northern Appalachia is part of the Rust Belt, suffering the same problems as the rest of that region.
    • Environmental controversies are a constant in the region: Appalachia is full of beautiful wooded mountains and fossil fuels, but it's not exactly full of jobs. The great ecological issue of the early 2000s was mountaintop removal, which involved blowing off the tops of mountains to allow strip-mining of their coal (a much safer practice than following seams underground). The controversy of the 2010s is "fracking" or hydraulic fracturing: blasting high-pressure water into oil-bearing shale, allowing its oil and natural gas to be pumped out. Fracking brings valuable jobs to impoverished areas, and permits the world economy to function — at the cost of severe water pollution, unknown atmospheric health hazards, and man-made earthquakes.
  • Moonshine has been an Appalachian tradition ever since the ancestors of the Appalachian people picked it up from the Irish in Ulster. (Like Irish whiskey, and unlike its Scotch counterpart, Appalachian moonshine isn't aged.) Strictly speaking, moonshine is any alcohol produced illegally, without government inspection or government payment of excise taxes; in Appalachia, "moonshine" or "white lightning" has come to mean a particular type of clear maize liquor, normally above 50% alcohol by volume, which has a flavor both fiery and very mild. In recent decades, the US government has started selling licenses to produce moonshine legally — without asking too many questions about where the applicants got their money and their moonshining expertise.
    • The geography of the region — the remoteness and isolation mentioned above, created by the hilly terrain — makes it a good part of the world to hide unlicensed stills in. (And "unlicensed" meant "unsupervised", which sometimes meant "deadly". Enough moonshiners used old car radiators as condensers — producing often-lethal lead poisoning — that the rule for prudent moonshine buyers was to set a teaspoon of the drink on fire and watch the color of the flame: pure moonshine burned yellow, but "lead burns read and makes you dead.") Moonshine production requires an immense amount of clean water, which the region reliably has; it was said that if you followed any creek in Appalachia far enough upstream, you'd eventually find a still.
    • Methamphetamines have become an extremely serious problem in Appalachia, and it's sometimes been said that the meth lab (illegal, unregulated, highly profitable, easily hidden from the authorities, and prone to exploding) is the moonshine still's Spiritual Successor. But meth is much more dangerous than moonshine (or at least the lead-free varieties); and it isn't made from a local agricultural product. (Moonshine was made from maize, which grows readily in the region; ten horse-loads of maize could be distilled down to one load of moonshine, which would sell for a higher price than the ten loads of maize and had no risk of spoiling, either.)
  • Between Appalachia's isolation and Scotch-Irish values (cautious, conservative, hard-working, quick-witted, quick to fight, and fond of living well), Appalachia was a folklorists' Mecca as late as the 1980s. Appalachian English isn't quite the same as the language of Shakespeare, as is sometimes said; but 16th-century English ballads and ancient European fairy tales long flourished there. (One storyteller, Donald Davis, grew up with a version of Chaucer's "Reeve's Tale" and a number of little-known Grimm fairy tales. He also heard — as "The Time Jack Went Up in the Big Tree" — a version of The Death of Koschei the Deathless.) One unusually isolated valley believed as late as the 1960s that the United States was ruled by a king. The Foxfire Books relate the highly (although not quite completely) self-reliant way of life that once prevailed in Appalachia; various linguistic studies and collections of folktales provide the linguistic side.
    • Appalachian folk music is particularly interesting and influential. Bluegrass is a category of Appalachian music and is one of the two chief ancestors of modern popular music; the other ancestor, blues, has many Appalachian characteristics.
  • Appalachia's natural beauty makes it a common tourist destination. Travelers come from as far as Japan to see the leaves turning color in the fall; both tourists and locals enjoy the tall mountains and deep ridges, allowing for hiking, biking, rafting and kayaking, fishing, and skiing and snowboarding in the winter.
    • Geologically speaking, the Appalachian mountains are very old, first being formed around 480 million years ago, and reaching what scientists think was a height similar to the Himalayas or the Rocky Mountains before being eroded entirely and covered up by a shallow inland sea by the Mesozoic era. The crust was then uplifted and the resulting erosion against the uplifted crust created the mountains people now live among today.
      • Despite the current form of the Appalachians being a relatively recent creation, geologically speaking, the former heart of the original mountains can still be seen in the Blue Ridge Mountains and other folds and formations throughout the uplifted peaks and valleys. Mount Mitchell in the far western end of North Carolina stands as the tallest peak in the mountain range, as well as the highest peak in the United States east of the Mississippi River, with an elevation of 6,684 ft.
  • One very popular reason for visiting is to hike the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, usually simply referred to as the Appalachian Trail. The Trail is a 2,200 mile hiking and camping route that stretches from Maine to Georgia. Most hikers simply enjoy parts of the trail, as hiking the entire thing is a months-long ordeal.

Tropes relating to / in works about Appalachia:

  • Bad Ass Driver: A trait stereotypically associated with the Hillbilly Moonshiners and their Cool Cars. After all, you need to be able to handle that souped-up hot rod on bad roads to outrun the law.
  • Company Town: In many areas of Appalachia, coal mining is the only significant economic activity, and coal companies created a lot of these throughout the area.
  • Cool Car: Moonshiners souped-up their vehicles to better outrun and out-maneuver lawmen. This eventually gave rise to stock car racing, and ultimately NASCAR.
  • Hillbilly Moonshiner: Appalachia is the source of many of the associated stereotypes, and home to a lot of moonshiners.
  • Mountain Man: A trope derived, to a great extent, from the first white explorers and settlers in the region.

Works set in Appalachia


  • "The Crooked Man" story within the Hellboy series takes place in rural western Virginia in the late 1950's and deals with common ghost stories and folklore of the area.
  • The Guthrie family from X-Men are from eastern Kentucky. Best-known members are eldest son Cannonball and eldest daughter Husk, though most of the younger kids are mutants as well, and mother Lucinda is a staunch ally.

  • Sharyn McCrumb's Ballad Novels are a series of mysteries that take place in and around a small Appalachian community.
  • Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark owes a number of its stories to Appalachian folklore and ghost stories.
    • As you might have guessed from The Mothman Prophecies and Hellboy borrowing from this tradition as mentioned on this page, this area of the country has a long tradition of scary campfire stories, hauntings and witch tales, another by-product of its long isolation from outside modernization and communication.
  • A Walk In The Woods by Bill Bryson deals with an attempt to hike the trail.
  • District 12 in Hunger Games is explicitly stated to be in "what was known as Appalachia.". It is poor and its main industry is coal mining.
  • The Education Of Little Tree (written, oddly enough, by a former Klansman with no Cherokee ancestors) is set in Appalachia, and while it's not a reliable source for Cherokee culture, the values in the book are very Appalachian-like.
  • The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine. (One interesting thing about the book: its Northeastern focal character casually scorns Appalachian flintlock muskets. Admittedly, they were very obsolete weapons by 1900 or so, when the book is set; but they're beautiful weapons, often crafted to world-class levels of quality. One of the Foxfire Books relates an incident where a German expert looked at a pistol crafted by an Appalachian master gunsmith, and confidently dated the weapon to Bavaria in the 1770s; he had to be shown the fresh wood under the firing assembly before he would accept that it was contemporary!)

  • Aaron Copland's ballet Appalachian Spring, about the folk celebrating after building a barn, takes a more idealized view of the region.

Tabletop RPG