By WILLIAM SHANNON
I walked into the Hill Crest Baptist Church in Beckley, West Virginia, just as the crowd of about twenty people began to greet one another and it was clear in about five seconds that I stood out, a stranger in the congregation.
A few people greeted me and asked where I was from as I stood in front of a back pew.
Wood-paneled walls and fluorescent lights framed the small room and a board hanging on the wall listed the church’s record attendance, 57, the total of the prior Sunday’s offering, $407, and the total offering of the Sunday before that, $356.
As everyone settled back down for the service one of the women whispered to another woman, “—from New York.”
The service started with five or six women singing gospel songs one at a time at the front of the group. One woman talked for a few minutes leading into her song and then looked over to a woman at the CD player, whose job was to push play on the instrumental tracks. The woman at the CD player was distracted by a toddler she was watching and it took about ten seconds and a few nods in her direction before she hit play.
Lots of people sang along and a few of the people glanced back here and there to see what the traveling New Yorker in the black shirt was thinking.
When everyone had sung their prepared songs one of the men who had talked to me introduced me to the larger group and then said that a lot of times newcomers like to sing a song.
I thanked them but said I didn’t have anything prepared and the man, in a southern accent, said, “All right,” and smiled.
It was time for Pastor Frankie Lyons—who’d been sitting there quietly at the side—to step to the pulpit. He launched into a fast-paced sermon, letting it pour from his mind like a Faulkner novel. He talked about his years working in the coal mines and how he saw some men sleep on the job and others complain after they burned their money on vices and he said they’d been the ones most in need of compassion and he related it to the Parable of the Lost Son in Luke Chapter 15 and he talked in one never-ending sentence, punctuated by frequent eruptions of, “het!”
And he talked about the younger son who went away and squandered his share of the wealth his father’d given him and how he went home expecting shame but his father’d welcomed him with a celebration. And it meant, no matter what a person does, no matter who they are, “that Jesus loves them—het!—bless God he loves everyone; black or white, yellow, blue, I don’t care what it is—het!—he loves you—het!—and he’ll never turn his back upon us—het!—what we do, we turn our back upon him—het!—that’s what this young man did.”
And Lyons went on with the sermon and he blotted the sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief.
After twenty minutes or so, Lyons, out of breath, paused and shifted to a slower pace to close the sermon.
“The devil’s out to get you,” he said.
“Yes,” a man said.
“He’s out to destroy all who walk with the Lord Jesus Christ. And he’s doing a good job of it.”
“Yes he is,” two women said together.
“I’ve seen more today, brother—there’s a greater falling away today than there ever was. Ever was… It’s sad, but it’s happening. God didn’t intend it that way, but that’s what’s happening.”
Everyone bowed their heads.
“Are you ready to meet the Lord? If you’re not ready to meet the Lord, would you raise your hand and say, ‘Pray for me’? I’ve left us where we should be today.”
A woman began playing piano.
“I’m not really where I’m satisfied. Just lift that hand up and say, ‘Pray for me.’ Is there one? Anywhere? Anywhere.”
“You might be lost this morning and don’t know the blessed Savior,” Lyons went on as the piano player picked up the pace.
“Our eternal grace, his heavenly father, I come to you this morning. Again, Lord. Again. Why? Because you’re the great and wonderful Savior. Lord, you’re the one who helps us. … And we ask you Lord for those here who don’t know you. What I pray, Lord Jesus, just speak to their hearts. Give them the power to turn again. While they have the opportunity. Because it’s running out. … Don’t let one, Lord we pray, go out in eternity without you. Lord Jesus, with all the grace of God, in your precious name—Amen. Amen.”
“Amen,” said others and Lyons said, “Why don’t we stand while we sing.”
“Coming home,” Lyons said. “You need to come home.”
“I’ve wandered far away from God,” the people sang.
“Now I’m going home.”
Lyons said quickly, “You need to come where you belong.”
“The paths of sin too long I’ve trod,” the people sang.
Lyons said, “Come on back home.”
“Lord, I’m coming home.”
“Coming home, coming home. Nevermore to roam.”
“You don’t need to be roaming,” Lyons said.
“Open wide Thine arms of love, Lord I’m coming home.
“I’ve wasted many precious years,”
“Wasted many years,” Lyons said.
“Now, I’m coming home. I now repent with bitter tears. Lord, I’m coming home.”
“Coming home, coming home. Nevermore to roam. Open wide Thine arms of love. Lord, I’m coming home.”
The music slowed and stopped.
A few more people talked to me after Lyons ended his sermon and walked to the back of the congregation so he could talk with everyone as they exited. All who came over and talked with me ended with, “Come back anytime.”
Before anyone left, Lyons asked the crowd if they were ready for some praise-the-lords, during which everyone thrusts their hands upward, looks up and shouts, Praise the Lord!
The praise-the-lords caught me off guard, but when the group showed no sign of slowing down after a few of them, I tossed my fingers up toward the drop ceiling for the last five or six of them.
Lyons said to come back anytime and then I was out in the heat ready to head north an hour to search for an abandoned coal-mining town called Putney, West Virginia.
The town of Putney, according to a sign I’d seen a day earlier at the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine and Museum, “was once located at the headwaters of Campbell’s Creek in eastern Kanawha County, WV, and developed by the Campbell’s Creek Coal Company in 1901. The population of 1,500 citizens were served only by the company-owned Campbell’s Creek Railroad. Underground mining ceased in 1951. Since that time all have moved on and nature has reclaimed the site. Daffodils that once adorned residents’ yards return each spring to gently remind us of this long-ago place.”
I went through the town of Mammoth, West Virginia (population 276), and then drove up in elevation and around a bend a few miles. I knew I was within eight or ten miles of the abandoned town, but had little else to go on, so I followed a sign indicating an old cemetery, thinking it might just be the company cemetery from Putney.
The steep and narrow dirt road toward the cemetery was carved with deep ruts from washouts. Rock outcroppings emerged out of the roadway. I drove about a mile farther in my Kia Rio rental car than I’d have gone in my sixteen-year-old truck. But still I had to park and walk the last half-mile or so up steep rock to the cemetery.
The graves were better maintained than an abandoned town’s cemetery was likely to be and quite a few of the death dates were more recent than the fifties. The last names on many of the graves were “Workman.”
On the far side of the cemetery on this 90-plus degree day, a man stood with a shovel, digging a grave by hand, a pick-axe on the ground beside him.
A woman sat on the ground a few feet away, facing him. I walked toward them. They were both probably in their fifties. The man stood knee-deep in the ground, sweating, and he paused as I approached. We said hello and I asked if they knew how to get to Putney.
The man had been there once in the seventies. Said there might not be much to see. Said the road into Putney might be blocked by the new company now. Might have to hike in through Kelly’s Creek.
Both of them seemed to feel a little bad they couldn’t give a stranger better directions to a town that was left to nature before their time.
“We grew up here, but haven’t been around in a while,” she said.
The man said the best thing might be to find someone in Mammoth and ask them.
I thanked them and said, “Sorry for your loss, if you lost someone.”
The man nodded and said, “her sister.”
They told me to have a good day and the woman pointed out a less-steep shortcut path behind a group of graves that I could take to get back down toward the car.
I drove back down the hill and stopped into a general store outside Mammoth and talked with the store owner for a little while. He said a few of the old-timers who come in some evenings used to work or live in Putney. He gave me directions to the unmarked entrance road that goes from Mammoth up toward Putney. “It’s pretty far in from there,” he warned.
Once I got to the entrance road, I saw how poorly maintained it was. A stone’s throw in from the main road there was a gulley three feet or more deep from washouts that slashed the road diagonally. Impassable for a car.
I poured water from my plastic gallon into an empty coffee cup and headed up on foot.
It was already mid-afternoon and I timed when I would have to turn around regardless of whether I found the town that, twenty-four hours earlier, I hadn’t known ever had existed.
The hike was steep and I went for about six miles, rounding switchbacks and, later, squeezing through a deer trail that followed the engineered path that was now long overgrown.
I hopped the rocks through swampy areas, where groups of frogs panicked.
I came to a few grassy clearings, with long-overgrown ornamental trees. And that would be the only indicator I saw that day of a human civilization one time being in that remote mountainous area.
I thought for a while on my walk back down, after forging ahead thirty minutes past my turn-around deadline, of how quickly nature can cover up the tracks of humans. Fall or winter might be the best time now to find any structural remains of Putney, though even then a machete would come in handy.
Thirsty as hell by the time I got back to the car, I chugged from the gallon of water and started the car and sat in the air conditioning. I took Route 60 back south a while before getting onto Route 219 North, passing little Baptist churches in that area of southern West Virginia more frequently than gas stations.
I put in one of the Basement Tapes CDs by Bob Dylan and The Band and, later, maxed out the volume and sang along to “Hallelujah, I just been moved,” (http://bit.ly/2ckiv2a) and climbed and descended the winding Appalachian roads as patches of fog ushered in the dark.