I'm a hillbilly, have been since birth, and — believe it or not — I'm proud of it.
Hillbilly, like most things that deal with Appalachia, is a term that is usually misunderstood. Scholars tend to disagree a little as to the actual source of the word, but it is usually rooted in the people who came to settle in the Appalachian and Ozark mountain ranges of the United States.
Many of these early settlers were from England, lowland Scotland and the province of Ulster in Ireland. How they came to be here and the derivation of the name is, well, complicated. Some say it relates to the term "hill-folk" (often used to refer to people who prefer isolation to living in cities) as they came to be known when they made their way into the wilds of the eastern mountains and away from the settled part of eastern Virginia. The term "Billy" is widely used across the British Isles to denote a friend or companion.
And so you see the term, which is often used in a derogatory way, may not exactly mean what you thought.
OK, that is way more than you wanted to hear about the source of the term hillbilly, but what we are talking about here today is the phenomenon of the hill people — my people — trekking to the eastern seashore every summer for the annual beach trip. In the 1940s and '50s, there was a stream of hill people leaving the Appalachians to go to northern industrial cites such as Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit to find work, but they also discovered the beaches of the Atlantic shore.
Myrtle Beach in South Carolina will forever be known as the most popular seaside site for many families from the mountains, especially West Virginians. Many of you out there remember the long trip to get to the beach in the days before interstate highways.
Other beaches have been popular as well, including my own favorite area, the Outer Banks in North Carolina. To me, getting to the Outer Banks is deceptive: It doesn't look that far away on the map, but once you get to the top of this thin strip of sand out in the ocean, how far you proceed between Nags Head and Hatteras can take hours more. It's all part of the experience.
When those of us from the mountains go to the beach, we don't really care what it is, but we want to catch something. I am definitely guilty of this.
The experience of fishing in salt water is so different from what we have at home, we just have to get out there and drag something out of the surf. The constant beating of the waves on the sandy shore, the fluctuation of the tides, the salt air and the chance to see anything from a shark to a dolphin to a stingray is almost hypnotic. We bait up after overpaying at the local bait and tackle shop (we don't really care much what anything costs if it is for fishing), then fling our lines into the Atlantic Ocean, roughly in the direction of France.
Once planted in our fishing spot, we may be seen there for hours. Although we may start in early morning when the beach is almost deserted, we may still be there at midday, oblivious to the throngs of swimmers and would-be surfers playing in the waves around us.
Sometimes we go to the beach en masse. That means all together, as a group, and it is usually family. It is not unusual for the whole family to load up and get a beach house together: Mom, Dad and kids of various ages, along with Poppaw, Mommaw and a string of cousins and aunts and uncles with varying degrees of favor with the family at present.
I said family, but there could be some neighbors and friends who come along for the ride. Back in the day when we were isolated in the mountains, we were accused of being clannish (whatever that means), and there is probably some truth in that.
You know, it just dawned on me: I am talking about how those of us known as hillbillies go to the beach for a vacation. But really, most of this could be applied to people from anywhere. Most every year I meet some nice people from somewhere on the map when I'm at the beach. It might be on the surf, at that bait shop or maybe on the night we go out to eat seafood. We are all there to enjoy the sun, sand and surf before we have to go back to the real world.
Maybe we are not so different after all.
"The Trail Less Traveled" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.