For our next trip we set up a visit to Natural Tunnel State Park in the mountains of Virginia through Berea student Mary Whitaker whose sister works there and whose family is from Lee County, VA. The head Ranger, Ish, was a Berea graduate and helped us through the red tape in order to acquire the proper paperwork to operate machinery (the photo booth) in the park. I also wanted to document a side of Appalachian life that may not be normally documented so, when I heard about a motorcycle club that owned and operated a clubhouse in the Clinch Mountains of East Tennessee for more than a quarter century, I set out to contact them and ask if we could come take portraits.
I found a flyer at a truck stop for the “True Sons MC 24th Annual Pow Wow” and called the number at the bottom. I left a message stating who I was and that we were taking portraits of Appalachians to preserve the culture and asked if we could attend the rally. Two weeks later the secretary of the MC called back and said, “Man, I can’t think of a worse idea than some strangers walking around taking pictures of things they shouldn’t.” I told him that our project was self contained and that anyone who didn’t want their picture taken would not be photographed. He was polite but said it wasn’t a good idea and thanked me for calling. Two weeks later, a few days before the motorcycle rally, he called back out of the blue and said the president of the club thought it was a great idea and requested we come. We made arrangements to come down on Friday and camp out that night with the bikers before heading to Virginia on Saturday.
The True Sons MC clubhouse was a couple miles down a dirt road, away from anyone and everything (including cell service) on a beautiful mountainside. Traveling on a winding dirt road, we came across an outpost with several men standing in the road. They didn’t want us to enter and the mood was very tense. After several minutes a call came across a walkie talkie that they were to let us through. I was more than a little nervous at this point. When we entered the compound the president of the club came out and welcomed us. He was very nice and curious about our project, and gave us a crash course on MC social rules: we could go anywhere we wanted on the property except the clubhouse, no photos of anyone or anything outside of our photo booth. We got a quick rundown of the other MCs that would be there, the ones that would be interested in talking with us, and the ones we needed to stay away from.
After a while several hundred bikes showed up and parked around us, and we were stuck there for the night. Mostly people stared at us and I think everyone was uncomfortable about outsiders being there. Then the president walked down to us with his daughter and got their portrait taken, putting his seal of approval on us and soon after others walked over to talk to us. At one point another camper showed up and parked near us. One of the walls was lowered to show a brass pole and curtains and we were told a portable strip club was being set up. One of the strippers came over and asked us about our van and decided she would help us get people to get their portrait taken. She went around and told bikers they could get their picture taken with her and soon we had a line of people waiting. By midnight we were the hit of the rally, we had lots of people hanging around the booth chatting about biker life and getting their pictures taken. One guy asked where I was from and said “Kentucky! My wife is from Kentucky, maybe you know her,” and went off to get her. I thought it was kind of funny, but it turned out she was from Rockcastle County and a cousin of Calvin Gross (co-advisor of this project). Many of the clubs brought their own moonshine and shared it proudly around the booth. One man who was the president of a visiting MC called The Peaceful Few noticed I wasn’t drinking. I told him I don’t drink and later on in the night he showed back up and admitted he didn’t either. He seemed relieved that there was another non-drinker there and soon began talking candidly about life in a MC. He talked about how lucky he felt by being in community and also about the stress of having to be the leader. He talked about the violence that sometimes comes with it but also about the unconditional support and brotherly love. He talked about the stress of trying to balance the MC with his homelife and wife and kids and how he tries to keep them separate although it’s not always the case. He seemed to really enjoy having an outsider to talk to about it, and excited that we were interested in their way of life. Everywhere we traveled in Appalachia we met people proud to be from there but nowhere more so than here.
The next day the compound was quickly filling up and the president of the True Sons said they expected over 1,000 bikes by 2pm and if we didn’t want to stay all weekend now was the chance to leave although he said he would really enjoy if we did stay. Saturday was when they had bike races and games. My partner Daniel wanted to stay but we had reservations at Natural Tunnel State Park so I was insistent that we move on. We arrived in Virginia in the evening, met the staff at the state park, and worked out plans to set up the photobooth the following morning. Then we went swimming.
By midnight a violent storm rolled in and didn’t let up. The downpour lasted all the following day. Had we known, we probably would have stayed in Tennessee as there were no visitors to the park that day and the staff had to shut down most of the park. We were trapped on the mountain all day but it afforded us time to talk with the staff about Virginia mountain life, and the paradox of mountaintop removal and how fines from coal operator violations went towards funding the state parks.
The next day the rain had let up enough that we could travel off the mountain and tour the area. The roads there are so winding and steep we probably shouldn’t have, but we needed to get the equipment back to the Magnolia Photobooth co. by morning. We stopped in Scott and Lee counties in Virginia, made a special visit to Appalachia, VA mostly due to the name, and headed to Black Mountain, the highest point in Kentucky. It was owned privately so, unlike other states we visited, had no overlook or visitor’s center.
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