Friday, October 14, 2011

The Cumberland Mountain Stripper

Before strip mining was permitted on Virginia's side of the Cumberland Mountains, legend says at least one lady became a real stripper. This story was told by a native of Appalachia who wasn't actually alive when the story took place, but grew up at the foot of the Big Black Ridge, where it was said to have happened.

At the time of writing the mountains are swarming with strippers...not the kind you might like to imagine, either. They are not strip dancing. They are strip mining. The Ridge, which had been pretty well hollowed by conventional mining a hundred years ago, has collapsed into an ugly, bald, flat-topped bump on the side of the mountain.

Humans never lived on the top of the Ridge, but people who live below it aren’t happy. Aside from spoiling the view, strip mining releases pollution. Springs are fouled, fields are poisoned, houses shake as machinery jars the bedrock.
“And those environmentalists say not word one!” a native of Appalachia exclaimed. I don’t know what the coal companies have done to pacify the environmentalists. I do know that it’s hard to look at the flat lump of rubble that remains of the Ridge and visualize the kind of dramatic conflicts between humans and Nature that used to take place around the Cumberland Mountains.

Nevertheless, the crags, cliffs, caves, boulders, waterfalls, and wild creatures that lived in them, were real once. Even three years ago it was easy to imagine the hunter who heard something rustle on a rock ledge above him, shot into the air to discourage a nuisance animal, and saw a bear or a wild cat fall...shot as it sprang to kill the hunter. These animals rarely attack adult humans, but they will do it if they’re hungry enough. In the nineteenth century, when humans competed with these animals for shrinking supplies of game, such conflicts would have been more common than they are now.

People who didn’t want to carry, and use, a big awkward musket or muzzle-loading rifle, generally stayed home unless they could get a “real mountain man” to travel with them for protection. A woman riding alone in the mountains was an uncommon sight.

Nevertheless, according to legend, there was once a tough school teacher who rode across the Big Black Ridge alone, regularly. Her horse was fast and sure-footed and, she thought, able to outrun anything.

Of course, in order to keep her job, the teacher was a “perfect lady of impeccable character.” Of course, in those days, a “perfect lady of impeccable character” was well dressed in nineteenth-century fashion...lots and lots of layers of thin, fine, lacy and embroidered clothes, from the lacy camisole that was her “corset cover,” through a few gauzy undershirts and slips, through one or two layers of visible “shirtwaist,” all covered with one or more fine woven shawls in cold weather. Hats and gloves were also essential, and real fashion victims had invented styles that allowed them to wear two hats or pairs of gloves at the same time.

So it seems that one afternoon, as the teacher was on her way across the mountain, she met a wild cat. According to the legend this was not the usual 30-pound bobcat that can still be found in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and occasionally beats up a pet dog or raids a chicken yard, but a 75-pound specimen of what people in Appalachia call a panther. (In other places the same animal is known as a cougar or mountain lion.)

According to legend these animals were common throughout the Appalachian Mountains in the nineteenth century, before hunters shot them all. No unarmed human stood a chance against a panther in a fair fight. The only advantage a human could hope for was the fact that most wild cats don’t care for the smell or the taste of humans. This panther was not actually attacking the teacher. It wanted to eat the horse.

Most people would have left the horse and saved themselves...but this teacher believed she was riding a very special, once-in-a-lifetime horse. Anyway she was burdened with several things she could comfortably spare for a few hours, so when the horse heard the panther move and began to run away, the teacher pulled off her big feathered hat and threw it in the panther’s direction.

That bought them some time. Few cats can resist the urge to chase something that moves along the ground, just to find out what it is. The panther chased the hat and tore it to pieces before it came after the horse and its rider again.

However, the horse and its rider were limited. They had to follow a dirt track that wound and switched back and forth around the sides of the mountain... while the panther could run straight through the underbrush toward them.

The teacher threw down her gloves, one by one. Her shawl. Her cameo necklace. Her ruffly little jacket. Her lacy little blouse...and sometimes, before she could pull off something and throw it to the panther, the creature was able to hook a claw into the horse’s flanks.

By the time they came within sight of a farmhouse, at the foot of the other side of the mountain, the teacher was standing in the stirrups, swaying as the horse galloped and skidded down the trail, tearing off a petticoat. Her hair, which had never been cut and rarely been washed, was dangling over her face. Although she still had some underwear, by nineteenth-century standards she was considered “naked.” The horse was bleeding, and both the horse and the teacher were screaming.

The farmer shot at the panther. The teacher hopped down into the arms of another middle-aged lady of impeccable character, who ordered the children to stable the horse. The men who lived at the foot of the Ridge heard, rather than actually saw, how the teacher had stripped to save her horse.

She may have found another teaching job somewhere, but she left the mountains as fast as she could pack her bags and go.