You never stop being from where you're from, but you stop being a local by degrees. You get a house in town and don't make as many of those long trips into the hills. You get a truck without four-wheel drive. You stop coming out for the school fundraisers. You stop recognizing the kids. You stop being recognized on the store porch. Then, one day, you walk into your small town's lone bar and get treated like a tourist. It hurts, the gradual loss of inclusion. But it's a pain you choose, because being a local in marijuana country often comes at a price too high to pay.
To be local is to sit in a courtroom and listen to your neighbor describe how he dredged a pond and buried your cousin's body in the damp soil, then lined the indentation with a tarp and filled it with water so the cadaver dogs wouldn't find it. To be local is to sit behind the defendant and study the whorl of his hair, cut conservatively close to his scalp for the trial. To be local is to hug his brother in the hallway. You've known him since grade school. You've known them all — the neighbor who owned the grow, the kid accused of murdering your cousin, his family — your entire life. While the jury is deliberating you hear a lawyer make a joke to his colleague about meth, weed and job security. They snigger. You glare. They walk away. You walk back into the courtroom shoulder to shoulder with your childhood friend, hoping separately for different verdicts.
To be local is to enter a conspiracy of silence. It used to be a neighborly silence and now it's a silence enforced by fear. A dog poisoned. A gate ripped down. A truck abandoned on a back road, the VIN scratched off, the tags gone.
To be local is to know where the bodies are buried.
To be local is to watch scars open on hillsides and diesel soak into the soil as rivers become creeks and creeks become gullies.
To be local is to never call the cops. To be local is to have no one to call. To be local is to never be able to point a finger without having a dozen pointed back at you.
And so, to be local is to be complicit in thousands of small, unreported tragedies: truancy, neglect, rape, abuse, addiction. It's to have children and never have the right words to warn them against growing up too fast and too hard.
To be local is to be shunned when you have the audacity to point out that something is very, very wrong.
To be local is to watch our boys climb behind the wheels of trucks they're too drunk to drive night after night after night. It's to place flowers at the side of the county road and bite your tongue as someone says heartfelt words about a life cut short but nothing about the lives we didn't value enough to broach an uncomfortable silence.
To be local is to occasionally feel like you're going crazy with grief, crazy with guilt, plain crazy because it feels like you're being told to be polite in the face of dysfunction, desperation and murder.
To be local is to practice myopia with good reason. You plant your seed, you raise your kids, you keep your head down and you get to live a life that includes some of our most cherished American ideals: entrepreneurship, community, independence. To be local is to cultivate good neighbors. The volunteer fire department responds to emergency calls. Everyone is invited to weddings. Your truck is never stuck on the side of the road for long. Conversations are held from driver's side windows. This is the place I love best, and I am sick with fear that by speaking I've forfeited my right to be welcomed there.
The weed is not the problem. The secrecy is. The secrecy is a continuum that begins with children being hushed and ends with my cousin being put down like a mad dog because meth made it impossible for him to keep his mouth shut. When you're from where I'm from, grow culture becomes your culture whether you grow or not. But a culture that functions on secrecy will inevitably be exploited by despots and thugs.
To be local is to open your mouth and then lock your door. To be local is to be offered a gun by someone you love, and consider taking it. To be local is to speak your mind at the risk of losing your life. To be local is to be told in a thousand ways, explicitly and implicitly, that you must be silent. But to truly love where you are from is to refuse.
Linda Stansberry is a freelance journalist from Honeydew.