Tom and I have lived all over the US working for the National Parks. The welcome we received from the Appalachian people we met at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park was the warmest and friendliest of any we have experienced. We felt more connected to the people in the Appalachian community after four months than we do to the people in Westerville after three years.
Living in an RV and moving around frequently can be lonely. The people we have the most contact with are the rangers. But they live in an area and have their own lives. Even if we like them very much, they are usually younger and busy. Tom and I would love to be invited to eat with them or do stuff with them, but they just don’t think about it. Parks that have lots of seasonal rangers and volunteers are generally better about working on community. The rangers at Cumberland Gap were glad to have us there, but they didn’t invite us into their lives.
The Appalachian people who lived in the area, on the other hand, were some of the friendliest we have ever met. Within a couple of weeks of being at the park, we were meeting local people and being invited to different events. The people who came to the worship services in the park brought us vegetables from their gardens and stopped by the RV to say “hey.” We were invited out to dinner in folks homes more times at Cumberland Gap than any other place we have worked.
Before we started at Cumberland Gap we had heard that Appalachian people could be standoffish. But that was not our experience at all. People went out of their way to be helpful. Anything they had or could tell us, they were happy to share. Tom had people bring him coal, just because they knew he needed it as a blacksmith. This was true of people who grew up in the area, were transplants from other places, or were just stopping for a few days in the campground.
The Blondells, Blanks, and Downings were especially welcoming. Karen Blondell was the leader of the worship services. We had supper with her and Larry a couple of times. Tom and I saw Pam and Chuck Blank at events all over town and they were very friendly. We had supper with them three times and Chuck arranged for our tours to Henderson settlement and Hoe Iron Foundry. Paul and Sherrie Downing are the biggest supporters of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. We saw them at every special event in the park and they always took time to talk to us and ask if there was anything we needed.
We appreciated all the ways that people went above and beyond to welcome us and make us feel at home. At our last worship service, people hugged us and told us “y’all come back now!” One sweet man told us that there were just some people that you instantly knew would be great friends and he felt that way about us.
The welcome we received all summer made us want to return again. The Appalachian people did everything they could to make us feel at home. They were living out Matthew 25:35, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”