Following David J. Ballenger’s story about Piketon, Ohio, Ballenger returns to his hometown, reconnects with an old friend, and discusses his (and the area’s) relationship with marijuana.
My cousin, Coleman, and I used to walk for miles in the hills and forests around my aunt and uncle’s farm in Jackson County, Ohio. We’d walk through pastures, past cows, and into the woods where one of our biggest fears, at least mine, was encountering a pack of wild dogs. When we were a little bit older, we’d hop on a four-wheeler, ride down Buckeye Furnace Road, and find some trail or road that led us past Raccoon Creek, the old pig iron furnace, ponds, or strip mines. In late July, we’d start to see black helicopters flying low over the hills and it was probably Coleman who first told me they were looking for pot farms. We’d probably walked or driven past patches or fields of marijuana, but I don’t remember seeing them. Growing up in southern Ohio, I knew marijuana was around, everyone did; but for most people, it could have as much or as little impact on your life as you wanted.
The first time I smoked marijuana was after a high school tennis match. I’m sure I’d lost; I usually did. I was skilled enough, but I was mentally weak. Usually by the second set, blood would be dripping from my knuckles due to punching the racquet strings. The scars are still there. My friend, John, must have seen someone in need of relief. I drove him home after the match and he asked me if I wanted to smoke. I said yes, so we found a place to stop on a gravel road, he made a pop can pipe, and we smoked. I didn’t feel guilty or scared, just calm. I rarely felt calm back then.
I don’t remember a day when I haven’t had to deal with some degree of depression or anxiety. Looking back at my teenage years, I now see that my environment played a role in both relieving and exasperating my suffering. The hills and forests were a sanctuary. The blatant poverty was a constant source of anxiety and fear. Not everyone in Appalachian Ohio is poor; many people live comfortably, but some exaggerated example of poverty is usually not far away. Across the road from my grandparents’ house, which was meticulously cared for but not extravagant, a family lived in an old school bus with a lion on the hood. When I was young, I associated laziness with that kind of poverty and I made a direct connection between laziness and beer and marijuana which caused some serious cognitive dissonance when I became the kid who enjoyed beer and marijuana for the normal social perks but also to relieve some suffering. I don’t regret it, but I wouldn’t recommend it to my children.
The summer after my freshman year of college, I lived in Jackson and worked construction. In July, John and some friends asked me to join them on a trip to the Jackson County Fair. I met them in town and jumped into an old, faded-blue Dodge Caravan, which I shouldn’t have done since they were clearly high. A couple miles from the fair, John was distracted by something and ended up going through oncoming traffic and crashing in someone’s front yard. One of my friends tried to hide a baggie of marijuana in a bush, but the homeowner saw and reported it to the police when they arrived. When the cops asked about the weed, I kept my mouth shut. Just after they told me to get in the police cruiser, my friend confessed, and I was free to go. The wreck had left a softball-sized welt on my leg and small tear on my ear and made me decide to cut ties with those friends and leave Jackson, and all the problems I thought it might cause me, behind.
After a failed attempt at Christian ministry, I began to write, and when I did, I found my imagination leading me back to Jackson and the wider Appalachian region from which my family’s roots extend. It is impossible to think about southern Ohio without thinking about the influence of drugs, especially marijuana. There were always rumors about people who sold or grew marijuana in Jackson County, and neighboring Meigs County was the namesake for a nationally-known strain of marijuana. The helicopters flew overhead, pictures were printed on the front page with piles of confiscated plants burning in a field, rumors were whispered about pot fields on the back forty of extended family members’ property. Along with iron, coal, agriculture, poverty, beauty, violence, love, and so much else, marijuana is a part of our story, not the whole story, but a part.
The week Union Hill Road was reopened, my dad and I made the forty-minute drive along State Route 32 to the western edge of Pike County to see where the murders that had made national headlines occurred. A sheriff’s deputy and a contractor milled around the property where Christopher Rhoden Sr., Frankie Rhoden, and Hannah Gilley had been murdered. I didn’t get out of the car or knock on any doors. In a couple driveways along the road, people had placed signs that said NO MEDIA. If I was getting a sense for anything there, it was that everyone was weary of the attention. As a teenager, I could’ve imagined driving down a road like Union Hill Road where some unspeakable violence had occurred, but I couldn’t have imagined that the whole time I was thinking, This would be a nice place to live.
The next day, I visited John. I hadn’t seen him since the accident nearly nineteen years earlier. Life has not been easy for him. He lost his mom, Martha, to cancer in 2006. She was forty-eight. While his mom was sick, his dad had to be hospitalized for heart problems. During this time, he admitted that he developed an addiction, but he didn’t want to discuss it. In 2014, he was in an accident and at the time didn’t have medical insurance. He’s buried in medical bills and told me that even if he wanted to leave, he can’t. Here was my friend who had left Jackson, received an Applied Science degree, and was building a career working in hospital labs. Now, years later, he lives on a back road a couple hundred yards from where he grew up.
When I drove away from John’s house, I had a couple hours to think about how I hadn’t really left Jackson for vocational opportunities or because an adult had begged me to leave. I’d left because I didn’t want to end up poor, lazy, high, drunk, or all of the above and I feared that’s what I was capable of. Taking the time to go back and reconnect with friends and family has done the work of dislodging the last of those deeply-embedded splinters of false thoughts. John is not stuck and forgotten on some back road. He’s living his life with his wife and two girls, whom he obviously adores. He told me that they aren’t able to do some of the things they used to do, like send their daughter to dance lessons in Waverly, “[But] we have trampolines and pools and horses in the field they can ride. They have quiet time. And listen to how peaceful it is now. I mean, this is it.” We sat on the couch and he blew the smoke from his Marlboro out the window and it was peaceful.
Before I left his house, I told John I regret my decision to abandon our friendship. At nineteen, it was all I knew to do to keep myself from ending up on some back road forgotten or dead or wishing I were dead. John said he’d always thought my decision to leave and not look back was brave, which shocked me. It was such a generous and forgiving thing to say, something a true friend says, a friend I shared a pop can pipe with over twenty years ago.
I experimented with marijuana as a teenager and, for a time, I let that somehow define the place. All the negative possibilities of a life in Jackson County became the only possibilities. During the frenzy of the Pike County murders coverage, some of the national media came with those same expectations; and we shook our heads because we knew they weren’t telling our story, they were telling the story about us they’d brought with them from other parts of the country. Years after I used to roam hills and forests, I’m still exploring the hollows and back roads of Appalachian Ohio, collecting and remembering the stories of my family and friends because it offers us a creative and honest alternative to accepting an impatient national media story or simply forgetting, which in the long run is a bigger problem than our marijuana-growing prowess.