This is a guest blog by MVP Protest Runner Katie Thompson.
The day we had all patiently been waiting for. Trail Day! Originally, this was going to be a 90 mile day, evenly split amongst the three of us; we would be running well into the night. We were excited for the challenge, but exhausted at the thought of a 20 hour day. So, community members, once again came to our rescue, including Grace (POWHR), Josh (ARTivism Virginia), and Elle (Chesapeake Climate Action Network) who graciously took some miles for us, to lighten our load.
As with the pattern of our trip, we started to realize that our trail miles were somehow significantly less than we had anticipated, and realized we were going to be closer to 12 miles each on trail, and Mercedes would take extra road miles on her bike.
We had our plan (hopefully). We went to bed early the night before to make sure we were ready to take on another long day. But Murphy’s law decided it was a good time for Sarah to get food poisoning, so Sarah started her day with little to no sleep. Luckily, she rallied and said she was okay to run, so we decided to just continue with our plan. Other than a few bizarre worm holes on the trail (we aren’t sure where Sarah went for a few miles) and mileage being completely wrong yet again, the day went well. Mercedes was able to experience an incredible sunrise along the AT and wicked scrambles in the wake of fallen trees and deforestation from the pipeline. Despite complete exhaustion, Sarah took on one of the harder sections with the most vertical gain, and I had the last section which would take me through some of the most beautiful ridgelines along the AT, open meadows and farmland.
Just as I would find my rhythm and marvel at the nature around me, I’d be met with a naked expanse: what was once uninterrupted forest, was now a hacked void from MVP construction. Beautiful vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains scarred by human greed and corruption.
Mercedes took on the last section of the day on her bike. Did I mention it was the hottest day of the year thus far? Pushing 85 degrees in early May – yeah, Murphy’s law, again… But we had an overwhelming welcoming committee at the top of Mount Tabor where we were met with snacks, water, t-shirts, signs, and love. We had the opportunity to briefly speak with some of the community members, including Del Dyer who shared some of his delicious Mount Tabor Apple Butter along with his story of his fight protecting his horse farm.
Our day wasn’t quite over, as we still had the most meaningful part of the day left – running on the ROW (the pipeline “Right Of Way”). We met with Donna Jones and her husband Bob, who live 175 feet from the pipeline – which is ten percent of the blast zone/incineration zone – not to mention completely obstructing what was once a beautiful and secluded view. As we made our way down, we saw Dr. Mike Slayton who waited for hours along the ROW to wave and show support for just a few minutes as we ran by.
What did it feel like to run on the ROW? Well… as a trail runner, I’ve had my fair share of steep inclines and climbs. The idea that fracked gas will have to make the same journey up and down up and down, not rolling hills, but extreme vertical changes, for essentially all 303 miles, put into perspective how volatile and reckless this construction could be.
At the end of our day, we were met, yet again, with kindness and generosity from David Seriff and Bridget Simmerman, who allowed us to all stay in their beautiful Frank Lloyd-esque home for the night. We each purchased a large pizza (which was an accident, but I ended up eating my entire pizza), showered and passed out for the night.
Another highly anticipated day: a luncheon hosted by members of Preserve Bent Mountain, compliments of chef Bruce Coffey, with the Monacan Indian Nation Cultural Foundation delegation. We had much to learn from this delegation in addition to their cultural history here, such as their Monacan Food Bank efforts for the less fortunate, in communities also hard hit by COVID 19. The Monacan Food Bank is “a non-profit organization, created to serve citizens of the Monacan Indian Nation and surrounding communities.”
“The earliest written histories of Virginia record that in 1607, the James River Monacan (along with their Mannahoac allies on the Rappahannock River) controlled the area between the Fall Line in Richmond and the Blue Ridge Mountains” Their culture and history is embedded in these lands, yet has only been “federally” recognized since 2018.
I went into the event a bit nervous. Our entire project was centered around a corporation seizing land from private landowners for personal gain. Yet our country’s history is based on this same principle. As a white woman living a life of privilege, I was ready to listen to what they had to say.
After the luncheon we made our way to Red and Coles Terry’s beautiful old cabin. Getting to meet Red was something I was really looking forward to. How often do you get to meet a tree sitter?! When you think of tree sitters, there’s the stereotypical “earth child” vibe, yet Red is a 62 year old force to be reckoned with. She has this incredible presence. “I wasn’t planning on gettin’ in that ******* tree” but as she said she “had to”. Red has a wicked sense of humor, and through the laughs we recognized just how much this family had sacrificed just to protect what they loved. We are meeting these people, staying in idyllic cabins, enjoying laughs and conversations – it almost seems wrong that we’re having such a good time. For us everything is an experience, for these individuals it’s their lives. We were out there because we wanted to help, she and others are out there because they have to be.
Time to get back to running. Another road day. But luckily, road days around here are pretty spectacular. Although, I’ll admit my section was pretty boring, just passing school buses (pausing a couple of times wondering if it’s okay to run past the little flashing stop sign – yes Katie, you’re not a car) but they were still beautiful nonetheless. Mercedes won for coolest section, where she somehow found an area that seemed like a cross between the Pacific Northwest and Costa Rica, added the 100% humidity and foggy mist of the morning, and it was officially an epic start to the day.
This particular section was through Franklin County, near Floyd, VA, with many sections of the MVP Right of Way (ROW) upstream of Smith Mountain Lake – a popular tourist vacation destination, where I’m sure visitors are blissfully unaware of the environmental disaster, that is the MVP, just a few miles away. Because we wanted to give ourselves an easy day for our last day, we decided to run a bit further, and then back track to where we would stay for the night.
We finished up our mileage and made our way back to the Floras’ home. Here we had the absolute pleasure of meeting Wendell Flora. We were greeted by a huge smile, thick southern Virginia accent that reminded me of home, and two of the friendliest dogs we had yet encountered. Wendell’s family had owned the farmstead since the 1890s. He proudly showed us around the original farmhouse, where we would be staying. When opening the door we saw snacks on the table, including apples from his orchard and the most sinfully delicious oatmeal cookies that his wife, Mary, had made for us, and other cookies and treats. It’s not enough that these people invited us into their homes, but they took time out of their day to buy and make treats for us. The amount of gracious hospitality this entire trip was overwhelming.
We spoke with Wendell for quite a long time. He showed us his workshop, old chicken house, and cattle fields. He showed us his spring house - his direct water source – just a few feet from the pipeline. Wendell had plenty to be upset about, but what was most compelling was Wendell’s comment that he doesn’t mind development if it’s for the greater good, pointing out where the new paved road had come through his property, as well as power lines. Those help with progress and help everyone. He explained that MVP is not for the greater good, and he is worried about the people below and around him – referring to their water table, and overall safety. To Wendell, a retired sheriff’s deputy for Franklin County, the endgame is protecting his community. He will continue to do so.
The last day! I’ll admit I was excited to stop living out of a van that was just constantly disorganized, muddy, and with some sort of rotting fruit floating around somewhere. But living with these three incredible women for the past 10 days, meeting the most inspirational individuals like Russell, Maury, Grace and Elle, was coming to an end. I thought, gosh this is all about to be over. I was pretty emotional. We didn’t have a long day, we only had to cover about 17 miles total, but with temperatures creeping into the 80s, we wanted to get things moving. For some reason it took us until the last day to actually start listening to music. But we certainly made the most of those jams. At one point even getting out and dancing in the road, as we transitioned runners and were met with a scowling local, telling us we should move along. In her defense she was correct, probably not a great idea to dance in the middle of the road, but we weren’t ready for her to rain on our dance party.
We would each run 5 miles and run the last 2 miles together. I had the last section before we came back together to finish the journey. And it wasn’t until I made the final turn where I saw Russell holding his red poster that said “SHUT IT DOWN” that I realized this journey is far from over. Yes, the running portion was coming to a close, but this fight, these people, these communities are still in the thick of it. A fight they had been fighting for 7 years.
So, I picked up the babes, Sarah and Mercedes, and our new addition, Moose – Mercedes’ dog, and we finished our 10 day journey running the Mountain Valley Pipeline. We shared the sweatiest hug, and it seemed almost surreal. Here’s this huge moment filled with such joy and inspiration, yet we’re met with the backdrop of a compressor station*. A grounding moment, reminding us there is so much more to be done.
*On December 3, the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board denied permitting for the proposed MVP Southgate extension Lambert Compressor Station. The very spot we had ended our journey. “This decision was the result of years of hard work and grassroots coalition building, and marks the beginning of downwind change…” – ARTivism Virginia
It has been about 6 months since our 10 day journey. It seems like a lifetime ago and yet just last week. The smell of stale sweat and old food is burned into my memory, and I miss it terribly. It’s hard to describe this project to anyone who isn’t intimately involved with this fight. What started out as an environmental project quickly became a project for the people.
Obviously, the environmental piece can’t be ignored – it’s 70 degrees in December, we should all care about that – but I was surprised that it almost became secondary after we started meeting and talking to people. How can a private company decide what to do with property, our water resources, and biologically diverse Appalachian mountains? If they can manipulate a system for their gain, what does that mean for any of our futures? Empty promises for jobs, not-so-sparkling payouts, “progress” – for what? We had so many thoughtful and sometimes even a little heated conversations in the van. Trying to answer and solve the world’s problems driving along the winding roads of West Virginia and rural Virginia. Yet, at the end of the day, we’re all just trying to survive. Most of us are living day to day, enjoying moments, as much as we can. Building modest futures for ourselves and our loved ones.
Yet, those with the greatest influence and the greatest means to pay it forward, are those infringing on our rights – whether it’s building a pipeline, stealing property, or low wage jobs. What surmounts to them as saving small percentages and stats on paper, destroys past and future generations. The flick of a pen from the legislatures that we vote in to protect us and agencies that should be responsible for promoting health, protection of water and safeguarding communities, are enabling all of this.
We, and by ‘we’ I mean the general population of the working class, are left to pick up the pieces. In my 10 days on the road, I experienced more goodwill, passion, and generosity than I could have ever expected in a lifetime. Just a community of individuals from varying demographics and backgrounds coming together. In short, these are the ramblings of a 33 year old trying to make sense of a world seemingly pitted against each other. Yet we have so much more in common than we give ourselves credit for. People have asked me “what can I do to help”? It’s not a simple answer – compost, recycle, drive less, buy local are some places to start? Yes, I think we should all strive for these habits, but don’t give yourself a pat on the back and stop there. Become involved with your community, if you have influence be influential. Vote in local elections, know what’s happening in your town. Find local organizations that speak to you like POWHR, Artivisim, Appalachian Voices. Learn more about your areas’ Indigenous peoples and their living heritage, lands and cultures. These are the people putting boots on the ground, getting s**t done and fighting for what’s important. Yeah, we’re all busy, we “don’t have time” – maybe you can donate instead?. Surround yourself with people who ignite your passions and make you want to be better. We can all be better, kinder, and more open.
 Monacan Indian Nation Website: https://www.monacannation.com/about-us.html
Katie grew up in a small rural, farming town called Berryville, Virginia. She attended school K-8 across the state line in Kearneysville, WV, and moved to Charles Town, WV, in her 20s. Straight out of college, she developed outdoor education programming for underprivileged and at-risk youth from Jefferson County, WV, and Washington, D.C. During this time, Katie learned the importance of preserving the outdoors and making it available to underserved populations.
Having a strong connection to two farming communities in adjacent states, Katie witnessed the difference between a well-funded Virginia community with established conservation easements and enforced EPA restrictions versus the under-funded, underrepresented West Virginia. She has found it disheartening to see one of the most beautiful states in the country be taken advantage of, and ripped of its natural resources. Families find themselves choosing between family heritage and sustainable incomes even before the abuses of eminent domain and environmental disaster. Enough is enough.
Katie knows first-hand the devastation companies can have with little or no community say. Jefferson County is lucky that involved citizens thwarted the Potomac Appalachian high voltage transmission line that would have destroyed the farm of Katie’s close family friend. Impassioned, motivated, angry and fed up, Katie is determined to help those affected by the potential Mountain Valley Pipeline. She has seen what community awareness can do, and wants to lift up people’s voices and their right to protect their land and heritage.