I spent a countless number of autumn afternoons on my grandmother’s front porch in Mingo County, West Virginia. Her house was indistinguishable from the hundred other homes lining Elk Creek: A large mountain behind us, her home sitting on a tiny lot in “the bottom” which was bordered by a tiny creek and then a county road, which sat at the base of the next West Virginia mountain.
Indeed, the view from her front porch was probably no different than the vast majority of images seen on the front porches of most Appalachian grannies.
But as the fall foliage would peak and the yellow oak, red maple, and golden walnut leaves would begin to blanket the Mountain State’s ground, glimpses of what the previous summer’s green leaves had kept tightly concealed would inevitably begin to reveal itself.
By November, the annual thought provoking scene would once again present itself: A school bus on the side of a steep Appalachian mountain, trees all around and no road leading to it.
“How did it even get up there,” I recall hearing my grandmother ask aloud, to which my mother responded, “It looks like a helicopter just dropped it there!”
As I grew older, I began to observe this bizarre phenomenon repeated in just about every Appalachian county in America.
With my curiosity soon getting the best of me, I found myself researching what appears to be a much overlooked topic: “Why are there school buses located on the sides of mountains throughout Appalachia?”
Turns out, like so many other things, the buses have appeared in these places due to a hybrid of Appalachian poverty and Appalachian ingenuity.
Prior to the wave of school consolidations that have come to define many Appalachian counties, localities boasted multiple schools with dozens of bus routes. As buses would age and fall into disrepair, they would be sold to the public in surplus auctions.
With even the most frugal school systems auctioning off these large vehicles on a near annual bases, it didn’t take very long for mountain communities to become over-saturated in surplus school buses… and we all know how creative the men and women of the Appalachian Mountains can be!
Throughout the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, school buses were being towed to the sides of barns and used as additional storage buildings, parked on the sides of mountains “steeper than a cow’s face” and used by beer guzzling “good o’le boys” as a seasonal hunting cabin and in many cases, drug to forgotten and overlooked hillsides and used as a home by squatters.
In his 2002 book, Living in the Appalachian Forest, Chris Bolgiano writes of such an individual.
“At one corner of our property border, a small, triangular boundary of land flares out. The county tax map listed no owner. After a while we realized that a squatter lived there in a dilapidated school bus. A middle-aged man with a long, disheveled beard who intones biblical references like a preacher, he might appear alarming to outsiders…”
Bolgiano’s account is just one of hundreds of similar stories, shared by men and women who grew up in the mountains of Appalachia.
As the squatters moved on or died, good o’le boys found new hunting spots and storage buses became overpacked and forgotten, the mountains once again reclaimed the territory it had ceded to the buses — one weed, one tree and one bus at a time.
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