Appalachian Democrats try to claw their way back (100 Days in Appalachia)

Donald Trump’s 2016 election win put an exclamation point on two decades worth of political shift from Democrat to Republican in Appalachia. Except for urban centers and a few notable exceptions, Democrats have essentially been wiped from the map in the region.

Now, in an ever increasingly polarized political environment, can they make up ground by using the new president as a foil?

I looked at the early signs in 2017 for 100 Days in Appalachia. Read it here.

Arson and the wildfires that ate Gatlinburg (Blue Ridge Outdoors)

In November, Gatlinburg, Tennessee, was scorched by a human-started wildfire that escaped Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) and killed at least 14 people and destroying more than 700 houses and businesses.

The fire was started by people, but it was aided by the steep slopes, overgrown brush and tightly packed buildings in the tourist town.

Read more at Blue Ridge Outdoors.

Unsolved mysteries of the Blue Ridge (Blue Ridge Outdoors)

Statistically, crime in public wildlands is relatively rare. Most crime there tends to be vandalism or illegal dumping. As is the case with crime generally, violent crime on public lands tends to be domestic, occurring between people who know each other.

But occasionally something bad happens. Unsolved mysteries on public wildlands grip our imaginations, in part because they took place at the places we play.

For Blue Ridge Outdoors, I looked at unsolved homicides and a mysterious disappearance. Read the story here.

How Virginia Tech is turning its Honors program into an Honors College (VT News)

It’s not every day I get to interview a Pokemon world champion, yet that’s what I found happening during the reporting of a story about how Virginia Tech is taking its Honors program to the next level.

Wolfe Glick, a junior double-majoring in economics and computational modeling and data analytics, is the 2016 Pokemon World Championships Masters Division Champion, and he’s shaped his educational experience to reflect the skills and network he’s acquired through gaming. He’s just one of the talented students attending Virginia Tech’s Honors program.

The shift to an Honors College will enable Tech to attract more talented students like Glick.

Find out more in my story for VT News.

How a billionaire Democrat could win election as governor in one of Trump’s strongest states (Politico Magazine)

When the billionaire entered the primary, longtime politicos scoffed. He had no political experience, had switched parties repeatedly over the previous decades, and had a spotty track record in business. Yet he vanquished his establishment candidates in the primary and headed into the general election running an unorthodox campaign based around his personality.

It’s not Donald Trump, of course, but Jim Justice, West Virginia’s only billionaire and owner of the Greenbrier Resort and the largest privately held coal company east of the Mississippi River. Justice stands as a figure simultaneously beloved—he coaches high-school basketball and bailed out the historic Greenbrier when it faced potential closure—and reviled, as his coal company has developed a reputation for not paying debts, taxes or environmental obligations.

Read more about Justice, his Republican opponent Bill Cole, and what may be the weirdest undercard election in America at Politico Magazine.

How a nickel worth $3 million hid in Roanoke for 40 years (The Roanoker)

Here’s a story for The Roanoker about the best story I ever wrote for The Roanoke Times. It led to the discovery, 41 years after it was lost, of a rare nickel that later sold at auction for $3+ million.

Ostensibly, the story is about the Walton Specimen, one of five 1913 Liberty Head Nickels. It’s really about George Walton, though, and his unforgettable contribution to Star City lore.

Read the story at the Roanoker.

How death metal helped me get past the need for understandable lyrics (Noisey)

In 1993, I borrowed a copy of Cannibal Corpse’s “Tomb of the Mutilated” from Joe Markley and dubbed it onto a blank cassette.

At first the vocals seemed like a joke, all snarly growls with no discernable words. After a while, though, they started to make a kind of internal sense.

They also opened a door. Any time a new vocal style intimidates with seeming impenetrability, the Cannibal Corpse formula can be applied. And that’s what led me to Young Thug.

Read my story at Noisey.

Mad food scientists of the Midwest (Munchies)

This year the Salem Fair featured chocolate-covered bacon on a stick, which got me thinking about the vendors at the country’s biggest food fairs who drive fair food innovation.

A trip to Iowa during that state’s fair got the wheels spinning even faster, and next thing I knew, I was eating a pineapple bowl and interviewing the man who popularized deep-fried candy bars in the Midwest.

Read about that and more in my story for Munchies.