'Run, Rudolph, Run." A tenor voice and acoustic guitar rang
out over the packed square in Andrews, a little town tucked in the
southwestern tip of mountainous North Carolina. On a chilly June evening in
1998, people had gathered to celebrate Mountain Heritage Day. The announcer had
described the performance as a "new song" written about this "business going
on right here in our mountains."
It turned out to be a ballad describing the foibles of one Eric Robert
Rudolph, fugitive from the law alleged to be hiding out in the surrounding
mountains. The search was hot and heavy at the time, the woods filled with
scores of "law men." Some five months into it, even through a cold winter, the
fugitive had successfully eluded his captors. The balladeer and his audience
found that whole topic intriguing - and so did I.
Here we are five years later with the same intrigue. If help has been
provided to Eric Rudolph by mountain people over the course of years, why? Why
do people feel sympathy for this alleged killer?
A simple answer exists in the very nature of humankind: the thrill of
beating the system. Americans have long had a love affair with the outlaw. If
an individual - Jesse James, say, or Bonnie and Clyde - can succeed in
outwitting the collective brainpower and resources of multiple authority
figures, then a hurrah for him! We often feel a sense of admiration, totally
removed from the reprehensibility of the crime. While we might not agree to
harbor an outlaw, we might just be willing to look the other way. It's Little
Man against The Big, commoner against royalty, rebel against establishment,
hillbilly against mainstream.
In the rural Appalachian Mountain South, there are other factors at work,
too. The original white settlers in the southern Appalachians were a mix of
Scots-Irish, Welsh, English and German people, with the Scots-Irish predominant
in number. These were some of the 250,000 who poured out of Ulster in the 18th
century and into the 19th to make their way to the New World.
Industrious and ambitious, descendants for the most part of Scottish
parentage, they sought land and opportunity beyond the bounds of restrictive
authority. By the late-1700s, the major lands open to newcomers lay on the
western frontier of America, the Appalachian Mountains. They came into the
mountains, tamed the land, learned to live with the Native Americans and
established their homes. Far removed from centers of government, they operated
self-sufficiently, drawing support from family and neighbors close enough to
The spirit of self-reliance - and pride in it - still exists today in the
descendants of those pioneers and others who have gravitated to the area. Towns
and communities abound now, but individualism is a strong character trait in
Eric Rudolph, clearly an individualist with his own views, however extreme,
is likely to garner a degree of admiration for setting his own course and
being savvy enough to "get away with it" for a long while. That is not to say
that those who hold that view agree with his alleged actions, nor were they apt
to actively help him. On the other hand, they would not readily call up FBI
headquarters in Washington if they suspected his presence in the woods circling
Another observable character trait among Appalachian people is personalism
- that is, a need to relate on a personal, one-to-one basis with others.
Occupations, degrees, titles and allegations are far less important than the
person himself: Who he is, what he's like, who his family is (for genealogy
reasons, not social or economic status). Eric Rudolph lived and worked among
Cherokee County residents. Reputed to be a loner, he was nevertheless one of
theirs, and they respected his differences. A fairly common mountain sentiment
perhaps applies: "He's a real S.O.B., but he's our S.O.B."
Stereotypes abound about Appalachian people in literature and other media.
From the violent, gun-toting rapists of "Deliverance" to the rubes of CBS's
proposed reality TV show about the "new" Beverly Hillbillies, the images
denigrate a region and a people who are in most ways much like people anywhere
else in rural and small-town America. On the positive side, characteristics
that describe mountain people and their way of life include their self-reliance
and individualism, love of beauty - especially the beauty of the place they
live in - strong family bonds, hospitality and warmth toward others, respect
for religion, imaginative sense of humor, and appreciation for and preservation
of their traditions in music and story.
Incidents such as the Eric Rudolph affair trigger the creative impulses to
produce a ballad like "Run, Rudolph, Run," much in the same vein that gave
400 years ago in the British Isles. No more inclined to harbor or aid a
fugitive than people anywhere, mountaineers are likely to appreciate the skill
and sagacity of the man who can elude capture for five years in an environment
noted for its harshness.
By the same token, they are sure to feel pride in the fact that one of
their own finally brought in the prey - and he wasn't even hunting.