Grundy, Virginia, looks as if it fell into a crevice and got stuck. The seat of Buchanan County, Grundy snakes for miles between high Appalachian mountain walls that restrict its width in places to little more than a stone's throw. To beat recurring floods from the Levisa Fork River, and to wedge a Wal-Mart into a struggling downtown, the Army Corps of Engineers blasted 2.4 million cubic yards of rock off a mountain face. The entire project cost around $200 million, and left the town, population 1,100, without a core.
It didn't stop the walls from closing in. Like the coal industry on which it is utterly dependent, Grundy is shrinking. The population of Buchanan County has been declining. Schools consolidate as children grow scarce. In February 2006, the county unemployment rate was 5.2 percent. A decade later it's more than 12 percent, making in-migration even more improbable than ever in this remote and inaccessible hollow.