Big Stone Gap


Some months ago, I came across an article about an upcoming movie, “Big Stone Gap.” The movie is to feature Ashley Judd and Whoopi Goldberg in key roles. Based on a novel of the same name, the author is Adriana Trigiani, who grew up in the real life town of Big Stone Gap, Virginia. The book centers around the life of the main character, Ava Maria Mulligan. I was intrigued because Big Stone Gap is only about 35 miles across the state line from Kingsport, Tenn., where I grew up.

I purchased and read the book then did the same with the three follow-up novels. Characters in the book sometimes traveled to Fort Henry Mall (a real place where I shopped often) in Kingsport. Some characters traveled to Kingsport to have affairs in hotels away from prying eyes. Even though the town was so close to my own, I had never visited Big Stone Gap, or “Big Stone” as some of the locals called it. So, on my last trip to visit family, I did just that.

I suspect that in earlier days, the road to Big Stone was a two-lane, winding, sometimes treacherous affair through that portion of the Appalachian Mountains. Once hidden in the thick backwoods of southwest Virginia, there is now a modern four-lane that makes the trip easy.

Big Stone Gap is a small town with just over 5,600 residents. Nestled in a valley, the mountains are ever-prominent and dominate the landscape. If the mountains weren’t so beautiful and breathtaking, the place would almost feel claustrophobic, as the mountains butt right up against the community.

Once a coal and iron ore town, the first post office was established in 1856. There is some history here is this small place. Big Stone Gap is the birthplace of two professional football players. Film actor, writer, and logger C. C. Swiney was born and raised in Big Stone Gap.

Novelist and short-story writer John Fox, Jr. wrote about his experiences living among the coal miners in Big Stone Gap. Since 1964, a play version of Fox’s novel, “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” has been performed in an outdoor theater in the town. Miss America 1993 Leanza Cornett was born in Big Stone Gap, as was the opera singer, Roy Cornelius Smith. Former Virginia governor Abner Kinwood Holton, Jr. was born in Big Stone Gap. Other notable were the product of this mountain town.

Elizabeth Taylor once visited the town when husband John Warner was running for public office. Taylor got a chicken bone stuck in her throat and had to be hospitalized. And now a movie is forthcoming.

The town is unremarkable in that it is like many small towns in the Appalachian mountain chain. There are a few fast-food chain restaurants, various businesses that would be found in any small town, and an unusually large number of churches.

The week I visited, the sermon for Trinity United Methodist Church was “Divine Acceptance.” At the Presbyterian Church, the sermon on the marquee was “God’s Grace is Sufficient,” while First Baptist’s sermon of the week was “Unfair.” The Heritage Church of God was advertising “Old Timers Day” while First Christian Church was announcing the upcoming arrival of Evangelist Cecil Todd. Other churches included the Cadet Primitive Baptist Church, the Faith Rock Church, the DP Church (whatever that is), and many others. Big Stone Gap is well-churched.

The people I met were friendly (one man named Gary even gave me a pen when I need to jot down a few things) and there are two museums, a community college, and a state prison nearby.

What I really received from the trip was the realization that there are so many interesting stories in Big Stone Gap and, by extension, in every town, small or large. Most are not told and I am glad that Ms. Trigiani told hers (I suspected that the novels were at least partially autobiographical and a former resident I talked to confirmed that thought). I’m glad that the film was shot on location. Big Stone is a town worth seeing and visiting.

Maybe the Trigiani novels and the movie will inspire other budding authors in every community to put pen to paper. There are countless stories that have yet to be told and they should be. One doesn’t have to live in New York or Los Angeles to become a world famous and highly successful author. One just might come from a place known as Big Stone Gap.

[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277. Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m. ( He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese (Georgia and Tennessee, He may be contacted at]