I was very very curious about West Virginia. To be honest, I didn’t know a thing about the state’s touristic sites. And to be even honest-er, my desire to visit the land where Montani Semper Liberi (Mountaineers Are Always Free) was merely out of curiosity: to validate an impression I had of West Virginia, based on absolutely nothing other than inferences I had gathered from my fellow New Englanders.
And I must say, my preconceptions were invalidated one right after the other.
I love the people of West Virginia
Immediately, upon our arrival we were struck by the genuine friendliness of every single person we met be they our neighbors, a stranger from whom we stopped to ask directions or a local tour guide. Everyone, in their own fashion, went out of their way to assist us.
Our neighbors, John and Vera would “set” on their back porch (which faced our front door) every afternoon. They were always keen to catch up on our comings and goings, while offering their opinions of “locals only” places to visit and restaurants that we needed to try. John even shared his jalapeño harvest with us. I declined, but Claudio bravely tried a freshly picked pepper. Although I could see the heat emanating from his ears, Claudio agreed to take 6 with us (John would not take no for an answer) to dry and enjoy during the next leg of our journey.
During a bike ride into town, we got a bit turned around. The man we stopped to ask was only about 90% certain of the directions we needed so he insisted we wait while he called inside his house to his wife so that he could confirm where we needed to go. (Turns out they were both wrong, but that is not the point.)
We met Donna at Beckley’s Exhibition Coal Mine. She literally took us by the hand and gave us a private tour of the Mountain Homestead. Almost immediately, it felt as if we were visiting with a friend whom we had known forever. In fact, before the end of the evening, she had connected with us on Facebook and invited us to dinner at her home the next time we passed by. I mean really… who does that??? You can see how lovely Donna is in person if you find your way to our 3-minute review of Beckley Coal Mine YouTube video.
I love the countryside (but maybe not the country roads)
West Virginia’s verdant mountains appear to go on forever. Around each corner is another babbling brook or sparkling waterfall –all invitingly pristine. We could never get from Point A to Point B without stopping to take a photo. The national forest and parks are immaculately maintained and offer their visitors a welcome respite from the constant noise of everyday life. It is easy to find a place in nature where you can rejuvenate and reenergize, even while climbing 1200 feet.
But while speaking of the countryside, I would be remiss not to address the country roads. Straight does not exist. The majority of roads were exceptionally twisty, hairpin-turny and narrow (yet two way). Often, guardrails were lacking, regardless of the depth of the drop-off. Every drive was a cardio experience for me as my heart would beat at 100 miles per minute. Luckily, the aforementioned scenic beauty served as a diversion from what I was convinced was certain death. Claudio, on the other hand, enjoyed every minute of it as these are the type of roads he grew up with and always complains that “straight roads make me fall asleep because there is no need to pay attention”.
But West Virginia drivers are the best! We assume it is because they maneuver these difficult-to-drive, unlit roads daily. They never cut a curve. They are always courteous when passing. They do not hang in the left lane and use it only to pass. They move at a speed that make sense. And they do not text while driving. We should all drive like the folks from the Mountain State. (Hmmmm… a new business idea… perhaps we should establish a Mountain State Driver’s Education franchise and take it national??)
Roads marked as highways were frequently what we would consider just simple macadam gravel paths. And, to our continuous surprise, off of these very secondary roads (which we would actually characterize as tertiary at best) were even minor-er roads. They looked a bit like glorified driveways, but each has a street sign and could be found on Google Maps. One day, after a day of hiking, as we came upon one these little roads we wondered where it could led to, so, we adventured on...It went on for several miles only to dead-end at a gate in front of someone’s home. As the gate bore the sign “You are no longer a trespasser, you are now a target”, we opted to turn tail and skedaddle out of there!
I love guns
Only kidding… I can’t say I love guns, but I did develop a new understanding of their non-evil role in West Virginian life. You simply can’t travel West Virginia without constant exposure to firearms. Our introduction began on Day 1 during our trip into West Virginia. We stopped at “the” convenience store in Macksville to grab a snack and use the restroom. Unlike the 7-11 stores back home, en route to the rest room here, we passed bear traps, the feed you put on the ground to lure deer, camo clothing, hunting decoys and a full assortment of signs exalting the right to bear arms. We were shocked to even see bullets for sale! As we continued touring the state, my stereotype would spring to life whenever we would see rifles across the back window of a pick-up truck. And to top it off, while hiking in West Virginia’s forests, we would periodically see a gun strapped to someone’s belt. Frankly, this was a lot for my guns-are-the-root-of-all-evil Yankee girl mentality to absorb.
But a conversation with our neighbor John started to change my attitude. When I told him we were from Connecticut, his first question was, “What do you hunt up there?” Just like that. He assumed that hunting was something that everyone did. (I didn’t dare tell him that I broke into tears the one time I caught a fish.) “What do you hunt up there?” A simple question. Later, in talking to Claudio about this exchange and we realized that guns were part of hunting and, for these folks, hunting was part of eating. It made sense. We were okay with that. A few days later, at the top of Seneca Rocks I was resting on a bench while Claudio continued to hike a bit higher when a family of four joined me. The dad was big, bearded and tattooed. This already put me on alert, but my spidey senses really went into overdrive when I noticed a gun strapped to his side. A gun? Really? For a hike in a state forest? I snuck a photo of this gun-toting mountain man –because, well, you never know. HA! You never know is right! Turns out that Charles and his family were some of the loveliest people you could ever meet. They were camping at the base of the mountain and hiked to the platform, so his children could marvel at the view. In fact, when I explained my absolute terror of heights and my resolution to trying to get over it, they decided to join me as I attempted to summit the peak. Their support was so awesome that I felt I was climbing with my own personal cheerleading squad. I repeat, some of the loveliest people you could ever meet. And the gun… just for safety, because you never know when you might run into a bear in the mountains. The shift was complete. It was no longer about guns being evil; it was about normal people doing normal things. Different than my normal, but normal nonetheless.
I love the quirkiness
After only 2 weeks in the “wild and wonderful” state, I wouldn’t begin to say that I understand West Virginians. In fact, there are several observances that continue to baffle me. We noted that many homes in the countryside had their yards littered with, what appear to be, discarded objects: tractors, boats, farm equipment, many many vehicles, children’s toys, an exercise bicycle and two wheel chairs. It’s as if folks decided, “I no longer want or need this…” and so they simply left it the last place they used it. Practical? Inconvenient? Something else? We are just not sure.
Work hard, relax hard. It seems that the folks we saw outside their homes operated at one of two extremes: either they were busy with a project or they were busy “settin’ “. It was not uncommon to hear the buzz of a circular saw or the unmistakable sound of earth-moving equipment in use across the land. When driving around, we noted that folks were frequently mending fences, building stone walls or tending to their yards. (I don’t know for sure but have a sense that there is a high level of self-sufficiency amongst West Virginians: carpentry, masonry, mechanical abilities and the like are just expected skills.) But when the work was done, it was clearly time to enjoy a well-earned sit-down.
I love West Virginia
Every time we crossed paths with someone, we were met with either a smile, a nod or a hi (pronounced more like haaaaai). And each greeting seemed genuine, rather than perfunctory. Maybe it was the fresh mountain air messing with our heads, but it felt as if, with every greeting, they were acknowledging us as fellow human beings.
I started out visiting West Virginia #AlmostHesitant but it turned out that West Virginia and its people ARE #AlmostHeaven (yes they have an official hashtag).