Hello friends and family!
Greetings from West Virginia, a state so overlooked you might have thought it was merely a semi-autonomous offshoot of regular Virginia. I’ve spent the past week and a half exploring the southern edge of West Virginia, particularly the Monongahela National Forest, the Alleghany Mountains, and America’s newest National Park, the New River Gorge. It’s been surprisingly busy in this rural area. Every gas station has hung a big sign out front: WELCOME HUNTERS, so I guess it’s that time of year – where New England gets its tourist dollars from leaf peeping, West Virginia gets theirs from slaughter.
It’s so lonely here in this forest, cut off from the world. That’s the promise of West Virginia, the guarantee of a society that exists without influence from coastal cities or liberal elites. Deep in the Monongahela Forest there’s a large and important observatory, and integral to the functioning of this observatory is the requirement that there be no radio waves. People live in what’s termed the National Radio Quiet Zone where there’s no wireless internet or cellular service and barely any radio stations (or even microwaves, apparently). I suppose the people living around this observatory call each other on landlines and access the internet using actual cables that run from their computers into the walls. Even outside the Quiet Zone, service is spotty. West Virginia is unbelievably hilly – the Interstates might be the only flat roads in the state. People tend to live in “hollers” (hollows) or bottoms, which are little valleys nestled between the hills, often running alongside a creek or a river. The roads of West Virginia twist tortuously through these hollers, with hairpin turns as hair-raising as a Rocky Mountain pass, the cell service and radio stations flickering in and out with every twist and turn.
I’m of the opinion that this might be the most conservative place in America, and I mean that culturally as well as politically (despite Joe Manchin, their Democratic-in-name-only senator). It’s insular in ways that most conservative southern states aren’t, because it’s so isolated and ignored and overlooked. Sure, America pays attention to opioid epidemic trauma-porn and coal miner strikes but nobody really gives a shit about West Virginia. Name a city in West Virginia! I bet you can’t! People certainly aren’t clamouring to move here – I imagine most residents get stuck here and die in the same beat-up trailers they were born in, trailers with caved-in roofs and burnt-out walls and front porches that look like the al-fresco storage unit of a hoarder. At least in the sticks of Texas or Northern Ontario you still find Mexican restaurants, Indian truck stops, and certainly a Chinese food place. Here it’s just home cookin’, Dollar General, diners, fast food chains, and windowless bars advertising domestic beer and darts. White food. White entertainment. The culture feels monolithically conservative, Christian, and country.
The silver lining to this is that I’ve been stealing campground showers on Sunday mornings because the campground hosts are certain to be at church. Religion is so interwoven with life here that there are three or four churches in every teensy creekside town, most of them the newfangled sorts (Church of God, Independent Fundamentalist, Southern Baptist, and their ilk). There’s a stroke for every type of folk, as long as you’re Christian and as long as you nod your head emphatically when you pass by a pro-life billboard on the highway. “I can feel pain,” says the infant baby, rosy and plump and bursting with good health. “I had fingernails at nine weeks!” The radio dial tunes exclusively to Christian stations. One station reviews the situation in Myanmar, concluding that “the devil has taken over the government.” The Catholic station debates whether a bishop should publicly call out their pro-abortion parishioners for having views that counteract Catholic doctrine. Another station is a fundamentalist radio show co-hosted by a series of men who call each other Brother John and Brother William (pronounced “Wee-Yam,” in a charming southern drawl). All day long they fundraise to finance their operations, celebrating each pledge with a joyful “Amen!” An hour into this patter in I start to doubt their commitment to the precepts of the Bible, notably “the love of money is the root of all evil.”
OK, don’t let me get too preachy. West Virginia is Edenic, I’ll offer that. The forest here is magnificent, all beech trees and oaks dropping acorns onto my van roof. In the Monongahela Forest, a thick layer of fallen leaves crunch underfoot as I hike to the top of a ridge to see the Alleghany Mountains roll out to the horizon. Further west, I visit the New River. It’s is one of the oldest rivers in the world, and it runs through a gorge so deep it resembles Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado. I hike down an abandoned road and find the jawbone of a deer, crushing it underfoot to loosen the bones, and then I pry out a few of the molars as a souvenir. I find beer cans by the hundreds. I find little swamps and blue-headed turkeys and secret clearings that give me an unimpeded view of the sunset. There’s treasure to be found here, so long as I surrender to the cell-servicelessness and let myself get lost in the woods.
Last week I pulled into a town to grab a coffee. I wanted to be around people; I hadn’t spoken aloud for a few days. I saw an older man at the main intersection standing with a HONK 4 JESUS sign, calling out and whooping every time a car honked. Every car honked. This is West Virginia: every car honked. He had a partner on the other side of the road who wasn’t getting as many honks – less of a showman, perhaps. My guy was spirited and energetic and I could hear some women down the road murmuring about the racket he was causing, the constant cascade of honks. “You second shift?” he asked me, and we grinned at each other. “You taking over?” We laughed as I wait for my light, chit-chatting, and I complimented him on all the honks he was getting. As I drove through the intersection later I gave him a honk and a wave and a smile because I figure he earned it. Down the block I saw an old Winnebago parked against the curb, HONK 4 JESUS spray-painted in red block lettering along the side of it. I think these guys must live in their RV and drive around to various towns across West Virginia to stand on street corners with their signs. All this for the joy of hearing other people acknowledge their Lord! For no man’s profit – exclusively for worship! It’s incomprehensible to me, but I can respect that these men are living in a manner they find fulfilling. In fact, I envy that man his easy joy, his enthusiasm for each and every honk. It’s much the same with what I’ve seen of West Virginia: I would hate to live here, but I imagine that many West Virginians find a joy in their cocoon of whiteness and religion and conservatism. I have to imagine that. It’s much sadder to believe the alternative.