I grew up on a ridge top in Marshall County. That is how we identified in college. It was never the town; it was always the county. Within the county, you came from one of two places – the ridge or the hollow. Sure, many came from towns…but their story was a little different than ours.
Once you get up on the ridge roads, they all connect. Roberts Ridge leads to Games Ridge, Cameron Ridge… and if you dropped off the ridge you were in a hollow. The hollows have names as well… Fish Creek, Grave Creek, Wheeling Creek. You knew you were a child of the country when you could transverse the county without ever touching a main road, and before GPS.
On the ridge, day breaks early, and evening wanes slow. As a kid this was awesome… long bright days of sunshine with twenty-mile views. From up there, you could see the morning fog hanging down in the hollows…following the water below.
As I got older I found myself chasing that water. The streams of my county allowed me to cut my teeth, but I wanted more. The years between have taken me all over West Virginia, over many hills, up many hollows.
There is something heavy about the hollows. Like the grey skies of February, the shadows envelope you. The sun may be visible but for a few hours, then the coolness and the dark returns. The streams come down from some place unseen… hidden by canyon, rocks, and trees. And the hollow calls you onward…upward…in search of what is ahead.
When I say I am from West Virginia, I can see it in their eyes. They have seen the hollows from afar. They have heard the stories and jokes. Maybe they know some history, of Indian lore and coal mine wars. They really don’t know what to think, because they do not understand.
West Virginia is not a place, it is a land, and it is a people, and they are one. It is the heart of what is Appalachia….with its history, its culture, its perspective, and measure of time. It is in your mouth and echoes through your words. An old man far from home heard me speak once and said “you sound like home.” Home.
I have the privilege that I get to travel a lot. From Maine to Oregon and many places between. Each one has its beauty. Each has its scars. Each has its character – some more than others. But none have the contradiction.
Here are forgotten towns so deep in some hollows that you quickly appreciate the comments about piping in sunshine. And here are towns in wide valleys surrounded by big rivers and green mountains where the sun shines all day. Chasing water has revealed her to me…every hidden place, every secret, every charm.
Water falls over rocks and through farms that go back centuries of generations. And the generations remain. Those that leave her either never knew her, or are haunted by her. She shapes your thoughts, frames your window, and stirs your soul. She pushes you away while pulling you back to her… a selfish mistress that wont let you go.
So this place confounds me still…with its variables of beauty, darkness, stagnation, and pride. She needs preservation, she needs restoration; she needs a little more sunshine between those grey hills.