Monday, May 2, 2016

Wild and wonderful: the best Virginia

Recently, my hometown newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, printed a letter to the editor from Iowa 5th grader, Zoe B., asking for information about West Virginia. Zoe’s class is studying the geography and history of the United States and she is seeking information about our great Mountain Mama. Here is what she wrote:

Hi! My name is Zoey B. I am a fifth-grade student at Harlan Intermediate School, in Harlan, Iowa.
My class is studying the geography and history of the United States.
I am excited to learn more about your state of West Virginia. I would really appreciate it if you would send me pictures, postcards, information or souvenirs on your amazing state.
My teacher, Mrs. Newlin, would like a car license plate, if possible, for a school project.
I really appreciate your time and look forward to learning more about West Virginia! Thank you!!
Zoey B.
Mrs. Newlin’s S.S. Class
Harlan Intermediate School
1401 19th St.
Harlan, IA 51537

Well, Zoe B., I’m glad you asked.

Any internet search or old timey library book can give you adequate information about West Virginia. Start there. You will find that our state flower is the Rhododendron. That was decided in 1903, and students like you helped make that decision. The state bird is the cardinal. I remember those things from my civics classes. The state colors are gold and blue. Incidentally, every school I attended K-12 featured gold and blue, too. If you're really interested, I will sing you my school fight song.

There are a few different state songs, though when a West Virginian tells someone where she is from, the person always starts singing Take Me Home Country Roads by John Denver. It is a lovely song, but John Denver was from Roswell, New Mexico.

But there are several famous folks who hail from West Virginia. Former NFL wide receiver Randy Moss and former NBA point guard Jason Williams both went to my high school and were excellent athletes. Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and novelist Pearl S. Buck were both born in West Virginia. Your Wikipedia search will tell you Mrs. Buck was the first woman to win the Noble Prize for Literature, but, actually, she was the fourth. Still, the honor is one we are proud of, and happy to share with others.

You should know that there are important things that happened here, like West Virginia became a state on June 20, 1863, removing us forever from being lumped into Virginia. However, don’t be surprised when you talk about West Virginia (sometimes referred to by natives as The Best Virginia) to hear your otherwise seemingly erudite colleague say, “Oh, I have cousins in Roanoke!” Roanoke, of course, is in Virginia, about four hours south east of the Mountain State. But don’t worry: apparently, 153 years is not much time for some people to get used to change.

Certainly, you will find plenty of references to the coal mining industry. It has employed and sustained thousands of families for many years. It’s hard to talk about West Virginia without the images of miners sneaking into your awareness, their eyes looking at you from bituminous faces and dusty headlamps. My grandfather was a coal miner, but I never once saw in his face the hollow eyes I saw in the text book pictures of the miners on the page. He worked hard so that his family could eat. But who I saw was PaPa, who walked me to the ball field to watch games and always had chocolate ice cream in the freezer for me. He made the best homemade gravy you’ll ever taste, and played tireless games of hide and seek, pretending not to find me when I was in the same place every time.

Your search will surely reveal maps of creeks and rivers, that run through valleys and hollows (a West Virginian may call them “hollers.”) But it may not adequately express how you can sit on the creek bank with your bare feet immersed in the cool water that runs over rocks skipped a generation ago, or more. A map won’t convey the smell of mountain air, and the sounds of mountain life. The rumble of a coal truck rushing by becomes part of life’s soundtrack in the same way rippling water does.

Like any place teeming with community and family, life in West Virginia has, on the hilly landscape, ageless stories of hard-work and heartbreak, happiness and hazard. Neighbors know each other, mostly. I used to love to ride my bike around the block, passing along the way the homes of people who knew my name. I also passed my Maw Maw’s house, where her epic barbecue was made, and it still makes my mouth water to think of it. She always had strong coffee and stronger values, and Roman Meal and Tang.

Now that I have kids of my own, one of my favorite things about taking them to visit my mom is that the mountains are all around. Whether we’re on the front porch, or the back, the mountains are inescapable—they are everywhere. You will learn, in your research, that our state motto is Montani Semper Liberi, which means Mountaineers are always free.

I miss my home sometimes, and, even though I have a lovely, good, fulfilling life in the hills of Tennessee, it is the mountains that made me.

Just like on my mom’s front porch, they are inescapable.

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