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Wild and Wonderful

Earlier this month, I spent the weekend in my hometown, Matewan, West Virginia. I was there for a book signing at the Hatfield & McCoy Reunion Festival. It was great to see schoolmates I hadn’t seen in years, to catch up with old friends, and be a part of the festival.

Going home to West Virginia is soothing in many ways. Matewan is where my childhood memories linger. I grew up surrounded by mountains that provided an amazing playground. We were outside every chance we got—climbing trees, hiking up a mountain, sliding down a mountain in fresh fallen leaves, catching crawdads in the creek. There was always an adventure.

The mountains are close and tight and can feel suffocating to some people. The sun doesn’t peek over the top of the mountain until about ten in the morning … by 5:00 pm, it’s sinking beyond the other side. The mighty Tug River snakes along between the mountains creating a distinct line between West Virginia and Kentucky.

Those mountains are part of my soul. They provide a cocoon from the outside world. They demand a slower speed; an alternate perspective on the noise around me. There’s nothing like a walk down a dirt road to clear your mind and bring a little clarity.

When I tell people I’m from West Virginia, I typically get an odd look and “Really?” West Virginia conjures up many negative images for most people—poverty, barefoot hillbillies, dirty coal miners, and more recently the opioid epidemic. While some version of those images is accurate, the other West Virginia that most don’t see is the one I see when I go home. Wild horses, beautiful rolling mountains, wildflowers, a river, a rich history, kind people, and some of the best moonshine in the country.

Yes, there’s poverty, but West Virginia is also home to some of the hardest working people I know. There isn’t a lot of industry in the state; therefore, not a lot of jobs, especially in southern West Virginia. With the coal industry winding down, and decades of little to no encouragement for other industries to step up once the coal was gone, there are few jobs.

Mingo County is the heart of the billion-dollar coalfield. Where coal is king. At least coal used to be king. Now? Some say it’s ready for an encore. Others preach that coal is dead and will never be the despot it once was. All I know is that over the decades, coal has waxed and waned from king to pauper and back again.

And why so much disdain for those “dirty coal miners?” Generations of coal miners have kept this country powered since the early 1900s. Without them, you’d be sitting in the dark. Without them, our industrial revolution would never have happened. Without them, the comforts and conveniences of our modern-day lifestyle would not exist.

Yeah, I get it, burning coal is bad for the environment. But you know what else is bad? Raping a land and its people of their minerals and running off with the profit and leaving those people with nothing. No sustainability. No other industry. No training. Nothing.

The opioid crisis was brought about by the pharmaceutical companies and their distributors in other states. They kept pushing the drugs into the area to make a profit. Those are the people who should be looked down upon and judged. Their greed has created a nation-wide epidemic that will take generations to heal.

As for those barefoot hillbillies, I’m a barefoot Appalachian as often as I can be.

There’s so much history in my little hometown—the Hatfield and McCoy feud and the legendary mine wars that sparked right in the middle of downtown in 1920. It’s also now ATV heaven with riders coming from all over the country with their four-wheelers to tear up the Hatfield & McCoy Trails. It could be a tourist goldmine, but it will take the elected officials and the local citizens coming together for the good of the community.

Some say you can’t turn generations of coal miners into tourism entrepreneurs overnight and maybe not ever. I disagree. When I was home for the book signing, I saw people working hard to make the festival great. Others stopped by my tent and discussed what could be done, things they would like to see happen in our little town. There was also a fair amount of frustration at what appear to be obstacles, such as funding, collaboration, and creative planning, in the town, the county, and the state. These things are necessary for new ventures to happen and for tourism to flourish.

My hope is that we—the current residents and those of us who visit—can all come together for the greater good of the community. That we can see southern West Virginia flourish once again, this time by sharing the beauty and history of our mountain state.

I want everyone to see the West Virginia I see—it’s truly almost heaven.


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