Written by Henry Culvyhouse.
West Virginia is my home. I love my mountains, my people, my streams, my towns. It’s the state where I learned how to tell stories, how to live, how to work, and how to love. And most of us can say the same.
Either way, the millennial West Virginian—blue collar, white collar, or no collar—knows that while the state is Almost Heaven, its opportunities are Almost Hell. Whether in a college dormitory or in a retail stockroom, I’ve heard the same mantra chanted over and over again: “When I get out of this state….”
For some, its an enthusiastic exodus. But for me—and I’m sure others—it’s painful. Being ripped away from our Mountain Momma is one of the hardest things some of us will ever do.
For some, the Promised Land is in New York City, for others it’s Chicago or L.A. For me, it was Maryland.
I know. It doesn’t even sound right to the Appalachian accent: “Mary-land.”
I spent a year on the Eastern Shore of the Old Line State, on the flatlands next to the ocean. After previously working a year at my hometown paper, I’d finally gotten that shot at the first rung on the corporate ladder of a large media outlet.
I probably don’t need to tell you how that went, but I will anyway.
Any West Virginian living out-of-state can attest to how many folks look down on us, from the light ribbings about inbreeding and bare feet to harsh accusations of ignorance and workplace incompetence.
A friend of mine—perhaps one of the most liberal I know—was once called a racist because she brought up the poverty and struggles of our state in a discussion at an Ivy League school.
Working as a crime journalist, I could often see the smile and hear a slight change in tone whenever I told a lawyer I was from West Virginia. Almost as they were saying, “Aww, shucks. This rube’ll believe anything I say.”
Maltreatment is something we get used to, no matter what part of the Mountain State we’re from. We’ve had to develop a thick skin in that regard.
What we, the U-Haul West Virginians, never get used to is missing our homeland. Our families, our friends, the towns we grew up in, the streams we fished from. No matter where we go, that absence, that grief over the loss of our beloved homeland, remains.
And it’s nothing new. My grandfather left his “holler” in Kentucky after World War II. His whole life, he wanted to go back. Yet today he is buried in (East) Virginia.
A friend, who now lives in Chicago, once told me, “Something about the soil in Appalachia gets into your blood.”
And nowhere does the soil seep deeper than in West Virginia.
Last spring, I turned in my resignation letter at the Maryland paper. The editor was very bewildered—he’d been satisfied with my work. He couldn’t understand why’d I walk away after all the work I’d put in.
What my editor didn’t understand was that a journalist, boiled down to his or her essence, is a storyteller. After some thinking and pondering, I realized I wanted to tell the story of my people, my home. So I packed up my Ford Taurus (I’d blown up the Focus) and drove back west across the mountains to West Virginia.
That’s right, back to West “By God” Virginia. Heroin addicted, closed for business West Virginia. The land of soured milk and vinegar, where we die scooping the black gold out of the ground or living off a state check. Or so the outsiders say.
West Virginia isn’t some hellhole brimming with toothless junkies. West Virginians are some of the hardest working, warmest people you’ve ever met. Economically, we’re facing the brink, what with the coal seams becoming harder to find than a flea in a pepper shaker.
But no matter how things look, West Virginians are resilient. We have to be tough to survive the blistering winters, to handle the mountain roads, to make ends meet with a sore back and calloused hands.
It’s no secret opportunities are slim in our state, especially for college-educated millenials. And I knew coming back wasn’t going to be easy.
I currently pay my bills doing manual labor; a work van gig that takes me from Parkersburg to Beckley some weeks. Whenever we get too much work, the company brings in temps to pick up the extra load.
Recently, we had a temp—I’ll call him Tim—who splits time living with family and in a van he keeps together with his mechanical know-how and a prayer. Easily twice my age, I’ll freely admit Tim can outwork me.
The other day, Tim and I started talking about surviving in this state.
“You got to pick yourself up and keep going and hope the next day is better,” Tim told me. “You can’t quit in this state. You can’t give up. You have to do what you have to do to survive.”
If that’s not the West Virginian attitude, I don’t know what is.
Yes, the millenial West Virginian’s success story can start with a U-Haul. But there’s a second option: we can stay and make our own opportunities.
Let’s not survive, but thrive.
Look around Huntington. Dozens, if not hundreds of artists, musicians, photographers, comedians, writers, and entrepreneurs are putting in 40, 50, or 60 hours a week on shop floors or in call center cubicles, only to come home exhausted but still ready to create something beautiful with their hands and minds.
For the creatives and dreamers around here, it can be frustrating. Bills, jobs, and life can block our passions. We begin to wonder, if we went elsewhere, maybe things would be easier?
I know people who have left and are working four jobs to make it. It’s not just West Virginia, everywhere is a struggle.
I’m no martyr for coming back. Some days, when I’m scrolling through Facebook and seeing how my friends’ careers are going, I wonder, “Did I make the right move? Did I do the right thing?” Doubt settles in, and then the fear follows.
Fear is just temporary though—it only wins when we give up.
Since coming back to West Virginia, I have written for a couple websites, including DowntownHuntington.net. I’m still trying to figure out what I can do for the state I love, how I can use my skills to help make it a little better.
I just know that I don’t want to be from a state where the best advice for kids is to run away. Our daddies taught us how to fix up our cars, our mothers to sew up our jeans (or vice versa in many cases). Why can’t we fix our state?
A place where slamming your car into a deer isn’t an “accident” so much as a rite of passage.
A place where someone in your family can tell a tale taller than the mountains, but shorter than the trees.
A place where a good work ethic, and not just who you know, gets you farther than anywhere else.
And it’s easy to get discouraged, to think “This is just some BS; if I went elsewhere, I could be making X amount of money.” I think that every dang day.
Then I remember, I came back to try and make it better; to add something to the state and not just be another statistic.
Maybe the boom of steel and coal are behind us—I know quiet a few people who’d throw hands if I told them that to their face. But it is what it is. So what are left with?
And we, the millennial West Virginians, have two options: pack up the U-Haul or create our own opportunities.
The second option is the road less traveled, but by God, it’s the road we have to travel. Not just for us, but for the state we love. For the towns we grew up in, for the children we’ll raise up here.
It’s going to be a struggle to rebuild our state from our dreams, but the strength we will gain from that struggle will make it all worthwhile.
I honestly don’t know how we get there right now. But if we trudge onwards, taking what we do best every day and making it better, then we’ll get there.
Not you, not me, but us. We can make West Virginia the state it ought to be: Almost Heaven.