Dear West Virginia

"One Man's Dream" by Cheryl Tarrant. Used with permission.
"One Man's Dream" by Cheryl Tarrant. Used with permission.
One Man's Dream

“One Man’s Dream” by Cheryl Tarrant. Used with permission.

This post is for anyone who has left home. I don’t mean to go to the grocery store or even for vacation. This is for folks who have packed their possessions, hugged their mammas and daddies, and pulled away from the curb with their cheeks wet and their eyes on the road because if they glance in the rearview mirror, they might not go. It’s for those who bookmark their hometown newspapers and like their native accents. It’s for the homesick, the diehards, people who would charter a plane or ride a mule, whatever it takes to go home at the holidays. This post is a love letter like no other. It comes from Jason Headley, today’s guest blogger.

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Dear West Virginia,

I suppose this has been a long time coming. Looking back, it must have seemed abrupt. Twenty-two years we spent together, then I up and left with no real explanation. I probably owed you more than that. So I’ll try my best to explain it to you now.

We were perfect together at first, weren’t we? As a boy, I couldn’t have asked for a better playmate. Your hills and trees, your railroad tracks, rivers, and run-down factories. You could have killed me a dozen times, at least. I seemed to be asking for it. I was rough on you, but you gave as good as you got. My blood in your soil, your splinters and gravel under my skin. This is how we did it, becoming more and more of one another every single day.

I drew your initials in my notebooks in the sharp angles of the university logo. They weren’t just letters. They were you. I wore blue and gold, but those weren’t your only colors. You were green and white, too. Just like my Paden City Wildcats. You were orange and yellow and red, your hillsides alight with fire every autumn. You were the purple of the Ohio River, the sun’s last rays drawn deep. You were black, a night sky as endless as my imagination.

You were everything to me. My mom and my dad. My brother and my grandparents. My home and my school. All of my very first firsts. It was perfect while it lasted.

I wish I could tell you when things changed. That I could point to one moment. Maybe the first time I saw the ocean, standing there with my pant legs hiked to my knees, staring at the end of the earth. Maybe it was something I saw on television: a bionic man, a talking car, a chimpanzee sidekick, a girl in her underwear. Maybe it was the books, one of the stories that seemed so wild and strange and far beyond anything I could ever imagine happening while surrounded by the steadfastness of you.

That might be part of it. I knew, as sure as I knew anything, that you were never going to change. You’d spent lifetimes building mountains from flat, solid ground. You’d grown forests, had them taken from you, and grown them again. You were strong, stalwart, and set in the ways that worked for you. But I slowly began to realize they wouldn’t work for me.

I can’t actually think of a time beyond boyhood when I thought I was going to stay. It’s strange. Ungrateful, I suppose. You were the only thing I knew and somehow you weren’t enough. But my interests and ambitions grew beyond any realistic expectations. Far beyond the reach of your panhandles. And I suppose that changes a relationship forever.

The question is, did I begin to stand out because I knew I was going to leave? Or did I know I was going to leave because I was beginning to stand out? I fished your streams, but with little frequency and even less success. Friends and family stalked your forests for hours in the hope of bringing home deer, quail, squirrel. The interest never took with me. But there were bigger things. Ideals I didn’t recognize, some old-fashioned, some simply old. Disagreement with common-held beliefs. Those I saw as wrong-headed, and those I knew were just plain wrong. All of that combined to leave me somewhere in between. There, but not.

I know your state bird, your state flower, your state tree, your state animal. I know your state fish, for crying out loud. Every fiber of my being was forged, formed, and intricately woven by the experience of growing up with you: my basic values, my ingrained suspicions, my belief that good things can always happen to you, but don’t hold your breath.

You see, I’ve never had a problem being from West Virginia. I just had some difficulty being in West Virginia.

Still, now, the places we knew together are like songs to me. Just the names bring a flood of memories: Dolly Sods, Canaan Valley, Oil Ridge, Buck Run, Bickles Knob. And then the places that had no real title: the rope swing on the north end of town, the outfield of the far baseball diamond, the attic of my best friend’s house, and, of course, the few square feet of my bedroom. I papered those walls with dreams. That town. I sought your best places and poured endless meaning into some of your most ordinary corners. I did all of this, day after day, for over eight thousand days. And then, one day, it was time to go.

You probably didn’t see it, because my back was to you as I drove, but I cried when I left. And not just because I was in Kentucky. I cried because I missed you already. I cried because I’d never been away from you for longer than two weeks. I cried because I was afraid. Because if I wasn’t a West Virginian, then what was I?

I had a tape recorder on the front seat to capture thoughts as I drove, alone, toward a new life. This is what I said as I left you behind: “If California is half as good to me as West Virginia has been, I’m going to be in pretty good shape.”

And I was right. But a dozen years here has taught me just how wrong I was about something else. I never stopped being a West Virginian. There are some things that can’t be undone. Not by all the gods in all the heavens. Geography be damned.

The other day someone wrote to me and said, “I’ll be coming to your state next week.” And I thought, “I wonder why he’s going to West Virginia?” He wasn’t. He was coming to California. But I still, in my marrow, think of you as “my state.” I only hope you still think of me as your son.

I have grandparents and great-grandparents buried in your ground. I have family living in the curves of your hills. I have pieces of me scattered all across your land. And I have the best parts of you locked here in my heart.

Maybe that’s not enough. Maybe all these words can never explain away what I did. Maybe abandonment is too great a sin to be absolved. Maybe. But I like to think not.

I like to think all your countless years have given you unbridled understanding, the likes of which I’ll never understand. That on a cold autumn night when the air smells like burning leaves and small town football, you miss me a little, too. I like to think that when I come home, you’re as happy to see me as I am you. And that the few days we get to spend together each year are like a gift, a time machine. Proof that old friends never fade.

That’s what I like to think.

Forever yours,
Jason

Jason Headley tells stories.

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737 Comments

  • Paul Perry

    I live at Pie W.V. In Mingo County. I was raised on stack cakes,my wife Anna Adkins Perry made the very best cake. My address 1642 R.A. West Hwy. Delbarton, W.V. 25670

  • charlotte arbogast

    That was a wonderful story about our wonderful state Jason! I feel the same way about West Virginia & about Sistersville. I never want to leave. Are you the son of Saundra & Keith of Paden City? If so, I know your parents well.

  • Holly Spears

    This article definitely hit me in the heart. My new album is about getting back to my West Virginia Country roots. There’s even a song about getting up the courage to move away like I did when I was 18 and knowing it’s ok to go back home for a day, a week, or a year and that I am ALWAYS WELCOME there.
    “… always a West Virginian.” That rang true to me, too. From Nashville, TN to Northern, KY, I still wear my WVU gear!
    Thank you for sharing this. Made me tear up for sure.
    with love,
    Holly Spears

  • Laurence Hickman

    Jason, Thanks for the “trip back home”! Good for my heart, mind and soul, as it was for many others , I’m sure.

  • Bridget John Losch

    This totally resonates with me. I left WV at age 21. It will always be home. I live in Las Vegas now but was back home for a visit in December. I cry for my old home quite often, even though it’s such a depressed and depressing area! Something about those hills and valleys, rivers and streams that can’t be duplicated.

  • Mary McFarland

    Thanks Jason. After more than 30 years out of WV (Parkersburg) and 20 of those in France, I still get asked by the not so very stranger in the Mall if I’m the one in France, and when am I coming home? Probably never I say, but I do ove that I am still asked.

  • mary sharp

    I lived outside of Akron Ohio for 23 years and I remember yearning to drive down a dirt road and see only the lightning bugs flicker and butterflies dance over the tops of wild flowers. So after my divorce, I moved “back home!” I too, always referred to West Virginia as home! It’s in my heart and soul. I think of the hardships my parents suffered to raise 8 children, and I feel so proud! So very blessed to call West Virginia my home!

  • Marjorie Rose (Shuck) Kallas

    I’m from West Virginia and proud of it. Although I have lived in Ohio longer than I lived in WV. I married and came here in 1964, and anytime I can, I go back to visit my Aunt Gertie, who lives in Lockbridge. When my mother died in 2005 we had to sell property and I’ve been there couple times to see place,I’m glad we found some nice people to buy it they have changed a lot ( almost everything) but it looks beautiful and it’s not like some places that just sit and rot away. I’m from very small town of Pax. I love the mountains there and especially in the fall. Nothing like West Virginia.The picture in your story looks so much like our house we grew up in.

  • Bonnie Summers

    I left WV for FL in ’83 & moved back 1/28/13……THE BEST MOVE I EVER MADE WAS TO COME BACK HOME….I am here to stay!

  • Deborah A. Kirby

    I too left West Virginia for TN 22 years ago, but I was in WV a lot longer. I also cry for my beautiful home state. I grey up in Marmet, right outside of Charleston. What a wonderful place to explore as a child, we we,re up the holler, and the mountain, and in the fields, boy what fun! I so loved your story , it made me smile and remember the good-ole-days!

    Thank You

    Deborah A. Kirby

  • Mary Carol Sydenstricker Jones

    I enjoyed your story. So many things said were reminiscent of my own childhood in Summers County. Only I couldn’t have found all those wonderful words to put it together. I have always been a WV girl; eventho, I lived in VA for 25 years. I left WV in 1959, and returned in 1986. Thanks for sharing your story..

  • Samuel

    Great story, very insightful of several of our childhoods growing up in the hollers and mountains, spoken from the true vision of a West Virginia.
    -Sam C. Roane Co., WV

  • Thomas Amick

    Like most of the people who have made comments,I grew up in WV. I fished and hunted, loved and lost and it was always home to me. I live in Massachusetts and rarely get home. I grew up in Beckley and went to West Virginia University. Now when I see a WV license plate or hear John Denver sing country roads, it takes me home. Some many wonderful people, good times and special places. I’ll be heading back at some point, perhaps just for a visit to the Graves of family, but I will be going back.
    Thank you for taking me back home!

  • Larry McComas

    Beautiful story. I still live mine in Shady Spring, WV I guess I’ll live my days
    here in Wild Wonderful West Virginia.

  • Bill Sites

    Definitely identifiable message. Reminds me of what someone told me when I first left West Virginia. “I spent the first 20 years of my life trying to leave West Virginia..and the rest of my life trying to get back to her. “

  • Linda Jennings

    I agree with the above comment; younger people many times have to leave the wonderful state of WV and many, then, spend all of their working years trying, wishing, figuring out a way, to get back to WV. Life on the other side of the fence is not always greener. Love West Virginia.

  • Kyle carpenter

    That was inspiring. West virginia sure is a great state. Im only 14, however I live in Paden city and it is a nice little town.

  • Melissa Gleason

    I lived behind Berthas beer joint when I was a little girl. Right there on good ole Pigeon creek. I long for my old home place even if it has changed over the years. I live in Georgia now. But you can’t take the hills and snow out of my soul.

  • Melissa Hatfield Gleason

    I long for my old home place. Right there on good ole Pigeon Creek.

  • Pam Mills

    I moved to NC January 1993 when I married I miss my home amoung the hills and my heart will always long to be there most of my family are still in the Beckley area so I go home at least once a month. I always tell people I might live and work in NC but West Virginia is my home ❤️ That’s where I will be laid to rest in the West Virginia dirt.

  • Susan Moskey Persons

    Had to choke back a few tears when I read this. I left WV when I was 19 years old. That was nearly four decades ago but I still call Huntington, WV my home. I grew up in those hills surrounding Garden Farms. They will always be where I wish I was when things aren’t going the way I would like.

  • Anonymous

    Love it I grew up in New Martinsville right mcg door to paden city.I know all the places he mentioned even the rope swing.I left at age 21 for the service,but knew my kids would grow up here.

  • Janie Murray

    Oh Jason ~
    … What a very lovely and well written letter to your and my state. I too have always thought of WV as my home no matter where I have lived across our beautiful country. I came back in 2006 for the birth of my grandson and shall remain a few more years for him and my mother. Then, once again, I shall travel and miss my WV along the way. You put in to words what most of us could not, brought happy memories to my heart and tears to my eyes. Thank you Jason and always know… your WV waits for you! :)

  • Tom Moore

    I grew up in New Martinsville and left when I was 18 and joined the Navy to see the world. I did that for 20 years and retired in Pearl Harbor and went to work for civil service. I retired there in 2004 and now have a residence in Las Vegas. My wife and I travel every year with our rv and are loving it. Catch me on facebook.

  • Nancy McKinley Kerr

    I am a West Virginia daughter who definitely did not want to leave home, but did so because my husband was in the Army and life took us to other places. I am 71 now and tied to my son’s and families who live here in Indiana….but West Virginia is and always will be My Home. I rejoice when I cross the Ohio to go back home and cry when leaving my beloved home state. Parkersburg will always be home to me until the day I die!

  • Cathy Nicholson

    Excellent article. Thanks for summing up some exact feelings of being a mountaineer! I have lived in “eastern” Virginia for 34 years and it can never replace the wv hills so magestic and so grand.

  • Linda P

    While I’m not WV native born, I’ve lived here long over half my life. I’ve had more than 1 opportunity to move back to my native PA and my childhood friends, but I feel more at home in WV and will take my final rest here. The hills do whisper and if you are a West Virginian at heart, you’ll hear the wonderful notes they sing. Wild and Wonderful, that’s me.

  • Gary W. Martin

    Jason… For me your story opened a can of worms. My father, Owen W. Martin, was born 1924 and left Sistersville, W.V. at 16 for the navy. He met my mother, then settled in Eastern Montgomery County PA, raising my sister & myself. As a family growing up, we made several trips to W.V. for a visit.
    After my father’s passing in 1976 I made several trips, just to keep in touch. Sometimes these trips were a bitter sweet. There were happy times and then of course there were sad times when I visited.
    It’s the strangest thing. When I visit, I do the same routine. I visit family, then I have down time. On my down time, I always find my way downtown Sistersville and walk the streets. As I walk, I feel as if my father is right there with me, looking around taking it all in, through my eyes.
    When it’s time to leave, my heart aches. Not because of the uncertainty of when I might see everyone again but… It’s like I’m letting W.V. down & breaking it’s heart like it’s not good enough to stay to live there. I feel it & almost hear it saying… Please stay this time, please don’t leave again. I regret not visiting W.V. more through the years. Trust me, I would move there in a heart beat, if the opportunity ever came about.
    It’s funny…. I was born & lived my life so far in PA. and I’m home sick for W.V.
    My wife & I are planning a visit either May or June 2015.
    Thank you for your story.

  • Lynda

    Beckley born and bred now live on coast of NC but we never REALLY leave WV

  • Michael Cox

    Born in West Virginia and I’ll be buried in West Virginia. I only left for eleven years while in the Air Force. Every day I longed for the hills of this wonderful state. It truly is “Almost Heaven”.

  • Carol

    Thank you, Jason! This really touched me. I am a ninth generation West Virginian, forced by circumstances to relocate. When I use the word “home,” I am always speaking about WV – and always will be.

  • Robert E. Stone

    I was born in Eccles, WVA on August 15, 1936 at 4:30 am in a one room house on Purity Hill. I have never forgotten my roots, in fact, I am very proud of West Virginia, my homeland. I was raised in Kentucky so I will be torn Thursday when UK plays the Mountaineers in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. I have to admit that I will be pulling for the Wildcats.

  • Diane Busch

    Thanks for the reflections of our wild wonderful West Virginia. I don’t know if any other states can claim to be born into the people who are born & raised there. We are tried and true full-blooded West Virginians even though work caused my husband and I to move our family to Ohio 18 years ago. West Virginia is home. The beauty of its mountains and valleys and rivers and forests are imbedded into our being and cannot be removed. Thank God in heaven for a little piece of heaven on earth in West Virginia.

  • Marilyn King

    I’m originally from Clay, WV, but I grew up in Glenville, WV. I left home in the 80’s to find a teaching job in NC, then moved to CA. I finally got to come home in ’93; when I got to my Grandma’s, I literally kissed the ground!

  • Birdie

    Before I got to the bottom, I knew you had to be a Headley. Beautiful writing. I was a Valley Lumberjack. I moved too, but still refer to WV as “my state” which makes my Buckeye husband crazy. When I ask him on an October weekday, “when’s the game on this weekend?” he knows I’m talking about the Big 12 and not the Big 10.

  • Lisa

    My family and I left for the west coast in 2006, probably for the same reason every Mountaineer leaves, the economy. We have never stopped being homesick and despair of ever going home again. I have all the local news sites in my bookmarks. My husband wears WV and WVU baseball caps all the time, has WVU stickers on the car and a WV flag on the car radio antenna. He’s never been into sports, but he’s fanatical about all the Mountaineer football games. I write books to self-publish on Amazon and they’re all set in WV. I fear I may be losing my lovely WV accent, so we might have to at least go back for a visit to get that fixed. I’m proud of being from WV and that will never change.

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