Dear West Virginia

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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623 Comments

  • Joshua Trent Neff

    I just got this forwarded to me from a compassionate and dear old friend of mine when I lived in Boca Grande, Fl. You have obviously met him for he now lives in SF. You may not remember me personally for I was still in the old middle school when you graduated. I can’t relate to your story very well for I left for culinary school 2 weeks after I graduated from Paden City High School in 1996. I ended up working out of New Orleans on the American & Mississippi Queen steamboats for an externship! After paying a visit to about every bar on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers I found myself back home in good ole West Virginia! I never looked at it as leaving when I went to college and to work at such a young age but I was drawn back in when I landed a job as a chef at the greenbrier resort in white sulfur springs, which was my new home, atop gillespies flower shop. As winter came I ventured down to Florida to work the off seasons for 2 years! Somehow in the mix of it all I ended up being a welder out of local 667 Winfield Wv! 14 years now in the trade of which I spent the last two in northern Alberta, Canada. I’ve been off work since December but fly back to no mans land this week for work again! I enjoyed your story Jason and I hope all is well! Best wishes

  • Janet Keith

    …reflections of “Back Home” — West Virgina
    Empty lots, abandoned buildings
    weathered signs predate the crash.
    Modest homes reflect the struggles
    as I make my way back home

    Time moves on and buildings crumble;
    nature makes her presence known.
    Reclaiming with her vibrant colors,
    abundant with what tempts the soul.

    Man presumes to be creative,
    pride in structures meant to last.
    Nature trumps, but is forgiving;
    returning, overshadows loss.

    What is this power so prevailing,
    gently leading back to source?
    The love of beauty had endeared me,
    as I make my way back home.

  • chris murdock

    This was EXACTLY as I left February 14, 2014 at 4:30 am west bound for Salt Lake City UT. As it poured the rain I cried my eyes out while I was driving that short stretch of road between Charleston and Huntington I-64. I’ve been in Salt Lake for a month and still not sure how I feel about it yet. This is an awesome article, thank you!

  • Donna Russell

    Your words are perfect for anyone who grew up in West Virginia and had to leave to find work. My family and I moved to St. Louis, Missouri in 1997. I’ll never forget pulling out of my parents driveway after dropping off the parishables from my refridgerator and heading west. I wanted to cry so badly, but my Mom said—“no tears, you’re only a phone call away”. That may be true, but the phone doesn’t get to see the trees, the mountains, the Ohio River. It doesn’t get to hear the sound of a train at 11 PM, the engines of a barge as it makes it’s way on the river. It can’t share your friends trials and joys as you did when you lived within 5 miles of each other. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve grown to love Missouri, but home will always be in West Virginia.

  • Carol Thomas

    I never realized how much I loved west Virginia until I was raising a family in Michigan . Then vacations home to parsons each year was more and more important. I cant write it like you do but as I read your article I am crying. West Virginia is my life. Where I grew up. Where all my family is and where I am slowly bringing all my family. All if the state is my heritage. We are all wvu fans, go to the games. We are local people with strong ties in parsons. Every day I give thanks for the beautiful place I live. The river that runs a few feet from my house. I love to go to the ocean but love to come home and more and more I don’t want to leave. I am home and I am so happy.

  • Sharon Marshall

    I enjoyed reading this story. I wil always remember the day I got married, and moved away from WV. Now, 30 odd yrs later (and divorced), however finding a great man…Here I am living in WV again. WV is still as I left it, and many of the old hometown favorites are still they same. I have to say that no matter where we travel, or where we live, WV has always been “home”.

    We just passed thru Paden City on Tuesday and its as if time stood still. Looks just as it did when I would go to school events there, more yrs ago than I care to think about. Thank you for sharing your story.

  • Lou

    Thank you so much for this wonderful story! It is mine as well. I left WV after I graduated from WVIT. I have been fortunate to travel around the world. It is not unusual to be in Europe and hear a street musician play “Take Me Home Country Roads”–and so I did in my heart. I return several times every year as my family is still there. Even though I live in Virginia now, It will always be home.

  • Gena Nuckles-Littlefield

    As I sat at my desk and read this artical it was September 28, 1985 all over again. The day I left home. In my minds eye I can till see my little chevy chevette packed full with everthing I owned following my husband to New Hampshire. You so elegantly put my thoughts and feelings into words. I go home every year to visit my family and friends and I still get exicited when I cross the West Virginia line and deep in my heart is the hope that some day I’ll come home for good. When asked where I am from I proudly tell them I from West Virginia then I proceed to tell them no not Virginia, West Virginia and tell them all about my home. Thank you!!! for the great article

  • Denise

    HOME is West Virginia…..always will be and always has been….it’s where we buried my infant daughter because that’s where my family cemetery is! I live in SC, it’s been good to me and I appreciate and love the people, but my roots are planted deep in the rich dirt of WEST VIRGINIA, OH THOSE HILLS, THOSE BEAUTIFUL HILLS……. <3 WV forever!!

  • Peggy Broderick

    I was born and raised in wva I love Pocahontas co.would love to have an a frame thereto live and die in .i live in ohio but visit wv 5-6 times a year I love cannan valley,love snow ,the flowers a spring water it’s just home .you always go back there ,I love wv.

  • Tamela

    Beautifully expressed. Although not from your beautiful state, I found my brain inserting words that made the story fit my childhood home. The basic story is one familiar to so many.

  • Jodi A Terek

    Beautifully wriiten, I too am from West Virginia, Paden City at that, I grew up there, and am so sad (to this day) that I didn’t get the chance to raise My children there!!!

  • Nancy Lowery

    When we left in 1986, I had to pull my son’s hands from our chain link fence. None of us wanted to leave but there was no work.

  • Evelyn James

    We were a close knit family in the Hollow of Nolan WVA. I was even named after my neighbor. We had to leave for the same reasons most of us had to leave. No work. I left with my family when I was just nine and a-half years old with my mom and dad to OH for them to find work. We never sold our house so we came home every summer and eventually my mom and dad moved back in 1975. They have since gone on with the Lord and are buried at the memorial garden in mayor which some day is where I too will be laid to rest. WVA will always be back home to me. It is where I learned the importance of family, neighbors and God. The road took our home on route 52 and the neighbors dispersed but I still keep in touch with many of them. I have a few cousins I come down to visit. And usually come down for my older sisters high school reunions. I too have cried many tears leaving my family and friends there so I understand all the above comments. I do sometimes wonder what our lives would have been like if none of us had to leave. My sisters are in NY, LA, TX and all of us love going home. It’s not the same without mom and dad but we enjoy our time with our cousins and friends and each other when we go there to visit. We love the hills and visit every place we can that time allows. I thank you all for writing your stories, after all these years its nice to know I am not the only one who misses their home of long ago and the loved ones either family or friends who are no longer there and am so thankful for the ones who are still there. With much heart felt love, Nolan girl from post office hollow.

  • Emmitt L Ross

    I am a first time reader and can relate to these testimonies of leaving, returning and leaving again. I love and live in Wayne County, West Virginia where I was born and raised on Brush Creek Road. The East Lynn Dam took all those homes in the hollows of Brush Creek, Lick Creek, Laurel Creek, Rich Creek and so on, but we are still near our roots where I shall abide ’til death, Lord willing. I, also, am an author with an ebook on Kindle at Amazon.com., titled “Brush Creek Adventures” a poetic work of humor, written with our Appalachian American Accent, that tells of the times we lived on Brush Creek and how the Lord moves in people’s lives, sometimes without their knowledge, but always, for their good. If you get a chance, check it out and let me know what you think. I really enjoyed the passion that was so displayed in the above story. Only a heart of true love, can write with the ring of truth and sincerity. Our lives here are sometimes hard. guess that why we love so deep. These old hills are ancient and God has passed over them many times and in many ways. The loneliest I’ve ever been, was when I was away from them and Him. Sincerely,

    Emmitt L Ross

  • Kenneth H. Dice

    Almost Heaven,I’ve heard this term that describes our beautiful State many times,but it has a different meaning after having lived here.As a young Man getting out of school and wanting to see this big World I traveled to Washington DC our Nations Capitol to find my place in life.Although life there was very good,I still yearned for Home and that some day I would return.Little did I know that I would meet the Girl of my life here in the big City,a West Virginia Girl.After being Married 3 years and expecting our first Child,we decided to return to West Virginia,My Profession soon became the Trucking Industry because of so few jobs,Having been in that profession for apx.40 years and traveling all across our Great Country and seeing it’s many beautiful spots,I retired and enjoy the peace and comfort of the Freedoms of Country life.I’ve seen much of this Country plus two Providences of Canada,but nothing still shares the meaning and Beauty of my Home State west Virginia.I still own two small Farms overlooking Spruce Knob the highest point and love to just walk on a sunny warm day and reminess of days gone by when still a boy with big dreams and a desire to see all Gods Beauty.Now after 53 years and now returned to my old home place,I must say I’m proud of my Journeys but none compare to Almost Heaven West Virginia.

  • Sandra DeBrill

    I left WV almost 40 years ago, but always manage to get back every now and then. I love “WEST BY GOD” a saying that always makes me “smile”…I’m from McDowell county….still proud to be a country girl from the holler…..
    Sandra DeBrill

  • Catherine Spence

    This was reprinted a few years ago in the Roanoke Times; my mom cut it out and saved it for me. Whenever I get homesick or think of the word “home” it’s always West Virginia that comes to my mind. The odd thing is that I have never actually lived there. My mom was born and raised in Tucker County; in fact, my great-great grandfather owned the mountain where the Canaan Valley Ski Resort now stands. I have a lot of relatives who still live in that area, but I have never lived there myself. The place is just in my blood, I guess. To me it is home and always will be.

  • Chester

    I seldom leave comments, however i did some searching and wound up here Dear West Virginia
    | The Revivalist. And I actually do have a couple
    of questions for you if it’s allright. Could it be simply me or does it look
    like some of the comments look like written by brain dead folks?
    :-P And, if you are writing at additional online sites, I’d like to keep
    up with everything new you have to post. Would you make a list of the
    complete urls of your communal pages like your twitter feed,
    Facebook page or linkedin profile?

  • Zac

    Love the essay. Born and raised in Cross Lanes but I live in Shanghai, China now and only get home once a year. Having met people from all over the world I can honestly say Americans like being Americans more than any other nationality and West Virginian’s like being West Virginian’s more than any other state. From time to time I’ll have friends or coworkers ask me why I like it so much or why I am so attached. As I try to explain it, I know the words I’m saying dont carry the feelings I have for WV. Its so hard to put into words and usually ends with a polite way of saying you just wouldn’t understand.

  • John

    I left in 1984, a week after graduating from WVU. I settled in Atlanta, a short drive from the north Georgia mountains where I spend as much time as possible. I know it’s all Appalachia, but it’s not the same as my beloved hills of West Virginia. We are going back in a few weeks for vacation, The Cranberry Wilderness and the New River Gorge before a few days with family in Huntington. I can’t wait! Take me home, Country Roads!

  • Mark

    I find something new and wonderful in this essay every time I read it.

  • Milissa

    I had to leave too, but not to far just to Virginia. There is just no work in my field. I feel guilty for contributing to the brain drain of West Virginia. Currently I am researching Scot-Irish traditions to hand down to my children.

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