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.


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 Headley tells stories.

You might also like The Magic Question: Can Appalachia Keep Its Young People


  • Joan Koppenhaver

    What a beautiful story. I am from Lykens, PA, 4 hours from Moragantown, WV. Our daughter just graduated (May 2015) from WVU with a BSN in Nursing, and works at Ruby Memorial. I am so proud to call our daughter’s alma matter, WVU. What a wonderful university! It saddens me to see the poverty, outside Morgantown. And with coal mines closing, it scares me for the future of West Virginians. Although I have, and I see the changes of seasons in PA, I have never seen a more majestic sight, than traveling RT 68 in October, to watch a WVU football game. Truly breathtaking! Wild and Wonderful West Virginia!

  • Jill Weese

    Jason, what a lovely tribute to “Our” wonderful state. There is a saying that I’m sure you have heard… ” you can take the guy out of WV but not the WV out of the guy” this was Awesome! God Bless! Ya’ll come on back now, ya hear?!!!

  • Joann B

    I lived the first 63 years of my life in beautiful “Wild, Wonderful West Virginia”. I, like, Jason have relocated in California… There are many things I like here…. the choices, the opportunities, the energy, etc. not available back home in WV. But I sure do miss the trees, the seasons, the hometown atmosphere and the friendly people. There’s nothing like sitting on your front porch, watching deer, turkey, squirrels, chipmunks cross to the creek and pastures on the other side of the hollow. Nothing will ever replace those “West Virginia Hills”. Moving can make you feel like a traitor, but it also opens doors to new adventures. My car has a WV magnetic emblem on the rear… The other day, a man in a truck was honking his horn, and motioning me over to the side….. Fearing I had a flat, I did stop. He was soooooooo excited to see my WV emblem. It turned out that he visits WV every summer for a family reunion at his grandmother’s…. and in the very same hometown… Fairmont. I proudly wear my WV clothing, here, and when traveling. So many times, even in Italy and Ireland, I have been spotted because of it, and had a friendly conversation with a fellow WV native…. it’s a small world out there. I will always be proud of my roots and heritage.

  • Lemoine Klug

    Enjoyed your article, thank you.

    We left Wheeling in 1986, lived in Michigan for 2 years then moved to Florida for 21 years. We were always West Virgians, proud to wear the WV shirts and jackets where ever we lived. Always had a come back for the jokes about being hillbillies or one leg shorter than the other.
    We met so many West Virgians in Florida, most were snowbirds always returning to The Hills in April. Most folks retire to the South in their senior years, we did the opposite, we returned to “Our State”. We had a choice of cities to move to with daughters living in Wheeling, Moundsville, Fairmont and Paden City. We chose the later, our son in law living there restored an old house and made it into a perfect retirement home. We love being back home after a long absence, the cold winters bring back memories of our youth. Back when we were kids and even in our early married lives we enjoyed the winters. Ice skating on Big Wheeling Creek or Oglebay Schenk Lake, sled riding until our hands and feet were numb then building a bon fire to warm them up.
    Our friends in Florida, most were from other states, they always got a history lesson on the difference between Virginia and West Virginia.
    It has been 7 years since we returned home, happy to be back!

  • B Hess

    I was not born or raised in West Virginis..I found her. My father was in the Navy so we moved often, I never had a place to answer the question “Where are you from?” Long story is now where I am from. I have had a great life here, raised my children here, and this will be my resting place. Thank you so much for reminding me of her beauty.

  • Tami Toothman Beall

    Thank you for sharing your memories. I, too, am a West Virginian and I was 21 when I drove south to Carolina. I still crave pepperoni rolls from home; am crazy about football and the smell of burning leaves transport me back in time. I know I’m lucky to have had the chance to grow up in those hills. And 35 years later on a cool fall morning I can hear the mountains, calling me home.

  • Sharon Julian

    Relocated to Florida after 72 years in West Virginia. My heart will always be there even if I am not. Beautiful article

  • Mike Vincent

    I was born and raised in Lumberport. Whenever I have told people that then I to say it was about 7 miles northeast of Clarksburg. You know, just over yonder across the hill and you can take the new road across the hill and it will take you into town. Now, the new road isn’t a new road. it has been there darn near 60 years and before that it was just a old dirt road and nothing more. When they made the road there was a lot of dust and dirt and we used to go to the top of the hill and ride down through about 4 or 5 inches of dust. When we got to the bottom all you could see was teeth and eyeballs. Loved it.
    There were so many things to do in those hills surrounding Lumberport. I don’t know where to start. We were always into something. Didn’t sit in the house and watch TV or mess with the computer. We didn’t have any. No air conditioning, just open the doors and windows and let the air cool us off. Even left them open at night, we didn’t have to worry about people breaking into the house. Didn’t have anything they wanted anyway. Everybody knew what everybody else was doing in the whole town.
    Bicycles were the big transportation for us back then. We went everywhere on them. In the summer is was swimming and in the winter it was riding our sleds from the top of Jack Run road all the way to the bottom of the hill and tried to end up on main street down town. We did that on the new road also but we had to be careful because there were train tracks at the bottom. We would ride our bikes over to Prospect Valley and go swimming in what was left of a big hole where they had cut out for coal. Jones Run was a good place to find for swimming. Lots of strip jobs up there. Mostly we swam in the Ten Mile river that ran through town. Sometimes it would be black water from the coal wash up the river and Sulphur was all over the rocks and you really could slip and slide all over the place. Wasn’t any fish in there except maybe Carp and Catfish. Really wasn’t good water. Didn’t have any sewage plant so most of the sewage went into the river. We didn’t care. Our favorite place was the behind the old glass factory. Nice swimming hole back there. B&O dam was another good place. Used to hang from the railroad bridge and drop into the water. Really cool.
    Fall in my home town was beautiful. The colors that the trees could come up with were so fantastic. Lumberport Hill was beautiful as well as up Jones Run and on up the other direction towards Dola. We did a lot of hunting wherever we could. I wasn’t into anything big. I liked rabbit hunting with my Sear/Roebuck 16 ga. shotgun. I still have it.
    I have been in West ByGod Virginia in a while. No matter where I went or where I was living it was always my home. I miss it a lot. A multitude of great memories are stuck in my head from there. Had something going on every day. Mom used to come out on the back porch of the house and yell for me to come to supper. I would leave the house early in the morning and be gone all day. Usually dark when I got home. Back in 1950 we had a snow storm that was the biggest that I had ever seen. It was about 5 feet deep. That was the only time that the school had closed and we didn’t have to go to school and we had a ball. I won’t go on any more because there is so much that I will never get it all down on this.
    I left Lumberport and West Virginia in 1960. I was 17 and had joined the Air Force. That was the first time I ever saw West Virginia and the mountains from the air. It was so beautiful, I will never forget it. I came back several times over the years to see family until all of them, Mom, Dad were gone. I still love the place and I miss it so much. When the song “Country Roads” by John Denver came out, the first time I heard it I had tears in my eyes. I was in Biloxi, Mississippi then. Everytime I would go bowling and as soon as I came in the door, some of my friends would play it on the juke box. They knew how much I loved the place.
    When I was in the service, when asked, I would always say, “I am from West By God Virginia”. I always got a laugh or two out of it but they never understood how proud that I was to be a West By God Virginia Hillbilly and Mountaineer. God did bless West Virginia.

    Mike Vincent
    Keatchie, La.

  • Mark Lynn Ferguson

    Mike, I’m not even from West Virginia, and this made me swell with pride. Thanks for sharing.

  • John Cecil Green

    Like you I left those beautiful hills at the age of 20. I then spent 30 years serving in our country’s Air Force. I traveled the world, saw places and things I read about in school. Quinland and Madison grade schools and my Skyhawks of Scott High School. In all those travels my heart and soul remained in those beautiful hills. My siblings still reside at Uneeda, in Boone County. I now live in Florida, but my wife and I still try to visit each fall when those beautiful hills are aflame with color. My college team is still and will always be the mountaineers of WVU. To all my friends and family that read this I’m still a hillbilly at heart.

  • Zara Ann (Rice) Sawi

    Great story! I was born and raised in Huntington. Left around 1973. Still visit whenever I get the chance.

  • Paula Nelson

    Thank you for giving the world a glimpse of what it is to be a West Virginian. In 1974 my then future husband and I resisted the pull of Cleveland, Ohio where a lifetime job was promised. We stayed the course and remained in this place where children grow up among the hills and family. It hasn’t been easy to stay, given the opportunities offered elsewhere, but it has been well worth it. We recently celebrated our 40th Anniversary with our friends, our children and grandchildren-all blessed to be living in our Wild,Wonderful West Virginia.

  • Kathy

    What a lovely story, I never had the privilege of growing up in WV, but both of my parents were from there. I’ve listened to endless stories from them about their childhood growing up there. Dad was born in 1932 so you can imagine the stories he could tell. He came to Chicago in the 50’s and met my mother who was already here and there you have it a new generation of West Verginians born in the city of Chicago. Many people ask me where I’m from, and when I answer I’m from Chicago they say where’s the southern accent come from. I laugh a little and say I don’t have a southern accent, but I guess when your raised in a house full of West Verginians no matter where you live your bound to pick up some of their dialect. I tip my hat to you Jason Headly, Your story made me smile today.

  • Jerry Tackett

    I to am from West Virginia. Reading this story has really made me even more proud to be from there. I left in 1972 to a job and raised a family, but my heart still longs for home again. Thank you Jason for this. One day i hope to return home to live out my years. God Bless West Virginia and God Bless America.

  • Tim Nicholas

    I enjoyed Jason Headley’s memories. I was born in Wood County, West Virginia, and grew up in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. In 1982, when I was 22, I moved to South Carolina to live near family and start a new life. I live in the low country of South Carolina. My memories of growing up on our family farm near Lewisburg are dear and ever alive. I draw on them every day. Our farmhouse sat at 2,320 feet in a mountain 10 miles north of Lewisburg. We were surrounded by 155 acres of farm land, cattle, a few horses, and many other animals. I remember our family’s cider mill and fresh glass mugs of apple cider to enjoy for months on end. Going to sleep at night during the summer was heaven. When the fog settled down in our mountains turned blue by the evening sunset, the windows open, light breezes flowing through my bedroom, I would go to sleep listening to the distant barks of coonhounds as they ran across the south hollers of our farm. Just a couple of memories of my dear, dear mountain home of Greenbrier County, my mother’s canned vegetables, fresh blackberry cobblers and rhubarb pies — yes, I am a West Virginian through and through. Thank you for this site and all of the memories of our Appalachian homes.

    Tim Nicholas
    Walterboro, South Carolina

Leave a Comment

Your email address will never be published or shared, and required fields are marked with an asterisk (*).