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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811 Comments

  • Dan Light

    I left in 1976 and never looked back. I don’t regret leaving and I never intend to return.

  • Beth Clarkson Moore

    What a wonderful, heartfelt story of Wild, Wonderful, West Virginia. A facebook friend forwarded it to be because she said the photo looked exactly like our “home place” in Grafton, WV. My Great Grandfather was from Payden City, until he went to medical school at John Hopkins University. On his way home, he heard Newburg, WV, needed a doctor and started his practice there until moving to Grafton. He delivered most babies in 3 counties riding horseback. I was born at Grafton City Hospital in 1959 and moved to Ravenswood at one year of age when my father found employment at Kaiser Aluminum. I had the perfect childhood, growing up in a booming town along the Ohio River and visiting family back in Taylor and Preston Counties in the Hills. In 1987, my husband was transferred to Columbus, OH, with USAirways and because I had such a great job at Kaiser, we lived apart for almost two years. Finally I made the physical move, but my heart was always “back home”. When my father passed away in 1993, my Mom started thinking about moving back to “the hills” and remodeling of her family farm commenced. By 1996, she was living there full time and loving life! She too felt like she was finally back “home”. The flat land of Ravenswood and the small ranch house never “fit her”. She enjoyed the last 15 years of life in her childhood home. All the family soon were coming back for visits and holidays and it just felt right. Now that Mom is going and a coal company has long wall mined under our 90 acres and destroyed the land and natural spring waters, it feels less like home. This year was the first time we haven’t went for the holidays since 1997. There are people who love WV for it’s wild nature and some who exploit it for the love/greed of money. I hope someday soon, the people of WV vote for politicians who will protect our beautiful lands instead of exploiting. Almost Heaven WV…..let’s get it back!!!

  • Sherrie

    I am from Kentucky but have lived in Michigan for 33 years. I’ve raised my family and am longing to move back home. It seems the older I get the more homesick I get. I miss those mountains and the kindness of their people. I agree that you can take the girl out of the mountains but you can’t take the mountains out of the girl.

  • Jonni Woods

    It looks like you received a great education in West Virginia. I love your writing style, but more than that, I love the excellent use of grammar and spelling. When I get on Facebook (or even reading the paper), I am sometimes appalled at the poor use of the English language. I also grew up in West Virginia and received an excellent education in small schools in Wyoming County. I left in 1967, but still call it “home”. Thank you for sharing your love for her.

  • Janice Birt

    Wonderful days spent in Mallory, West Virginia. I am 67 years old and have so many precious memories. Going out with friends on Halloween night. Not to be evil just having a wonderful time with my older sister who was sent to take care of the small ones. Walking to the bus stop to get on the school bus with my friends and smiling all the way. Walking to and from the Post Office to get the mail and not be afraid that someone would hurt me. Waiting every Friday for Mom and Dad to get back from the store. We always knew those bags were full of wonderful food that Mom would be fixing for the next week. Every Monday coming home from school and see the laundry blowing in the breeze and knowing when I laid my head down on that pillow tonight there would be such a sweet smell of spring. Getting out in the evenings when the dishes were done and playing ball with all the kids in the neighborhood. So many more precious memories of my Home Sweet Home, West Virginia.
    Thank you beautiful West Virginia for all the wonderful times that you gave to me when I was growing up. For a daddy who never stayed out of work even when he had a broken foot. A precious mother who made home a wonderful place to grow up and then come back to when we lefty
    Yes, West Virginia has left me with wonderful memories on my childhood. That is where I met my sweet husband and married to for 45 years.
    GREAT is the state of, West Virginia. You will always be loved.

  • Judy Smith Aldrich

    I never lived in WV but feel it is in my soul. Our family spent many years traveling to WV for holidays. As the years passed there were fewer and fewer trips. Maybe it is the time I spend on my family tree that brings me to that WV home feeling.

  • Eddie James

    It’s so true that you can take the person out of WV, but not take WV out of the person. I was gone 28 years before moving back. I stayed 6 1/2 years before moving back South. While I have no plans to permanently return to those hills, I will never forget my roots and will forever hold West Virginia close to my heart. It will always be “home”.

  • Geraldine Harrison Terry

    I’ve been away from wv.for over fifty years ,everybody is correct ,it’s a bloodline that never goes away.ive lived in Ohio all that time ,I still have four brothers that live there ,we are all in our golden ages..I still go visit a couple times a year.Go visit graveyards of family members gone,but not forgotten.ive resently moved to Tennessee,because I have two children that moved here.But I always thought I would retire and move back home.(West Virginia) .love it there Borned there in Putnam county.left when I was in my teens.

  • Susie Rock

    When I was a teenager living in West Virginia I saw a TV program about a beatnik couple who lived in Greenwich Village (which is a part of New York City.) I decided then and there that was where I wanted to live because they said something about when they finished dinner sometimes they didn’t wash the dishes until the next day. I hated washing dishes and my dad insisted they be done immediately after dinner was over. A beatnik was just the perfect thing to be and the nearest place to find them was NYC!

    I graduated from high school and college in West Virginia. I was somewhat afraid to actually move to New York City but I had a college friend who lived in Baltimore, Maryland so I moved and found a job there. I wasn’t very far away from West Virginia so I would go back most every weekend. I found friends who were cavers and some of the best caves in the world are in West Virginia. We came back for those. Back then just like today many young folks left to find jobs as there weren’t any in West Virginia. I was a medical technologist and I knew I could find a job anywhere I wanted to live so one day I took a lunch break and walked across the street to a travel agency and bought a ticket to Europe. I really wanted to travel so I did for over 8 months–4 in Europe and then 4 months driving all over this country including a cross country tour. I saw a lot and wanted to see more.

    My plan was to move back to West Virginia and get a job and save enough money to travel around the world then move back and live in West Virginia the rest of my life. I never made it that far. I ended up putting my money into a house, getting married and managed to live in Monroe County for 12 years before economics caught up with me. My parents had moved to Florida in the meantime so my husband and I went there. I had tried to find a job in West Virginia for 6 months and I ended up getting one there in 6 days but I didn’t even try the first 3. I lived there for 20 years but I kept my place back home.

    It was 2007 and Colorado called to me in the form of a man and I moved there. I loved the state but the man not so much. After a year I decided to move back home. It’s nice to be here!

  • Ken Bryant Jr.

    Born in Richwood, WV, raised in Canvas, WV in Nicholas County. I never ever wanted to leave the county. But as time went on, I had to ge an education. So off to Morgantown, WV to be a Mountaineer and go to engineering school. By the time I was ready to graduate, I was married and had my first child. Coal industry was in its down turn and my dream of coming home and working and contributing to the community that made me feel so comfortable was shattered. I ended up in the Washington DC area, mainly becaause I needed to feed my family. Dont get me wrong, I loved my job there, but it did not take me long to realize that this ole country boy did not belong there, but I had to stay. I was miserable for 12 years there. All I could think of was coming home. Then some life changing things happened, moved to Clarksburg, WV area and went to work. It was better there, but not home. My wife that time, was from the Clarksburg area but hated being there and for lots of different reasons we parted ways. My father was ill and I needed to come home and help out. I was fortunate to get a job with a small engineering firm right there in Summersville and worked there for six years. Dad got better, things were good, I remarried a woman who is not only the love of my life, but my best friend. Though not a Nicholas County native, but a Calhoun County native, she has no desire to move back to her home land and she loves it here as much as I do. We have our struggles, mostly finanacially, because it is West Virginia. I know I could make a lot more money and be better off financially if I left. But I also know that I would not be happy. See, in my beliefe, a true West Virginian can’t be bought. They will take their pains and problems in stride and they will survive. A close friend of mine, who lives here now, but is originally from Pennslyvania told me once that he had never seen people as tough, with as much pride, resilience, and moral character as West Virginians and that is why he stayed here cause he wanted his children to be just that. I am proud to be a West Virginian and even prouder to know I have been back in my home town now since 1995. It was the best thing that ever happened to me for I finally achieved the dream I had in college. Working and contributing to the community I grew up in and with people that I grew up with. There is no feeling like it in my opinion. And that is better than any dollar bill will be to me.

  • Kia Moore

    My fiancé is from Arizona and he hates it here. But I was born and raised in West Virginia. We recently had a daughter and I am determined to raise her here. There’s no place like home. West Virginia is home. It’s where I belong. And it really is Almost Heaven.

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