There’s a saying among West Virginia natives: our memories are layered like soft blankets on a bed, offering warmth and color. A Pennsylvania friend describes us as “warm and fuzzy.” We are all this, but we can also be fiercely loyal and defensive of our ways and our culture. Our state motto is Mountaineers are Always Free for good reason.
Our state is often called Little Switzerland, and it’s true that little of our ground is flat. The Appalachian Mountains march through, creating breath-taking vistas and tremendous challenges to road builders. In our hollows, early Scotch-Irish and German settlers snuggled in for a fight to survive our wilderness. Much of that wilderness remains to this day and you can think of this state as an outdoor sports arena for those who like to raft the rapids, rock climb, zip line and ski.
Often confused with Virginia, the state we split from during the Civil War, we grow restless when someone asks us if we live near Richmond. No, we patiently reply—again—and explain that we are, indeed, a whole state unto ourselves. Then we shake our heads and laugh. What can you do? We are the nation’s best kept secret.
We like our fun. Few states claim as many festivals that are named for food such as Strawberry, Walnut, and Apple festivals. We have festivals that celebrate the weird and bizarre, such as the Mothman or Braxton County Monster Festivals.
In West Virginia, no respectable fair would be without mountain music. Fiddle, guitar, and the tuneful dulcimer make us tap our toes and clog across the floor, swinging our partners round and round.
We’re not just about fun; our work ethic is legendary. For industry, we have a long history of extraction: timber and coal. Early Irish immigrants built the railroads that would move the wood and coal. The coal boom in the late 19th century resulted in recruited workers from Europe and the American South. We are as diverse in our people and in our outlook as we are in our hopes and dreams.
As for our literary heritage, we have much to claim with the likes of Pulitzer and Nobel winner Pearl Buck. We claim many other distinguished authors: Mary Lee Settle, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Stephen Coonts, among many.
I’m a sixth generation West Virginian and so it is that my memories are layered with the fabrics of love, laughter, testiness, and strength. It is difficult to capture such a wild and wonderful state as West Virginia, or its people, but I try every time I pen another chapter of my memoir The Last Storyteller. In it, I tell my story and that of my working class family. In my essays for West Virginia Public Radio, I borrow heavily from my family’s stories and my own to share a taste of our character and our state: wild and wonderful. That’s us.
This is a URL linked to a radio essay that recently aired on West Virginia Public Radio. Give a listen!
This is a URL to an essay published in the online anthology Airplane Reading. It was also a radio essay.
Take time to click over to Cat's website and check out the information there and at the blog. Worth the trip!
(pictures provided by author)