American Impressions, Chapter 11: West Virginia
Of Love and Plunder
Scrolling through wire stories at my desk in Lakeland a couple of years ago, I came across a news item from Beckley, W.Va., where I’d begun my newspaper career in the late ‘80s. The story was about a school principal whose name I immediately recognized. I’d quoted him once or twice and remembered his cushy handshake and short, pudgy frame. Parents liked him and volunteered big and small tasks in his school for the 27 years he was a principal. He was also a family man, church man, quiet man and so on. Anyway, he was arrested one Sunday night in Charleston, 50 miles north of Beckley, wearing a wig, make-up and a dress and offering to turn tricks on men, in tandem with another girl.
The story attracted national stares for a few days—not, I think, because it was anymore newsworthy than if the principal couldn’t closet his weakness for opera, but because it was datelined West Virginia. Cross-dressing news from Queens, N.Y., or Fairbanks, Alaska, even when it involves principals, doesn’t have the same ring. From West Virginia, it’s like a copyright renewal of the role the state has been condemned to play in the theater of American assumptions. It has historically been West Virginia’s job to be America’s backwater, a joke of a state easy to plunder for coal and timber and the occasional hillbilly aberration, accepting in exchange hand-outs from VISTA and Robert Byrd, the senator who once called himself “West Virginia’s billion-dollar industry.”
There’s plenty of legitimate blame to go around. But the pity of West Virginia begins with West Virginians’ self-pity, a sense of insecurity they have elevated to a creed. Not in any of the states I’d been to until then did I hear the phrase I heard most from West Virginians: “Make us look good,” as if it is always in the hands of an outsider to shape the state’s image.
I lived in West Virginia almost six years. I hated it the first two, seeing in it more similarities with East Germany before reunification than with the America I was used to. I then found myself loving it more than any other state I know. The change was gradual, involuntary, inexplicable. The state keeps reeling me back in whenever I’m near. It wasn’t my intention to make it look good or bad when I visited it again in January, only to relate the eloquence of its simplicity as a place, and the brutality of the plunder that has kept it from being more than the colony it remains to this day.
Ever the bastard state—Lincoln allowed it to secede from Virginia in 1863 only to join a Union warring against secessionists—West Virginia is wracked by an inferiority complex, paralyzed by its own differences, its counter-current pace, its defensive isolationism even as it desperately seeks recognition. It remains to forge a cultural identity that goes beyond an obsession with history and “crafts.” So the only way to love West Virginia beyond the gift shops is unconditionally. Making fun of the place is easier, which explains the occasional dateline.
Plundering it physically is easier still. Like an American Siberia in much better weather, the state gapes with natural resources as seductively as West Virginians’ refusal to be their own stewards. They prefer to watch the plunder and blame “outside forces”—the media for perpetuating stereotypes, out-of-state corporations that own so much of the state’s land and do with it what they wish, rail companies that still profit from their rights of way but give little back, or even the state’s Legislature for being in the pocket of those outside interests.
Blame a cultural identity self-deceptively beholden to history, too.
”You’ve got a false sense of good old days,” Dwight Dials tells me as he sums up a psychology he has been dealing with for the last 20 years, the last decade as school superintendent in Raleigh County (he had to fire the moonlighting principal). He remembers the days of 40 percent drop-out rates as nearby mines offered better wages than college graduates earned. The last boom was as recent as the 1970s.
Yet those good old days keep West Virginians in the southern coalfields dreaming of a Second Coming and suspect of new ways. Dials gets wistful over the words “research and development.” Then I picture what must be his bane—his own School Board, three-fifths of which was born during the Woodrow Wilson administration and elected and re-elected, like most small-town school boards, on the strength of buddyships going back almost as long. “Around here you’re going to catch hell if you get on that R&D side and try to anticipate change,” Dials says.
West Virginia’s relationship with the future has been of two minds. In 1988 it elected Gaston Caperton governor, a tireless booster who attracted 75,000 new jobs, 500 new businesses and $2.7 billion in investments while spending more than half-a-billion dollars on school construction. By the end of Caperton’s two terms, the state seemed on its way to shedding the old-cars-on-cinderblock image. Then, that endemic nostalgia for the past hit again as West Virginians elected Cecil Underwood governor. He had once been their youngest governor. He was now their oldest. A coal executive, his allegiances were not to the future that Caperton was shoving West Virginia into but to a familiar past of unregulated harvesting of whatever the state had to offer quickly and efficiently. If resuming the “Rape of Appalachia” (as many headlines put it) was not particularly pretty, it was at least as familiar as the screed of buzz-saws and exploding mountains.
Paige Dalporto has written a song for the governor. It’s called “Kiss the Hills Goodbye” and tells of how the hills he knew as a child near Gauley Bridge, in the south-central part of the state, are being razed by loggers or eviscerated by miners. The song is his protest. TV stations and newspaper reporters have come to hear it. Sen. Jay Rockefeller dispatched a staffer to survey the damage. At the end of January, Paige played the song at a rally in front of the state Capitol. As yet, no word from the governor.
We’ve been friends for almost 10 years, going back to the days when we both worked at the same paper in Beckley, where he was a photographer. He quit in the mid-‘90s to concentrate on his song-writing and freelance his photography. The day I visited him in early January to see the mountains of his song for myself, it was rainy and muddy and neither of us was particularly talkative, a fitting mood for what we saw.
In timbering, the cutting of trees itself is not necessarily as destructive as what it takes to get to the trees. That’s why the U.S. Forest Service has just imposed an 18-month moratorium on building logging roads to protect 33 million acres of public land. Of the 400,000 miles of such roads that have been cut, less than half meet environmental standards and will cost taxpayers $8.5 billion in repairs. That’s on publicly owned land.
The hills behind Paige’s house are privately owned. They’re not covered by the moratorium and won’t be repaired. West Virginia’s environmental standards regarding logging are nil. In sum, Paige’s song was titled accurately.
Picture a powerful bulldozer with a whale of a blade gashing through the side of the hills to dig dozen-foot-wide roads in a pretty tight zig-zag pattern from the bottom of the mountain to the top. The buzz-saws then go to work, removing trees worthy of the pulp mills and leaving behind fallen limbs or trunks that don’t make the cut. It’s a messy sight of wood thorns and splinters, a sort of tree cemetery where burial is not part of the deal. The worse mess is not as visible because its consequences are spread over time and geography, although the mud gripping my boots to the ankles was a foretaste of the erosion that will slowly wash away the hills’ best soils and silt up rivers.
”When you’re a kid, that’s the whole world,” Paige says. “It’s not completely gone, but the whole mystique of the forest is gone.” Loggers say the forest will always grow back, just as coal miners say the landscape stripped for coal will eventually return to its original appearance. But it never does. Paige and I drive a few miles up a steep mountain, above Boomer, to take in what he calls “the granddaddy of all strip mines.” Where those post-card sprawls of Appalachian forests once rolled in every direction, only scalps of mountainsides are left, if the mountaintops themselves haven’t been lopped off. The land hasn’t been reshaped. That would imply a certain concern for shape. The land here is disfigured, grafted with a lifeless approximation of something no one remembers and no one really cares about because it’s far from tourist lodges and vistas.
A judge recently imposed a moratorium on one strip-mining operation that may have implications for the rest of the industry. The judge wants mountain-top removal studied more carefully before it resumes.But the moratorium expires in September, and the industry knows how to spin its way out of jams.
The governor says mountaintop removal “creates a lot of artificially flat land in places we don’t have flat land.” A coal industry advertising campaign declares that mine operators who lop off mountaintops are building “West Virginia’s Own Field of Dreams” that will bring with them “better jobs, housing, schools, recreation facilities, and a better life for all West Virginians.” But to date the only showcase developments the government points to atop flattened mountains is a state penitentiary, a high school and an air strip.
Meanwhile, strip-mining goes on at an unprecedented rate. The average size of new mining permits issued each year has doubled since 1994 to more than 450 acres per operation. Production is at an all-time high, and mining employment at an all-time low, yielding $4.53 billion in the value of West Virginia coal exports. That may explain why the Legislature is reluctant to rein in the industry or slow down the growth of the coal-modeled timber industry.
But if wealth justifies the means, why, then, do towns like Rhodell exist? Rhodell, a half hour’s drive south of Beckley, was once a coal town now reduced to a dying hamlet intravenously sustained by Social Security checks. In its heyday, the place had been rimmed with coal camps, its streets lined with taverns, shops, a theater or two, its Friday and Saturday night sidewalks thick with bar-hopping laborers who didn’t need to travel to Beckley for entertainment or a good new shirt or to hear a live act and dance half the night. Rhodell in its hollow had it all.
Its transformation to what disparaging natives called the Road to Hell began in the 1980s when the mountains ceased to produce coal. Aside from a doctor’s clinic, only a convenience store and a garage clanging with echoes remain, doing business barely once an hour. The streets are so quiet that cats cross them without worry.
Hundreds of Rhodells line southern West Virginia’s twisty roads. Their muted desperation explains why their surviving residents are so quick to court businesses most communities would mobilize against, like immense garbage dumps or nuclear waste repositories, why the state Legislature recently debated moving up the West Virginia primary from May to March to capitalize on the money traveling candidates and media would bring to the state, and why the groundbreaking of new jails takes place in a gala atmosphere of bunting and Cicero-quoting speeches by the likes of Sen. Byrd.
Wealth isn’t disappearing mysteriously. The same rail lines and interstates that transport West Virginia’s wealth out of the state bypass the hundreds of Rhodells, consolidating life into entertainment and shopping centers like Beckley. The town’s many new franchised businesses give the illusion of growth, but it is nothing more than a realignment (the local school system lost 300 students last year, as it has almost every year for the last decade).
With a population that either keeps declining or aging fast, the southern part of the state has turned into an unmanaged playground for tourists, and West Virginians are their janitors. If West Virginians have something to offer, it is again, like coal and timber, either a product they don’t benefit from or cannot afford.
Nowhere are West Virginian crafts more lavishly displayed than at the $18 million, state-subsidized showcase called Tamarack, one of America’s most chic interstate pit stops. Every one of the 20,000 items on display in the 59,000-square foot facility is made in the state, tagged “the best of West Virginia”—and looks it. Circling the complex of glitter and fabrics one feels hugged from every side by a visual quilt of luxury and variety that goes beyond the usual gift-shop gimmickry of scented candles and local bells made in Taiwan. The work on display at Tamarack is, as so few things are along mainstream America anymore, as authentic and personal as its maker’s quirks.
But it is also the ultimate in colonial capitalism, for who other than vacationing CEOs from Madison Avenue can afford, on the whim of a highway stop, a $20 salad spoon, a $55 plate, a $1,250 quilt, a $1,395 wine cabinet, a $5,800 stand-up desk and chair? Not West Virginians, not even the coal miner on the endangered species list making the average weekly $1,000 wage. Coal and timber is export gold, and Tamarack is export glitz. As such it may be the best of West Virginia, but it represents it as inaccurately as the New Age music piped through Tamarack’s ceiling represents mountain sounds.
No one wants to hear the sinking silence of Rhodell, or the blasting of mountaintops deep inside the hills. The sort of protest against the plunder Paige represents remains as isolated as his attempt, a few weeks ago, to distribute tapes of “Kiss the Hills Goodbye” to individual members of the state Legislature. He refuses to organize more systematically.
”I don’t think it’ll be West Virginians themselves who do the changing here,” said Dave Sibray, editor of a pictorial history of Beckley and its surrounding county. “It’s not that they’re unable to think about aesthetics and quality and playing a role in their government, it’s just that they don’t even think about it.”
What, then? West Virginia denies the conclusive—let alone happy—ending. For now, anyway. The option, again, is unconditional love.
WEST VIRGINIA IN BRIEF
Total area: 24,231 sq. mi. (rank: 41).
Population (1997): 1,815,787 (rank: 35).
Economy: Coal mining, timbering, tourism, chemical industry.
Motto and nickname: Mountaineers are Always Free; Mountain State.
Entered union: June 20, 1863.
Notable fact: One of America’s best-guarded Cold War secrets was the underground, nuclear war resistant retreat built for the U.S. Congress beneath the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs in the southeast corner of the state. Dubbed “ Project Greek Island,” the facility was 20-60 feet deep with 153 rooms, 112,544 square feet, and capacity to sustain life for 1,000 people for 60 days. The facility is now a tourist attraction, and the Greenbrier wants to turn it into a gambling parlor.
The state in quotes:
The Gauley fox can scent the maddened rattler And dodge the swift uncoiling of his sheath, But now an unknown dread is whirring, whirring . . .
And green dust spurts before its jagged teeth.
The white pines quake against the Gauley sunrise And shudder till they crash down Gauley hills, The trout float belly-upward on the river With sawdust raking blood around their gills.
(From “ Gauley Mountain,” a collection of historical poems by the late West Virginia poet Louise McNeill.
* The collections of poems by Louise McNeill (“Gauley Mountain” and “Elderberry Flood”) are powerful histories of West Virginia since pioneer days and are written in the vernacular of the mountains. (Available by contacting Tamarack at 888-262-7225).
* Breece D.J. Pancake wrote equally powerful prose in the few short stories he produced before his untimely death and collected as “The Stories of Breece Pancake” ($7.96 from amazon.com).
* “ West Virginia: A History for Beginners,” by John Alexander Williams (Appalachian Editions, $22.50) is a very basic introduction to the state.
* The Novels of Denise Giardina, in particular “The Unquiet Earth,” are very direct, if overly dramatic, takes on the culture of exploitation in West Virginia ($4.79 from amazon.com).
Video: John Sayles’ “Matewan” (1987) remains among the best movies on West Virginia’s coal mining history ($24.95, available at Tamarack).
* The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward has followed the state’s timbering and coal industries assiduously for the last two years, triggering several stories by the national press. His continuing series, “Mining the Mountains,” is at:
* West Virginia tourism: www.westvirginia.com