As womens’ marches filled the world’s streets on Inauguration weekend, my family and I took another form of protest: away from the unrest and gloom that had settled in over D.C. and into the woods of West Virginia, where the great forests once leveled in the westward expansion have once again filled out the stunning, rugged landscape. If you look at a map, we were in the area just below the place where Maryland– the oddly gerrymandered and staunchly blue state– points down at its southern neighbor, a few hours from D.C. but seemingly much further away. It felt good to breathe again, to not worry about offending or being offended, and think about other things besides politics.
The soaring vistas and towering trees belie a much bleaker picture of this majestic state: It has among the highest unemployment, disability, and opiate addiction rates in the country. It also has one of the highest percentage of Trump voters. Many people, especially in the coastal cities, express odd fascination and mock them as uneducated and uninformed. They love yet hate West Virginia because they can’t understand it. Yet, diving deep into one of the reddest states in the union– even for a couple of days– the mystery begins to unravel.
While my family skied, I headed out to rest my bones, enjoy a cup of coffee, and read awhile. I ended up in the northernmost of a string of small towns along the rushing Blackwater River, named after the British and Scottish settlers who put them on the map, and started walking around. The town hugs a cliff overlooking the river and the old railroad track, which has long since been converted into a trail. I stopped to read a historical plaque that took me back a century and a half ago, when the railroad was the beating heart of this community, delivering goods and taking coal mined by a melting pot of nationalities who lived and worked side by side. In that place and time, people were too busy to hate. They worked, shopped, raised families, shared their cultures, and proudly contributed what they could. Immigrants were welcomed, not shunned; the only passport you needed was a willingness to work. Many of their descendants still live there, bound by family and tradition.
Fast forward to today, and you get the sense that these towns suffocated along with the dwindling mountain coal industry. Yes, you can see revival in some places, but as something else entirely: Small shops, galleries, and restaurants drawing day trippers now dot the mostly vacant main street. Hopeful signs point to the economic revitalization on the way. But they may never again be the same downtowns, with grocery stores, butcher shops, hardware stores, and doctors offices. These lifelines are gone, out to the anonymous highway, and often– like the nearest hospital– far away. As you depart Main Street and drive this highway, there’s no avoiding the seemingly endless parade of giant wind turbines high atop the ridge line. A coal mine is nestled in the narrow valley below. The view is a stark contrast between the industries of then and now, and they couldn’t be more different: Coal mining, especially in the east, is difficult, dirty, backbreaking, dangerous work. It is increasingly costly and difficult to pull coal out of the ground here. Enter the wind turbine–a clean and elegant engineering marvel that pretty much does the work itself, collecting an endless supply of wind and magically converting it into energy. One industry supported plentiful hard labor; its successor, educated engineers and machinists who design, build, and maintain the turbines.
In other words, an energy industry is still here, but it is no longer democratic or available for anyone who wants to work in it. This seems to be a common refrain as the world lurches into another age of e-commerce and globalization: jobs are increasingly specialized and require unique skills, yet many people without the ability or know-how to pursue them simply give up in despair. Like the shift from the agricultural to the industrial age, the changes are bringing hope and fear to us all, but hit especially hard in places like this.
Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” I don’t pretend to know the answers or what other people feel, but I did leave this part of the world with more compassion than before, and a feeling that the answers lie beyond hate, border walls, tariffs, and isolationism. I hope that we can find a way to heal our divisions, support honest hard work, and accept that a college education isn’t for everyone. We all deserve alternatives that provide dignity, respect, recognition, and a real living wage– a truth that’s often forgotten as we charge toward the horizon. A new highway now crisscrosses the state, easing commutes and making these mountain valleys more accessible. Not a railroad of yesteryear, but a positive sign.