In 1995 my mother passed away (I was seventeen) and it was not until a year later when the inheritance started rolling in (and out nearly as fast) that I was able to get a car and do some traveling. I made my first trip to West Virginia in the summer of 1996 and fell in love with the place and the people. My little sister lived there, and that was what first brought me to West Virginia. It was until until the latter half of 2000 that I was able to make a few return trips. If you know anything about southern West Virginia, then you will know that traveling Interstate 77 from the south, you have two real stops before you get to Charleston – Princeton/Bluefield and Beckley. After you leaven Beckley, you will drive about 35 miles in the mountains, with no civilization around – no city lights, no gas stations, nothing. You will have to pay two tolls, however.
I had a roommate at the time, named Larry. We made it a point to go to West Virginia every now and again, but somehow, about Thursday night, right around 8 or 9 at night, after a long day or college and working, we would find the sudden need to visit West Virginia. In just 15 or 20 minutes, we would already be on the highway, heading north, in the long night.
The second toll booth, just a mile or so past the Cabin Creek Road exit (the scene of fierce Labor Struggles between the UMWA and Coal Operators), leaves you with the impression that the mountains will go on forever. Nothing much changed in scenery – then. Besides, what can you really tell at 4 or 5 in the morning? (Yes, if you do the math, you will find that speed limit on those interstates must have been about 80 or 90 miles an hour!). But, coming around that last bend in the road, the little towns of Cheylan, with Belle and Quincy across the river, looked like heaven. It was during one of those trips that I realized that those lights signaled that I was home. It was just a few more miles then to the Motel 6 in Kanahwa City were we would sleep in the car until check in (which after the first month or so, the hotel clerks would give us about 8 in the morning).
Even now, if I take the interstate home from Church (of course, I get on now at the Cabin Creek exit, exit 79), and I pass that toll booth, as my eyes get that first glimpse of that sea of lights far below our perch on the mountain highway, I still remember those days when I knew that West Virginia was my home and I would do just about anything to get there. It is my memory lane, literally, it seems, of days whe my home was before me, and the world behind me. Of course, I didn’t know about the troubles that I would face when I got here – the hard times, the grief – or indeed the joys of accomplishment as I finally found place in these mountains. The journey, of course, to establish myself here, is not over with yet, nor do I expect it to be so in the near future, but just I did then, 8 years ago, I still get excited when I first see those lights in the dark night.
I think my God, not as often as I should, that I am able to live in West Virginia, and to be apart of this community – and the Coal Industry. I have a Church home, and my family is with me. We are happy just to sit on the pew, so to speak, and do what we can, when we can for that congregation, and for God.