In honor of me having achieved my goal of visiting all 50 US States, I will post a picture of somewhere I have visited in each state and write a paragraph or two about my experience. There is so much to see in every one of them, so I am just selecting one of my best memories.
“Almost Heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River. ” John Denver sang it, and there is a lot of truth to it, even though almost all of the river is in Virginia proper but don’t let get into the way of a great song. “The Mountain State’ does not disappoint visually. Steep mountains with deep valleys running with rivers and creeks that are robust in fishing and rafting options.
While much of West Virginia is heavenly, the beauty belies adversity. The state is the second lowest in the number of college graduates and in total poverty. The state’s vast coal reserves have been a boon to employment but at the steep price of environmental and physical illness and death to those who work the mines. Today the state is at a crossroad. The Coal industry is either moribund or in the early stages of a revival depending on who you ask. Whatever the correct answer to the coal question is, the state will need to find a way to move forward while honoring the past and the proud and hard-working people who live there.
As the name implies, the state has a strong bond with their eastern neighbor Virginia. For the first 75yrs of our nation’s history, the land that was part of Virginia. When the state succeeded from the Union, the land’s in the west opted to stay and form their own political entity. Thus, West Virginia became the last state to be established east of the Mississippi River.
The decision to leave Virginia had been a long time in coming and was based on many ongoing concerns, not just slavery. The mountainous terrain made plantations almost impossible. Also, since the state counted slaves in their population tallies, it meant the western half was underrepresented in the legislature. Since the region left Virginia during the civil war the land that formed West Virginia was occupied by Union troops until the war’s end.
Since a lot of readers to this blog are from outside of the U.S., I also wanted to write just a little about the people who settled in West Virginia and even a lot of the greater Appalachian region. The term “Hillbilly” can be pejorative or often a term of endearment, depending on the context. It is believed to come from a name to describe to the Scotch-Irish people who settled this region. Many of them were people of Scottish descent who were moved into County Ulster in Northern Ireland. In the 18th and 19th century many of these people immigrated to the United States and settled in the lands in and around the Appalachian mountains.
Many of these settlers preferred to stay with their own, and the deep valleys and steep mountains gave them the isolation they desired. Many of those who came from Northern Ireland were admirers of King William of Orange a protestant King who ended a Catholic Insurrection. The affectionately called him “King Billy” and many Scotch-Irish men were named in honor of him. Hence the name “Hill-Billy.” The name can imply someone who is unsophisticated with little formal education or someone of a proud, long-standing ethnic heritage who wants to preserve and appreciate the past.
Some things I really enjoy about West Virginia are the striking vistas and seemingly endless waves of mountains. The people you meet who while maybe standoffish at first will become a fiercely loyal friend once you earn their trust. The amazing Country and Bluegrass bands you will see playing on a tavern on a Saturday night. And the hiking trails which rival those of the Rockies.
If you take the time to visit this state and allow yourself to be immersed in its vibrant cultural past, much like the stunning mountains that surround you, there’s much more under the surface.