This column appeared in Martinsburg’s Journal newspaper on Sunday, September 27th, 2009.
When I cross back into West Virginia after a long day at work, I always feel better. Something just clicks when I hit the Interstate 81 bridge over the Potomac River from Maryland. So much so, that I find myself stepping on the gas a bit harder just to duck under the West Virginia welcome sign that much sooner.
I didn’t always feel this way.
When I was growing up in Charleston, and attending college at Marshall University in Huntington, I couldn’t stand the thought that I might to have to stay in West Virginia. Like most of my friends, I couldn’t wait until I got out school and got out of state.
I suppose that’s a normal part of the process of breaking away. Or, maybe it’s part of the culture of West Virginia. Even my own mother encouraged me to leave.
“There’s nothing here for you,” she used to tell me. And she still does.
Most of my friends and classmates never received my mother’s advice, but they must have heard it somewhere and took it to heart. After high school, some went to out-of-state colleges. Others chose to get jobs or join the military. No matter what path they settled on, they were following in the footsteps of the tens of thousands who have migrated from Appalachia to seek work and build lives “anywhere but here.”
The Hillbilly Highway used to take West Virginians north to factory jobs in Michigan or Ohio. Now that those jobs have dried up, the highway usually leads south. I can’t begin to tell you how many friends I have in North Carolina.
I stayed, though. And my inability to move on was frustrating.
Sure, I had some opportunities. And, I like to think I came close to a couple of them.
In the meantime, I got married. My wife and I bought a house and we acquired a couple of dogs.
It began looking more and more likely that we would stick around.
At first, I resigned myself to it.
Then we started having kids and resignation turned to acceptance and then pride.
You see, with the birth my children, I began really digging into family history because I wanted to be able to pass on what I found to them. And, the more I dug, the more I found just how deep my blood runs in these mountains.
I am a ninth-generation West Virginian on my mother’s side. Well before the Revolutionary War, her family settled in what is now Hardy County. The original family farm along the South Branch of the Potomac is still intact, and the cabin my forbears built there during the nation’s colonial days has been restored.
My father’s family settled in Shepherdstown in the early 1800s. After my great-, great-grandfather died in the Civil War, his son became the well-known editor of the Shepherdstown Register newspaper. He owned and edited the paper for 50 years. I know that because it says so on his gravestone in Elmwood Cemetery.
So, it was with some misgivings that I greeted my “breaking-away” moment.
It came more than five years ago in a phone call from Washington, D.C. On one hand, I was excited to get a shot at a job I’d coveted for years. On the other, the opportunity had the potential to take me away from the heritage I’d finally come to terms with and ultimately come to appreciate.
It’s worked out, though. And, these days, when my big city co-workers ask why I don’t live closer to D.C., I tell them that my family and I intended to move to there.
But, West Virginia has a hold of me now and won’t let me go. And, the truth is, I want my kids to be like me. I just can’t see them growing up not knowing where home is. Or, worse yet, thinking that home is someplace other than the mountains that are so much a part of me.
So, when we pulled up stakes to move from Charleston, our only real choice was the Eastern Panhandle.
Yes, I have a long drive to work from Martinsburg, and it can be tedious at times. But I’ve stayed in West Virginia because it’s worth it to me.
It’s a hard feeling to describe.
But I am a West Virginian.
I’ll always be nudging my car to go a little faster over that interstate bridge to cross the state line that much sooner. And, no matter where life takes them, I want my kids to feel the same way.