This is an opinion piece and does not represent the views of the entire expatalachians team.
I had been searching for the “real West Virginia” for quite a while when the term began trending in my Twitter network. As a non-native of the state who left and later returned, I’ve always had a complicated relationship with my regional identity, particularly in a place like Appalachia that holds its identity so closely.
Subconsciously, this has been reflected in my writing for expatalachians, focusing on the narratives and histories of migrant groups who don’t fit into the Scots-Irish stereotype of an Appalachian. I very much saw myself as an oddball, so I became a sucker for oddball stories.
An added layer to all of this was the neck of the woods I was living in. As a kid, Parkersburg and the Mid-Ohio Valley seemed like the least West Virginian area of the Mountain State. There were no coal mines anywhere near Wood County and my Midwestern accent was surprisingly similar to my new friends and classmates. Perhaps most uncharacteristically of all, we didn’t even have a Tudor’s Biscuit World until the mid 2010s. Much of my early impression of the real West Virginia was based on stereotypes and my West Virginia history class, which as my fellow expatalachian Nick Brumfield pointed out, was not entirely accurate in its painting of the state.
Unlike many of my high school friends, I decided to attend college outside of the state in search of new experiences and better opportunities. It was leaving West Virginia, however, that made me realize how much I considered it home. Though I had been born in the Midwest and spent much of my early life there, being surrounded by flatness and the unending dullness of cornfields made me long to see hills and rivers again. But that time away also reinforced the small voice in my head that said even if I claimed to be from the Mountain State, I was not really a West Virginian.
I used every excuse I could muster to write about my home state while in college. My classmates in both departments knew me as the kid who would drone on about West Virginia for eternity and always had “Country Roads” on the party playlist. But while I embraced the public persona as “Nick from WV” (even adding the state’s postal code to my twitter handle), my research into the state’s history and contemporary issues only decreased any feeling of belonging I had.
West Virginia—and to a greater extent Appalachia—appeared to me as places with deep collective trauma. The dangers of working in the state’s extraction industries or the shattering effects of the opioid crisis made that painfully clear. As a transplant who could as easily leave as I arrived, I felt that I could not claim to be a West Virginian without being affected by the suffering that my friends back home felt. Hoping to avoid the targets of this viral tweet, I was afraid that I was an outsider appropriating Appalachia.
I returned home after college and spent the first summer of post-graduation unemployment searching for the real West Virginia. Convinced that it could not possibly be found in Parkersburg, I traveled to corners of the state I had never seen, particularly in the coalfields south of Charleston. I fully expected to hear what I had been told the previous spring break when I embarrassingly needed towed out of a snow drift on a mountain road in Randolph County: “Oh, you’re from out there, you’re not really from West Virginia.”
Instead, I found the opposite.
At the registration table for a half-marathon in Williamson, I struck up a conversation with two women who loved to visit Parkersburg and told me that Blennerhassett Island was their favorite state park. At the Arrowhead Bike Farm outside Fayetteville, I found that our neighbor campers were from Wheeling and Morgantown, and recommended mountain bike trails in their parts of the state. Despite being previously convinced that northern West Virginia was not as genuinely Mountaineer as the southern part of the state, I began to find that the real West Virginia was not some single county or region. Instead, the state and its identity was strengthened by how similar its locales were, even when far flung.
The end of that summer culminated in the the founding of expatalachians. Writing for the project has only solidified my belief on what the soul of West Virginia truly is. Sure, the retired millworkers in the Northern Panhandle sound a heck of a lot different than folks in the Southern Coalfields, but their pride in being a Mountaineer is equal in its ferocity. . I think what brings us all together, from Harper’s Ferry to Huntington, is our connection to the land—and in particular, the hills and waterways that carve them out. The culture and economy of the state has and will change, but the mountains are here forever.
A few months ago, I attended a poetry reading about identity and place in Appalachia. It included a reading of the poem “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon, followed by encouragement for us to come up with our own. I’ve been struggling to put where I’m from into words, in part because I wasn’t all that sure of what I can claim as home. Thankfully, months of quarantine and a Twitter trend spurred the thought. Now I know.
I am from the foothills
From riversides and city streets
I am from where Appalchia meets the Rust Belt
(But where the American dream was once so clear)
I am from West Virginia
Not born, but proud to be raised
In the valley of La Belle Riviere
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Nick Musgrave first became fascinated with West Virginia’s history while growing up in Parkersburg. He continues to read, research and write on the Mountain State’s past from its birthplace in Wheeling. For more neat history and some political snark, follow him on Twitter: @NickMusgraveWV.