At 3:36 p.m. November 14, 2020, my 2013 blue Scion XD crossed the state line on Interstate 79 north of Morgantown, West Virginia.
As the WVU billboard near the state welcome center declared, I was home. Finally.
My parents left West Virginia in 1956 and headed north on two-lane highways to Ashtabula County, Ohio, where better jobs and opportunities existed for the young couple. They reared me in Kingsville Township, but every four to six weeks returned “home” to visit kin for the weekend or summer vacation. Thus, in the vernacular of my childhood, “home” was always West Virginia.
For all my adult life I dreamed of returning home to the mountains and perhaps making my living there rather than in Ohio. It never happened. Family ties, once bound up in marriage vows and a household, are difficult to break. Even more difficult is the prospect of pulling up stakes, selling out and relocating to a new house, state, job and culture.
Ironically, as the years in Ohio passed, the county in which my parents had landed began to look more and more like Appalachia. Indeed, Ashtabula County was eventually added to the list of Ohio counties that are part of the Appalachian Regional Commission, essentially a federal pork program that offers counties in Appalachia the hope of turning around their economies to the point they are not “Appalachian,” at least not economically.
It is painfully ironic that, at the end of the day, my parents, and many other displaced Applachians who left the coal belt for the rust belt traded one corner of Appalachia for another.
My guess is that the powers that be in Ashtabula, Trumbull and Mahoning counties will continue to talk out of both sides of their mouths as the need arises–to promote their domains as vibrant, economically sound and progressive when trying to attract taxpayers, businesses, campaign donations and votes, and to cry poor mouth when it comes to getting another slice of pork from the federal deficit. Further, handing out an ARC check to a project always makes for a good photo op for county commissioners, especially in an election year.
Still, Appalachia without mountains will never be Appalachia to me. I’ve never been a lake person. At times awe-inspiring, Lake Erie is more often a gray-headed bitch hungry for land, lives and snow.
From my viewpoint, mountains have always felt more like beacons than obstacles; the valleys like cradles rather than crucibles. And so it was I returned frequently to those valley’s rocky, rushing streams currents that recharged my depleted cells and gave me the energy to labor on in the flat lands until the next visit. I worked and lived to leave home, if for just a weekend or week.
Those trips were centered around my writing and photography for Goldenseal Magazine. Published by the West Virginia Department of Culture and Tourism, the quarterly is reader-supported, oral-history oriented and beloved by transplanted and native West Virginians, alike. I was introduced to it back in the early 1980s, while visiting my paternal grandparents, Russel and Maud Feather, in Eglon, Preston County. They kept a shelf of the black-and-white magazines in their washroom off the kitchen, and I always looked forward to reading the latest issue. With help from editor Ken Sullivan, I had my first story published in Goldenseal in 1985. Fittingly, it was “First Cutting,” about making hay with my grandfather on his farm.
Since then, more than 100 of my photo/text packages have appeared in the pages of the magazine and my “Back Roads” stories are a regular feature. That has required logging thousands of miles in the state annually, as well as the miles logged to get to the West Virginia border (typically 250-300 miles one way, depending where I was headed).
As one gets older, you either accept your dreams will never come true or you work even harder to make them happen. The former described my state as I entered 2020; my wife, a Certified Ophthalmic Technician, was employed in Chardon, Ohio. I had been eliminated from the staff at the Ashtabula County Commissioners’ office two years earlier and forced to take Social Security three years earlier than planned. I wrote books and became house husband/groundskeeper for “The Feather Cottage,” our historical stone house in Geneva. But with each round of real estate tax increases and the addition of a school income tax, it became evident we would not be able to retire in the stone house that we both loved so much. It was as if God was putting us on notice that changes were about to take place, and we needed to get ready.
A trip to the credit union for another home improvement loan and months of dawn-to-bedtime work on the old house got it in shape for the market, although I prayed it would not sell. The old stone house had protected and nurtured me through some tough times. Further, it was the first house I lived in that I felt truly represented my quirky tastes in rustic décor and personal interests. I wrote four books in its chilly knotty-pine study and spent many a sad-yet-peaceful evenings on the front lawn with my two faithful canine friends, Polly and Brody, who are buried on the property. The property, with its mature red oaks and magnificent magnolia tree, gave me great comfort and pleasure.
The pandemic hit, Ruth was laid off and, when she returned, it was to a vastly changed atmosphere full of stress. She began putting out feelers, and a strong response came from a practice in Morgantown—West Virginia. But there was the issue of my father; a widower and 88 years old, he still has a house and active lifestyle. We did not want to leave him alone, especially in a pandemic and with winter coming. After a short discussion, he said: “We’ll move to West Virginia.”
In a matter of less than two months, our house sold, Ruth accepted the job, we packed up all our possessions, loaded them in U-Hauls, and, with the help of Ruth’s son and his family, moved to Bruceton Mills on the weekend of Nov. 14 and 15. It was like the Beverly Hillbillies, in reverse.
We’d purchased the house pretty much sight unseen, depending upon the photos and description on Realtor.com and a seller-sponsored home inspection report. By the time we looked at the house, ours was under contract and we were under tremendous pressure to find a place in which to land so Ruth could meet the start date for her new job. We did a 40-minute walkthrough of the property, negotiated and purchased that afternoon.
Real estate in West Virginia is expensive, scarce and either new construction, manufactured, mobile homes or old farmhouses in need of extensive work. Ours fell into the last category, and I will just say that you can’t trust the Photoshop-enhanced photography on real estate websites nor can you rely upon home inspectors to reveal the hidden issues that can quickly add up to tens of thousands of dollars beyond the purchase price. Buyer beware.
So, the first three months of our time in West Virginia have been extremely stressful, exhausting and expensive. We tackled what our aging bodies could, and a few things they ought not have tackled. There is still much to do, but most of it is way beyond my limited skills set: the failing roof patched with tarps, a cantankerous pellet stove that gives me fits and nightmares, and the absence of a garage for my father’s pride-and-joy vehicles. All will require the expertise and strength of people far greater than me come spring.
The commute to Morgantown across three mountains is treacherous, even on the interstate. Ruth has had some harrowing drives in her Subaru (appears to the official state vehicle brand of West Virginia). Snow and ice have stretched out the 30-minute commute to three hours or more. I’ve not heard her complain once.
I, on the other hand, have moaned and groaned about the litany of house-related issues that needed correction, updated, replaced and renewed. I ate and breathed sawdust for weeks as I ripped and sanded a variety of hardwood lumber to address the mishmash of trim throughout the house. Dad and I worked 12-16 hour days installing new flooring throughout the downstairs after tearing out ceramic tile that was so stained and dirty we’d been unable to initially see that virtually tile was broken/cracked. Installed over a cardboard substrate, the tile had broken under the weight of living.
And so did I. By the middle of January I was so exhausted, stress and anxious, I could not sleep. I coughed constantly and walking to the top of the staircase left me so out of breath I had to lie down. I was certain I had Covid-19. But the test came back negative, and I made an appointment with the local medical clinic, just two miles down the road.
I called at 9 a.m. and was talking to its doctor in his office four hours later. He listened to my heart and lungs, chatted about what had been going on my life and pulled an index card from his pocket and offered to make a copy of his recipe for immunity and health during these days of flu and Covid. Along with a course of oral steroids and antibiotics, he gave me some sound advice, “Do only what you absolutely have to.”
I slept better than night than I have in four or five months.
The next day, the problems were still there, but I had a different perspective on them. I looked at the house from a new angle. Perhaps what I’ve been railing about are its quirks, and perhaps those quirks were reminding me of my own quirkiness. Perhaps I will change what I change and accept what I can’t, including the fact that the restroom is right next door to my upstairs office, but it is part of the new construction and the office, although an addition, is over the old farmhouse section. So there is a trip down one flight of stairs, through half the house to the other set of steps going upstairs, when a restroom break is needed.
I can’t do much about the low water pressure and the strange tasting municipal water supply sourced from “ground water” that, I’m told, is laced with chemicals pertaining to fracking and mining. The doctor says I need to drink three quarts of water a day, so we’re investing in five-gallon water jugs. Filling them is a 45-mile round trip to the county seat: down the pike to Prison Road; down 26 through Albright to Route 7 at Kingwood.
We’ve bought three tons of hardwood pellets thus far and are praying for warmer weather. The oil tank needs filled every two months, and the bill is a few dollars shy of $500 each time. The first time we had it filled, the oil leaked out of a faulty gauge, ran down the tank and encircled the running furnace. I figure we came within a minute of the oil igniting and losing everything we’d moved into the house from Ohio just three days earlier. God is good, even when the situation is bad.
We keep the furnace set at 64 degrees and the house is cold, even standing next to that cantankerous pellet insert that, come spring, will be offered from the front lawn to passersby on the pike. The electric stove and mirror attached to a pallet, stored on the back deck will be gone, as well (my wife says we will have cookouts on the stove).
A contractor has been secured for the new roof, but it won’t go on until late summer. The colors of my office walls have been transformed from light purple to tan and pine-bough green. Progress is slow, but I am home.
We’re also exploring the fantastic 230-some acres of our neighbor, The Old Hemlock Foundation, about which I will share much more later. Hiking trails are throughout the nature preserve, one of the main appeals of this property to me.
The neighbors up the lane are friendly and gather across the street from our house to collect their mail and, late into the night on Mondays, to unload their trash (our front yard is the collection site for the lane). There is a rhythm of life here that is starting to speak of home, a vaguely familiar routine transplanted, re-ordered, rewritten and rearranged to fit the topography of the mountains rather than the flat land.
The air here is the air of home: fresh, tinged with hemlock and pine, the smoke of hardwoods and anthracite, and so very still and quiet. The silence here is excelled only by the brightness of the night sky; a small deck off our bedroom provides a view of that vastness that the lights of northeast Ohio smothered.
The mountains make you feel small, yet a part of a greater community of life, from the feral tortoise cat that we’ve named “Geneva” to the neighbors up the lane who gather at the line of mailboxes whenever mailman Jim’s white SUV makes its appearance, usually after 5 p.m. From the legion of celestial objects that I’d forgotten that were there to gravestones in the Lenox Memorial Cemetery, where my great-great-great grandfather, Jacob, rests beneath his Revolutionary War veteran plaque. A German immigrant, he relocated here circa 1810 and made a home for his family on several hundred acres of farmland.
I am reminded that through all the trials and tribulations of moving that Jacob and his family had a much more difficult time of it—no house with running water and an oil furnace awaited them when their arduous trek across the mountains from Somerset County in Pennsylvania was completed. There were no U-Haul trucks and no Interstates. Awaiting them were more callouses, ax injuries, runaway horses, sick cattle, failed crops and ill children, 12 of them eventually. He was middle-aged and could have stayed in Pennsylvania with his in-laws, but something drew him deeper into the backwoods and mountains. Whatever it was, it kept his clan locked to this soil, or at least to Appalachia, and drew them back as opportunity arose.
More than 210 years later, I return to learn much more of his story and write about it in “My Fathers’ Land,” not as a visitor but as one who owns a piece of this story and place, a place we call home.