Photo: Peter Busse
When I was a tiny, blonde child with short, curly locks, I used to wiggle and dance on top of a coffee table in a Mountaineer t-shirt singing the West Virginia fight song my father taught me. He coached me with pride, as any father honored by his university would do. I loved every minute of the attention, of the camaraderie. I felt to be a part of a team I knew nothing about at the time. I was two, and I was, because of my legacy, infatuated with anything gold and blue. No matter how hard I fought to change my heritage later, it would never escape my blood.
I haven’t danced in a West Virginia jersey on a tabletop since then. I also don’t live in West Virginia, nor do I always claim Bridgeport, WV as my hometown. One becomes miffed by the constant, “Oh! How far are you from Virginia Beach?” Come on people — know your geography.
I miss West Virginia and that never ended. I grew up in a state where the license plate tells tales of being “Wild” and “Wonderful,” the same traits I tried to embody.
I left West Virginia on purpose and with a purpose. I scattered from a town I found too monotonous for my impulsive personality. My fate was stunted if I stayed; freedom beckoned me to leave. So I went south. I wish I could say I never looked back, but a mere seven years later it was the gold and blue that handed me quite a different fate. I moved back to West Virginia, something I said I would never do — to live in a cabin in the woods lakeside.
In my 18-year-old mind, West Virginia had ruined me. I was a girl concerned about what outsiders thought about the state and what insider’s gossip had to say about my reputation. When I went to college, I was the first to make jokes. Icebreakers became inappropriate stereotypes of my parents being cousins. I often reminded friends I wore shoes.
I credit a French professor who taught World History for reminding me there was no shame in my heritage. To be honest, he pissed me off.
I wore a West Virginia shirt to his class almost every day my freshman year of college. That didn’t stop him from exposing his ignorance during a lecture.
The professor actually said, “Unindustrialized Russia is a lot like West Virginia today: no cars, unpaved highways, starving children on the sides of the roads. It’s a gruesome place in this world.”
The entire time he spoke, my eyes shot daggers at him from the front row of the class.
I let him finish before I raised my hand. I could not betray the gold and blue flying West Virginia sweatshirt that covered my torso. He called on me because I was a reliable student. He probably still regrets it.
“I’m from West Virginia,” I said. “My parents have three cars. All the roads are paved, although the potholes do suck. I can tell you I have never, ever seen a child starving on the side of the road.”
Class let out early that day.
It didn’t take long for me to remember the culture in which I was raised. It’s differed from where I was in school in South Carolina, but not as much as I had anticipated. It was then I began to have respect for the place of my birth: the gold and blue, the Mountaineers, We are Marshall, whitewater rafting on the Gulley in September, skiing at Snowshoe, rock climbing above the New River Gorge, and the Greenbrier during Christmas.
Yes, think what you want about the state I grew up, but if you’ve never witnessed its seasons, remember this: wildflowers glistening overtop sparkling waters during spring. Fly fisherman-casting lines into streams and rivers, their khaki hats tipping right then left as they navigate over rock beds. The adrenaline rushing through crowds watching bungee jumpers leap off the New River Bridge on Bridge Day. Tailgating on opening football weekend at West Virginia University.
When I returned after college, I nestled in between the water-soaked seats in my father’s canoe on the lake beneath my cabin to catch some rays with a good book. I pretended I cared if he caught a trout. So exciting! Really, I wanted a suntan.
But it was autumn that made days like these special, when summer succumbed to fall’s chill. Fall has a casual way of stealing life from that fertile season of summer pastels. But, in West Virginia, autumn always wins. Bright golds, crimsons, and oranges highlight trees under blue skies before the first freeze sets into the air. I watched from the screened-in cabin porch as those leaves drifted onto the lake where they died, yet continued to float on top the water’s surface.
Outsiders don’t understand the charm that exudes from this misunderstood state. When I moved back to West Virginia, I’d forgotten its captivating beauty. I soon remembered what home felt like. I craved homemade Oliverio’s salad dressing over mixed greens and always have seconds before the meal.
It’s the tender, juicy Wonder Bar steak no other place can replicate, and that cocktail in Morgantown I sipped with friends I hadn’t seen in ages — at Mario’s Fishbowl where I can write secret messages on their wall.
And, for those who truly want to know the state that is West Virginia, savor the spicy, cheesy blend that’s called a “pepperoni roll” — from my mom’s kitchen or a dozen fresh from the ovens of Country Club Bakery in Fairmont.
I once fell out of love with the state I was born. I never will again. It’s kind of like that man who always gives me butterflies when I see him. Like people, locations have chemistry. No matter where the world has taken me, I’ve learned to embrace the best. So, West Virginia, I’m sorry. But thank you. I can’t wait to return.