It had been three years since I drove under the iconic, forest green “Wild and Wonderful West Virginia” sign. Even in the stoic chill of winter, the snow-covered firs, chestnuts, and maple trees lining I-79 welcome me home. For many, the state is an anomaly — an overlooked and underrated part of the US. What most don’t know or understand is that those of us who grew up here will always know a few home truths the Appalachian Mountains hold. Here is what you should know before crossing into West Virginia.

1. There’s a #struggletostay and it’s a thing.

In West Virginia, there’s a struggle to stay in the state (#thestruggletostay). It’s a hashtag. It’s a movement. It’s a mindset that is plaguing today’s youth. In the 2012 census, the death rate actually surpassed the birth rate and more than 19,000 people are expected to leave by 2030. With citizens losing their jobs, salaries stagnant, and better opportunities outside, why not go? Still, one’s blood will bleed gold and blue wherever. West Virginians are leaving for the same reason they are staying: belief in a better place, better education and because of those delectable pepperoni rolls.

2. Still, there’s a glimmer of hope.

Things are beginning to look up economically. The new road bond was passed which will boost business climate to the state. The $1.6 billion bond guarantees to improve potholed battled roads (thanks, bomb cyclones) and also give jobs to many who need work.

3. Pepperoni rolls trump hot dogs any day of the week.

A Vanity Fair article during the 2016 election made light of West Virginia’s love of Donald Trump and hot dogs. Interestingly, the journalist interviewed gun-wielders in a strip club for the proclamation of this affliction. Every small town has “those guys” and “those hot dogs.” What they don’t have are pepperoni rolls. The spicy, meat-soaked crispiness of the roll, which was invented at Country Club Bakery in Fairmont, West Virginia, is a delicacy to savor at every opportunity.

4. West Virginia has had very bad luck with government and thus remain distrusting of many who are a part of it.

Whoops. Sorry, there’s no money for education and everyone voting about it is 107 years old.

5. The state is homogenous and it’s obvious at the first rest stop.

There’s something about the Appalachians and their companion, the New River. The fall colors of foliage spinning to the ground and the opaque white ice after a first snow — maybe that’s why people stay. The seasons changing and knowing your neighbor beckons locals to remain among their homes on the hills — or trying to, anyway.

Still, the lack of variety in skin color (93% are Caucasian) and religion (77% of the population are Christian) seems bizarre for today’s nation. The reason for that comes from history. The state was colonized by Italian, Polish, and Scots-Irish immigrants. It was a hub for families searching for a better life. Men sacrificed themselves (and their lungs) in the gritty underworld of coal mining. It was a state humming with corruption — as many still believe it is — from mafia and company bosses who preferred money over lives. So, while West Virginia’s reputation is stained by stereotypes of banjo playing forest dwellers and tap dancing outlaws pawning opiates, its history is much more colorful than its population.

6. West Virginians are compassionate.

Last year, the 100-year flood — 10 inches of rain destroying the southern part of the state —
was telling evidence of West Virginia united. Wherever anyone goes, whether it’s South Carolina or Japan, there’s a party of the gold and blue. The relief funds were overwhelming and volunteers flocked to areas where homes and people were lost to rushing waters. Rebuilding was a task with over 1,200 homes lost and businesses ruined. But neighbors rose above the waters — just as they always do.

7. Tamarack hosts myriad West Virginia treasures.

It’s not just a sign on the road for a rest stop. Tamarack is a mecca of West Virginia art. From culinary, sculpting, painting, writing, and brewing, the “museum” of sorts serves as a gratitude to local artists of all kinds. It’s a way to explore the state from all parts alongside a staff of whom are nothing but amicable. Oh, and it’s worth mentioning those culinary creations are crafted by chefs from the Greenbrier.

8. West Virginia was where everyone important was going to survive the Cold War.

Under the Greenbrier Hotel (which is incredible), there’s a bunker. That bunker was built as a US government relocation facility in case of a Cold War fallout. It’s chilling to see and weird to think such a thing was necessary. That obviously makes it the perfect place to visit at this time in political history.

Overall, West Virginia and its people are resilient. The license plate speaks its truth. It’s not enough to drive under the sign. One must walk the winding footpaths of Greenbrier River Trail while crunching fallen leaves on a crisp fall day or shake hands with a local moonshine brewer before taking a sip of white lightning together. But maybe it’s not until looking down from atop the New River Bridge or into the whirling streams of The Gauley rapids after a heavy rainfall that it resonates — almost heaven.