I love this state so much, almost as much as I love my home state, the Virginia without the West. My grandmother was born and raised in West Virginia, my family vacationed here several times when I was young, and then I married a West Virginian, so now I get to spend holidays here with my mountaineer in-laws. What is it about West Virginia that has always held such allure for me? The mountains take my breath away, whether or not the mountain laurel are in bloom. The rivers mesmerize me—the one in the pic is the New River, cutting its way north through world-class rapids and dramatic, pristine views.
This was the view on my first trail run the morning after we arrived. It pretty much sums it up.
I'm equally glad that my children are getting to love this state, proudly singing John Denver's Country Roads, which has been their bedtime lullaby from birth, and chowing down on pepperoni rolls.
What's that? You don't know about pepperoni rolls, West Virginia's
1. They're impossibly delicious.
2. The sketchier the gas station that sells them, the better they taste. I recommend Little General. Ask for a fresh one. Wait for them to make more if necessary.
3. Coal miner's wives are said to have invented them in 1937 to send with their husbands in their lunch pails.
4. YOU NEED TO TRY ONE.
This trip was mostly about seeing family, the absolute best part of West Virginia, so we got some priceless moments like these.
The Little Dragans are old enough now for some educational/touristy activities, so I wanted to check out the Exhibition Coal Mine in Beckley, WV. I can't believe I've been traveling to southern West Virginia on a regular basis for fifteen years and I had never been! After our visit, I am categorizing this as a must-see for anyone who passes through the area during the season it's open, April to November. It might be hot outside, but it's always a damp 58 degrees inside the mine, 140 feet below the surface of the Earth.
Coal was first discovered in West Virginia in 1742, and its production from underground mines is first in the nation. The industry employs 30,000 people, and has historically driven the lion's share of the state's economy.
We thought we had arrived early, but the mine tours were sold out for a full hour.
Insider Tip: Be sure to remind your mother-in-law, loudly if possible, that she does qualify for the senior discount. She'll be impressed with your quick thinking and frugality and will appreciate the $5 you saved her.
The hour was no big deal to wait because there are all sorts of things to do other than go underground. We chose the children's museum and the exhibits upstairs. And the rocking chairs. Always a good bet.
The coal mine we toured was once a working mine, the Phillips-Sprague mine, but is preserved to accurately portray the workspace and conditions for a miner in the nineteenth century. Luckily for us, we could go through the mines in a small train with the mine ceiling open above us about seven feet. They used to dig mines this tall to allow ponies to haul out the coal.
Now, miners are only cleared enough space to work on the coal seam itself. How tall is a coal seam? TWENTY-FOUR TO FORTY INCHES. That's all the space they have. And they might have to crawl more than a mile from the entrance to get to the spot they are working on. And the only light you have is from a tiny, fireproof lamp. Oh, and there are rats.
Our guide, Steve, regaled us with his own tales from the 30+ years he spent as a fire boss for Massey Energy, formerly the largest coal extractor in Central Appalachia. Listening to Steve was fascinating, not just because of his anecdotes and knowledge, but also because of the way he told his stories. There's a specific cadence to Appalachian storytelling: a subtle build, a dry, gently-ribbing humor underneath the stories themselves. If you've never heard it, you might not know it. If it's part of your blood, though, and your own history, it's beautifully familiar. And you miss it when you go a long time without hearing it.
Steve tells a "humorous" tale about the day his lamp went out and he was alone in the dark for six hours. Alone, that is, except for the rats scurrying across his legs.
But this is why it's so important to show our kids these places. Let them love the rise of those mountains. Let the river rush past them. And then take them deep into the belly of those mountains and let them hear the stories of those who made their way of life within them. We would not have the country that we have today without the coal miners of Appalachia. Their history and their stories, even their way of telling them, are as ruggedly beautiful as the wild state around them.