When I was in junior high, we got a little vacation place in West Virginia, near Hedgesville. We’d go on three-day weekends, sometimes on regular weekends, if my parents needed a break. There was nothing out there but rolling hills, country diners, and tall, thin, dense pine trees over gray ground. And quiet. The next cabin over must’ve been only 150 feet away but you couldn’t even see it or hear it through those trees. If you looked sharp you could see the deer go through the gully: spot the white salt lick first, then the dun deer, then the fawns behind it.
It says something about the economy of West Virginia that a pretty reasonably middle-class family from Baltimore could afford a vacation place there — the only response I’ve ever gotten to revealing my hometown out there is “wow, that’s a rough place.” (And “is that your accent or are you mentally handicapped — ed.) So I could understand how somebody working there would go down into a coal mine.
And coal mining really does permeate the state. Our backyard held the c-shaped trace of an old open pit mine, and every hike brought you past another half-dozen. Maybe it’s hard to understand for Westerners: mining out here means a scenic tunnel entrance in the side of a rugged hill; mining in West Virginia seems more often to mean a pit in the ground or, these days, the top of a mountain chopped clean off. I never saw one of those except from an airplane. All for coal for us and money for them.