Wellesley College 2015
The Appalachian Mountains are many things. Playgrounds, challenges, depth. In the fall, they are fire. At dusk and dawn they are blurred and blue. Some, too many of them, are open sores of silt, crumbling under bulldozers and greed.
West Virginia sits squarely amidst these mountains. It is also many things. Home is one of them. According to a Gallup poll, we are the unhappiest state in the nation. In fact, West Virginia is rather infamous when it comes to national rankings. In this past year, we claimed lowest life expectancy, second-lowest median household income, highest rate of heart disease, the second lowest ranking in math and science education, third highest in obesity, and a number of other savory distinctions.
At the same time, I’m certain that if there were a poll to measure pride and community, West Virginia would top it. West Virginians also seem to smile more on average than any other population on earth. We spoil one another with kindness, with biscuits, and with an all-encompassing spirit.
I’ll never forget my first sight of rolling green following a full away. I sat in a skipping propeller plane, sobbing because it was all just too beautiful to take in without letting something out. The terrible thing is that most of the time I’m not homesick. I put West Virginia out of my mind for days at a time until it finds a way back to hit me in the gut like a coal train.
The thing is that it hurts to love something that is beyond repair. I think that’s why so many who get a chance to leave take it and run. Sometimes I want to run too…barefoot all the way from Massachusetts to claw at the earth and mold something out of my fingernails and gritted teeth that can stand on its own. I want to snatch all of the resources in the world and pour them into education and medical care and infrastructure. I’m afraid of my limitations. I’m afraid that all I could give wouldn’t be enough and I’d just be standing there among stark, bare mountains in the wintertime, unable to warm the people around me.
America has to commit to Appalachia. It’s too easy for many of us to never look over those mountain ridges to recognize the work that needs to be done and the people that so desperately require the attention of the nation.
Sadly, I don’t know what West Virginia could give in return. Much of what she would offer has already been claimed. She siphons away her coal and her youth to eager, clutching hands. She is tired, she is used. It’s time you noticed.