A Lesson for All Seasons

When you live along the Guyandotte River in West Virginia, you recognize the fine line between beauty and poverty.

Every few years, many of the small towns that make up the southern coalfields get decimated by floodwaters. So people are forced to lie in wait, since the waters are hard to predict at times.

The coal mines and the land companies tend to have a say in the quality of your life, if you live along the ribbons of rock, timber, rail and water. Most of the property is owned by generations of barons and billionaires, so even if you build your livelihood along a piece of land you want to call your own, you still play servant to a master.

There is much to learn about this town — and my own hopes for the people that live here. For me, I still harbor the hurried ways of the city, and I need to plum slow down.

I have a notion to, Ronny. I think I’ll get there in a little while.

Over Labor Day weekend, I drove through miles of crooked road to enjoy the annual Aunt Jennie Wilson Music Festival at Chief Logan State Park. I enjoyed two days of the most authentic, amazing bluegrass, gospel and old time music. Each day was led by a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. I couldn’t get enough.

I pitched a tent along the Guyandotte River for $7 a night on an island they call paradise. I listened with intent to the stories of a Christian woman — so proud, so determined, so faithful. Her tapestry of threads, her stories, these feelings — this everything — is just so hard to sort and put into words.

When you drive around these parts, Confederate flags are everywhere, and I was told by native West Virginians it means no disrespect. At first glance, I always took a second look, unsure what I should feel. South Carolina and the Charleston tragedy is always top of mind, plus I remember what it felt like to be called a yankee when I was making new friends in Clearwater, Florida. My hope is that there are no bullies here, like I see in other places. This flag to West Virginia natives is a battle flag, in a gentle sort of way.

The majorities and minorities have learned to live in harmony, and you will see the warm interaction between them. I had some good conversation with women who preach and teach at the African American churches near Mullens and Tams. There is a peace about living in the hollows. When West Virginia broke away from Old Dominion, it had to take some time to leave all the angry history behind. I guess I feel the same way about living in this quiet town, as opposed to the years I’ve been spending in Cleveland. The Department of Justice verdict and the way that city is run is what drove me from that once proud bungalow.

Dear Mullens, West Virginia. I like how people greet you with a smile, a prayer, and a God be with you.

Folks here in Wyoming County won’t blink when they tell you how they feed and clothe hundreds and hundreds of the rural poor who live in this valley. During my weekend travels, I stopped many times along the way to gain a better understanding of hardship and do my best to quiet the questions in my head. At one point, I found myself staring at the churning waters of Buffalo Creek, where a bursting dam in water colored by coal plunged 125 people to their deaths. I tried to imagine the isolation and the fight as the years tried to erase the tears. These folks have been slave to so many — so many who won’t accept the blame or admit their wrongdoings.

Such parallels to the poverty in Cleveland.

My mind occasionally drifts to my own challenges, and the guilt starts to eat away.

I have to drive 40 minutes for a printer cartridge? Shoot.

No Starbucks or a Target even? Darn.

I plan my trips for the weekend, whenever I head up the mountain to Beckley. Every time I make that drive, I see folks along the side of the road, selling their wares across the valley. Over at the Maben Mall, this is how they supplement their income.

No one talks about the stock market in Mullens, or the ridiculous banter of Donald Trump. They couldn’t care less. They are more invested in sweat equity, worried about how they will pay for gas or electric. Now that I earn less than minimum wage, I too have learned to do without the things I often take for granted.

Words cannot describe how quiet and carefree the world is that surrounds me. Every day is a different story, with a whole new round of smiling faces to greet me at the door, the store or the post office. Everyone waves when they drive by. People are pleasant to talk to on the phone. No one is rushing off to a meeting, or scrolling through their phones with a half smile. People are present in the moment.

A band of four wheelers pass me by every day on my walks along Route 16. It is legal to drive them on the highways here. The fact that we have to share the road with these recreational riders is hardly annoying in the least bit. They sure beat the sound of car alarms, boom boxes, sirens and the screeching tires of city life. Mullens is just a quick stop along the Hatfield-McCoy trails and folks are fixing up abandoned buildings just to take in the tourists who have a taste for trail adventure. The hunters and backpackers are all part of tourism here, too.

I spend hours watching crickets, stray minnows and butterflies settle along the Guyandotte River. Saturday mornings I go creek stomping or hike up the ridge to Tater Hill. Down at the Old Guyandotte River Park, I ran into a few friendly men who were giving their hunting dogs a chance to run, in preparation for bear season.

I have adjusted to living in a school.

I lie in bed and listen to the squeaky rails of the train at night. In the city, this annoyed me, but here, it sounds like a gentle chime and hum. I already have the delivery schedule in my head, expecting the loaded coal trains to pull out of town early Sunday and late Sunday evening.

People aren’t impatient where I live, which is something I need to consider for myself. They are quiet, polite and reserved. Yes, so much to fix about myself, when I watch and observe the people of Mullens. So much to fix about my past, and my cruel memories of city life.