Movin’ Up the Mountain to Beckley

jonas2I started this post a day after Winter Storm Jonas blew through and walloped much of the east coast. I only received 14 inches of snowfall, but the folks in Glengarry, WV get the award for shoveling nearly 3 times that amount.

The pictures you see are from my new yard in Beckley, since I moved up the mountain on January 1.

This particular storm was a little unnerving for me. I think it’s the hype, hype, hype of the media and the anticipation of what a winter storm could bring. I thought I was getting good at storm preparation since I watched a number of hurricanes batter the Florida coast for 17 years. I also learned the code rule of managing lake effect snow — just shovel the driveway every few hours so you can keep up with the pounding.

All that media hype led to hysteria, as I watched the bread aisles go bare, and the gas pumps run dry. I managed to stockpile my food and a list of inside projects, texted friends and family, then sat back and watched the storm on TV. It was so bad in some parts of West Virginia, we were in a state of emergency for four days. So I am glad I bought snow tires the first day I had trouble getting up the mountain. If I was still living in Mullens, I would have been completely oblivious to what was going on around me, except for my Internet updates or a car driving by the school.

A month into January, I realize how much I really like my new surroundings. After a great holiday break in Cleveland, I moved a few carloads of stuff to an empty house on a hill.

I brought along a hefty blowup mattress until my landlord was able to score some comfy lawn furniture to sit on. Here in my new place, I am still surrounded by small-town everything. I have a peaceful view of the countryside, but I don’t see the same mountain 360 view. The birds seem to be right outside my front door now. I listen to their calls, and together, I feel as if we are edging our way one step closer to spring.

jonas3I drive up and down a winding narrow road to get to work every day. I slow to a crawl around every bend, wondering if I will crash into a car speeding at me from the opposite direction. I brace myself for that thrill every morning because it can happen when I least expect it! I suppose those West Virginians on the other side of the road think I am just slow as molasses.

I am a mile from the interstate, but it still feels remote on this 2-1/2-acre lot. I am blessed because of the way I found the place. Back in November, I bought an Old Mountain Trader, which lists all the want ads. I made three random calls while I was looking for a new place to live. Apartments here are much more expensive then they are in Cleveland, and I knew I didn’t want to spend a lot.

Luckily, I found a kind soul on the other end of the line. She turned out to be a Christian woman who was looking for a good renter to help with a family property. I told her I was a VISTA, and I wondered if she was willing to negotiate the rent.

I have a strange knack for finding random opportunities when I least expect them. I was so happy she agreed to let me pay off my rent while painting the place. I will fix up the vacant house for awhile, which will save me a lot of money on rent and utilities. This move is only temporary until her place gets fixed up. I can’t afford the rent on a 2,500-square-foot house.

jonas1I have to admit — now that I have enjoyed this arrangement the last 30 days, I don’t really miss living in a school. Rush-hour traffic from my new place is still a non-issue for me. These days, I have a 10-minute drive to the office, right in the heart of Beckley.

My office is right where the new WVU Tech-Beckley campus is planning to open. West Virginia University has taken over the property once occupied by Mountain State University, and in the fall of 2017, they will welcome their first inaugural class.

It’s exciting to see the locals talk about WVU because they hope it will transform the city. I’d like to see it work for them — I watched what a thriving college scene did for Cleveland over the years.

nbridge3It will be fun to watch all the excitement happening around Beckley since I will be living here till mid-August, if not longer. This is the essence of Beckley — a welcoming city and a welcome sight for weary travelers who drive along the mountainous I-77 corridor. Trust me when I say — you never want to be caught in the rain, fog, and snow on that section of interstate. I have already spent an overnight at a rest area, sleeping on top of a pile of clothes, pans and cleaning supplies, so plan your trip accordingly! I heard numerous reports about stranded cars during this latest winter storm, all because these roads are unkind, given the right conditions.

Beckley has been economically depressed for years, so again, I am constantly reminded of Cleveland in a variety of ways. Even the old ranch homes look similar to the post-war homes that line the streets back home. The people are scrappy, independent and resilient, just like in Cleveland. But there is never that element of hurriedness or rudeness like you see in the north.

They say I have an accent here. Several times a month, someone will ask me, You’re not from around here, are you?

Every single clerk says thank you and have a nice day. Folks apologize when they walk in front of you, and stock boys will walk WITH YOU to the shelf and hand you the product you’re looking for. Just today, I rang up a handful of things at the local thrift store. The owner of the shop had already scanned my credit card, when I grabbed a pack of Hostess cupcakes to throw on my pile.

“Just take it,” she said. “Enjoy that on me.”

Conversation is generally light, though at times, I will get into really interesting discussions with people. As a VISTA, I am bound to stay neutral, but my friends know this is so hard for me to do! People talk freely about the demise of coal, the state of the economy, and the problems with education in the Mountain State. I listen with what — I am sure — is a curious look, because these are the same conversations I had in Cleveland. Sure we don’t have coal there, but the parallels to factory life are really spot on.

And there is so much talk of corruption here, I tell them, I get it, I really do. So I jot in my parallels notebook, Does poverty and the greed of politicians/business people go hand in hand? The friends I have made in Beckley understand, and they try to figure it out, too. With the Great Migration south to north/north to south, there is such similarity.

Though Beckley is much more of a city than Mullens, the two share a lot of similarities, or so I’m told. “Pill heads, coal miners, drug addiction,” they say. “That’s what you find here.” I hear the word pillhead a lot, I think, though I need to reserve judgment, simply because Cleveland has similar problems too.

nbridge1The best part about Beckley — for me — is my proximity to the New River Gorge. During the weekends, I spend a lot of time enjoying that scene. The pictures throughout this blog post are from hikes I took in early January. I yearn for those 50-degree days when I can get out there and do some hiking.

If you are curious about what I do at work, I still write grants, but now I am part of a team that manages a number of VISTAs across the country. Through a partnership with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation, I continue to serve with the “Appalachian Coal Country Team,” which is focused on a number of environmental projects in rural and urban communities.

Our state office is located in Durango, Colorado, where there is a small team managing VISTAs who live in the western states. We have VISTAs all over the place — in national parks, community schools, Guam and Alaska too. They are building water trails, collecting GIS data, working on drought-resilience, and fundraising for local food projects. I especially like the sites that focus on youth development, urban gardens and community revitalization. The demand for VISTAs continues to grow, and we do a good job of making sure our VISTA members are getting all the support they need.

nbridge2I am working on a lot of interesting projects that allow me to see how VISTAs are really tackling poverty at a grassroots level. I wish I could explain just how important this work is. Every VISTA leaves the familiar surroundings of home to give up a year to serve. Whether you latch on and acclimate well with the new community you live in is really a roll of the dice. Personally, I feel like I could live anywhere because I love the challenge of making new friends and forcing myself to live beyond my comfort zone. When I hear a VISTA leader in Beckley talk through the worries and challenges with another VISTA somewhere remote, I completely relate to how that other person is feeling.

Think about it. When was the last time you moved somewhere you’ve never been  — unpacked your belongings alone, worked 40+ hours a week, and made less than $6 an hour? As VISTAs, we still pay the same bills we had before — and then some — plus we navigate a whole new set of challenges. I have been called crazy because I choose to do what I am doing. I have had people wide-eyed and embarrassed for me trying to grapple with the fact I choose to do this work. So it helps to be around like-minded people who get it and who understand that we all have something we can give — and gain back in return.

If you read any of my previous posts, I have alluded to a struggle of a dual life, knowing I can quit poverty any time I want. Or can I?

No one is immune to losing it all, or wondering where their next paycheck is coming from. Sometimes I forget that I am 53, so my age is certainly a factor in making a career change this late in the game. Twist my arm and maybe you will convince me to live this unconventional life all over again. Everywhere I turn, I seem to connect with people just like me, so I think I am on the right path.

mlk_measureI do enjoy the duality of living a life in Beckley, Cleveland (and sometimes Mullens). On Martin Luther King Day, I got a chance to return to Wyoming County and spend the day, working with young adults at RAIL. With some money I obtained from a composting grant, I was able to buy the supplies we needed to build raised beds for the Mullens Middle School. We will be using my zebra mussel shell compost in those beds and seeing how well we can amend the dry, mountainous soil. Our previous experiments were a hit at other schools, so this will extend the program elsewhere.

Rotary1It was a great way to spend a day of service, and we really learned a lot about building these beds. One week later in Beckley, I volunteered to help the local United Way and Rotary Club load up 10,000 pounds of food. We divided the food and delivered it to six different food banks in Raleigh County. These are the kinds of projects I love, because I get to interact with passionate people in the community.

I don’t know what the future brings for me in Beckley, but living in the country-slash-city feels right where I belong.