In this scene, my main character, Pug Graham, is walking the railroad tracks in a southern West Virginia coal town, thinking about what it means to be a West Virginian.
West Virginians can be among the largest-hearted, generous and warm on the planet, but in equal or greater measure suspicious, chary, and distrustful, especially of strangers.
Nobody ever comes to the hollows of West Virginia by accident. Everybody has a reason. Mostly they come home, because so many have left. Others come from curiosity, the burning desire to see and experience the poverty, inexorable crawl of natural reclamation, the deterioration of manmade structures and of the souls of the people themselves. Anybody else who came inevitably brought more misery: the land speculator, the coal baron, the gas driller.
A buzzard flew lazily overhead, its silvery underwings shining in the sunlight, drawing Pug’s attention upwards. To the north, up a hollow, was a staircased earthen embankment, denoting the lower end of a mountaintop removal mine. It was eerily lime-green with newly seeded grass. Pug spun around to take in the panorama of mountains enveloping the narrow valley and understood the impediments they provided to the transfer of people, materials, and ideas from inside out but more perniciously from outside in.
He remembered early forays elsewhere, back in his twenties, as he had made two cross-country trips and one to England to see a friend. He remembered feeling strangely alien, as if he wanted to feel like everyone else but knowing that as a West Virginian, he wasn’t. Somebody he met in Idaho wasn’t even aware that West Virginia existed a state, rather than as a region of Virginia, even though its statehood was decades earlier than Idaho’s, and had little idea of its whereabouts, even though it was surrounded by America’s most populous and affluent states.
To people like this, he’d extend his right hand, palm towards them, with the thumb and middle finger hyper-extended. He’d say, “Here’s what my state looks like,” relishing in the perceived vulgar brush-off. “And I’m from the very bottom,” he’d point with his left index finger at the base of his right palm, laughing to himself that no truer likeness could ever be drawn of any other state by any body part, Florida notwithstanding.
West Virginia was image-addled, and he understood why.