This past weekend I got to travel down to almost-heaven West Virginia, and participate in the West Virginia Book Festival, which took place in the capitol city Charleston. I couldn’t have picked a better weekend to go, although it was quite warm for an autumn weekend (a toasty 98 degrees on Saturday). The famous friendliness of West Virginians was on display everywhere. I met plenty of avid readers, and was deeply impressed by the strong commitment to the arts and to literature in this Appalachian state. The stereotypes the state gets stuck with—poverty, ignorance, hillbillies making moonshine—really don’t reflect a rich and complicated culture of people with a unique take on the world. I can’t wait to return.
At the festival, I shared a table with fellow members of the Mystery Writers of America. But only two of us had any connection to West Virginia (a member of Wheeling joined us, but the rest of us were NYC area denizens) I was in a unique position to connect with the attendees, most of whom lived nearby, since I was not selling books, but giving away copies of my audio book. Next year I plan to have my own booth, devoted entirely to Hard Cider Abbey! I was also invited to join West Virginia Writers Inc, which I certainly plan to do: Anything to promote books and literacy in that wonderful part of the country.
On the way in, I had driven straight across Pennsylvania to the town of Newell, which sits at the very top of the northern Panhandle. I thought it would be interesting to follow the Ohio River all the way down to Parkersburg. And it surely was. In Newell, I stumbled upon, by chance, the Homer Laughlin Tent Sale—I had not realized the famous and colorful Fiesta potteryware was made here, and well…now I’m a big fan. I came away with a few pieces for my kitchen…Driving through Weirton and its vast post-industrial landscape was an eye-opener, as was the literally hundreds of coal barges and coal-filled railroad cars I saw, glittering black in the sun, as I drove along. I got lost in Wheeling, which otherwise looks like a seriously interesting city; and believe it or not there were spots where the Ohio looked quite blue and serene, amid a verdant mountain backdrop.
I took my time returning home, visiting the Charleston Farmer’s Market (where I got my Halloween pumpkin); then made my way into the heart of the state to breathtaking New River Gorge, where I drove over the famous bridge and did a bit of hiking around the other side of the river. It wasn’t quite autumn yet, and as I drove back, I was delighted to see the trees gradually brighten into shades of gold and red, the further north I drove. I spent my last night in West Virginia on the far eastern Panhandle, in the town of Hazelton, east of Morgantown; but in the morning, couldn’t resist one more country road adventure, instead of just jumping on I-68 east, and took a meandering curvy and hilly road up into the Youghiogheny area of Pennsylvania, and eventually onto the Turnpike and home.
Sometimes reviewers claim I’ve gotten it all wrong about West Virginia and that I don’t really know anything about it at all: But that’s only based on their experience of the state. And there are many different ways to experience West Virginia: Urban, suburban, rural, literate, illiterate… The thing is, despite its small population, WV is so diverse and changes so much in character from mile to mile, you can’t always get a specific handle on its character in general. I was comforted, however, at the things I got right. I actually saw a billboard, We Buy Ginseng! in the southern part of the state—you’ll remember I mention that herb in HCA. There are not many Amish or Mennonites in WV, I will confess (also portrayed in HCA), but they are quite abundant in the neighboring states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, so it’s not unlikely a few brave families would end up in the Mountain State as well. And a lofty mountaintop in central-middle-eastern West Virginia would be the perfect place to found a Cistercian-style monastery; I’m certain Thomas Merton would have thought so.