The few excursions I’d ever begun into West Virginia’s coal country had been from the eastern end and were many years ago. At that time, the further the rough, crooked roads wound into coal country, the steeper the mountains, the narrower the valleys, the yellower the streams and the more economically depressed the area looked. Every time, I ended up turning around and going back to more pristine landscapes. I was in the mountains seeking peace and beauty, after all.
More recently, as some of you know, I’ve taken a couple jaunts into coal country from a different angle. Our little convoy of dump trucks took four-lane highways all the way from Parkersburg to Logan, then, mostly two-lane to Hanover, in Wyoming County. We loaded there and then took Rt. 52 all the way to Huntington, where we crossed the river to Ashland, Kentucky on four-lane and unloaded. Then we took the four-lane east to Charleston and north to Parkersburg.
I saw no piles of over-burden or red-dog in the areas that I traveled, nor any yellow streams. Whether it was all due to clean-up in the intervening years, or whether things were never allowed to get so far out of hand in that area, I really don’t know. However, I was impressed by the streams I saw; they all made me wish that it was summer and I had a fishing rod in hand. The mountains were all covered with what appeared to be second growth hardwood, yet I also saw some beautiful huge logs making their way to market on passing semi’s. It struck me funny at first, but in twelve hours of driving, much of it in coal country, I only smelled burning coal two times. Everyone down that way seems to heat with wood. I suppose that the coal comes at a cost, but wood can be had for the cutting.
It’s obvious that the area still is, or recently was, economically depressed. You see closed down businesses and empty houses everywhere. Interestingly enough, though, you also see businesses right next door that appear to be thriving and new homes being built adjacent to the empty ones. Something that I noticed, too, was mansions being built right beside shanties and run-down mobile homes. I suspect the available land is so limited in the narrow valleys that there is no opportunity for moving to “better neighborhoods,” so the rich and the poor rub elbows on a daily basis (since shopping and entertainment opportunities are very limited).
I used to hear of the floods in coal country and wonder why people built in such places. I realize now, that there are no benches around the hills (mountains?) down there, as there are here in the Ohio Valley, so you have only the narrow mountain ridges and the narrow mountain valleys. Since the roads parallel the streams in the valleys, it’s natural that the settlements formed there. Besides, most of the mountain tops are owned by coal companies, timber companies or the government.
One thing that confused me at first was the high number of motels in the area—far more than would be required for local use and casual tourists. Then, I realized that the Guyandotte River would make for excellent rafting, kayaking and canoeing, even though I saw no signs for guide services (none would be needed, probably). The state has also made a big deal of the Hatfield-McCoy Feud and has a driving “trail,” with facilities of one sort or another at strategic points along the way. I don’t approve of dwelling on such a negative thing about our state, but anything for a tourist buck, I guess.
After this hauling job is over with, I may never see coal country again, as my wife says that there’s nothing to “do” down there (in HER book), but I’m glad that I had the chance to see it again; it’s given me a more positive perspective on the part of the state that turned me off so many years ago.
Incidentally, the Hatfield-McCoy Feud wasn’t really about either a woman or a pig, but about political power, and timber and coal rights. Still, if you have an interest in history or rafting, and don’t mind seeing a dilapidated building from your room in a newish motel, you might enjoy a visit to the area. © 2014