I have a special needs brother-in-law who has lived in Logan, West Virginia for the past few years. More specifically, Whitman Junction, which runs along the holler formed by Whitman Creek. And yes it’s holler, not hollow. The houses of Whitman Junction – some ramshackle, some very nice brick ranchers – sit so closely together that you could sit in your kitchen and hear your neighbor’s cat purring next door, and so close to the road that a misjudged first step off the front porch could put you directly in the line of traffic. It’s what you would call a tight-knit community.
My brother-in-law has been in and out of Logan General Hospital recently, and is now recovering from a serious illness. Because of all of this, my wife and I have spent a great deal of time in the Logan area over the last few years. To know about Logan – and southern West Virginia – you need to know about the state in general.
Economically, West Virginia typically ranks near the bottom of the 50 states in just about every category. At one time, though, southern West Virginia was a booming coal mining region. But as mining has declined, so have the fortunes of southern West Virginia. Communities like Logan have been hard hit.
The geography and geology of southern West Virginia, specifically, the coal formed in the mountains eons ago, is what spurred the boom times of yesteryear. Those same mountains also tend to isolate southern West Virginia. The terrain is rugged. Check out this photo of the main highway leading to Logan. That’s a major cut through hard sandstone. And the next photo. It took a massive earthwork project just to build another Walmart.
Add all this up and you get people who are different. I know I talk with an accent, but it ain’t nuthin like the accent of southern West Virginia. It’s also the land of camo. As in camouflage hats, camo vests, camo shirts, camo pants. You also see a lot of miners in their work clothes, easily identified by the bright orange reflectors. Yeah, the people are different. And they seem to have a little bit of a hard edge.
The other day we stopped to get a bite to eat and saw a couple coming out of the fast food restaurant holding hands. They were thin and wiry. He wore a scowl. So did she. Tough love, maybe? I’d be afraid of either one of them.
But maybe I shouldn’t be.
We had driven to Logan that morning, a Saturday, and were listening to This American Life. It was an old episode about a prison production of Hamlet. It was one of the most engaging shows I’ve ever heard on that broadcast. They interviewed convicted criminals who were trying their best to be actors. One of them acknowledged that his tough guy persona, the very thing that had landed him in prison, was an act. It was who he thought people expected him to be. It was, for him, a cloak of protection.
The people in Logan have had it rough. I’d probably scowl, too, if for no other reason, than to keep the world at bay.
And there are many, many good people in Logan. You can tell by the way the old guys wear their camo ball caps tipped back on their head. You can tell by the way the young girls in the stores go out of their way to make you feel like a long, lost cousin. You can tell by the 10-second conversation in the hospital elevator where a stranger tells you about the heartbreak she’s dealing with. Just like people all over the world.
If you lived in Hawaii, you’d probably smile a lot. Perfect weather, beautiful people, laid back attitude. If you lived in Logan, it would be tougher to smile. And yet they do. Even the scowling couple probably find contentment when their guard is down. They were holding hands, after all.
Wherever you go in your travels, you’ll find good people. It might take more of an effort to find them, but they’re there. Look past what’s on the outside, and find the goodness within.