TAKE ME HOME COUNTRY ROADS - NY Times: Leaving And Longing For Home

WEST VIRGINIANS - Leaving And Longing For Home

By Andrew Councill for    The New York Times


Sylvia Ghaznavi, who owns a used-book store, left Pittsburgh two years ago to return home to Buckhannon, W. Va.

"People leave because they have to, not because they want to. Looking over your shoulder and missing home is something West Virginians know a lot about."

Ranked behind South Dakota as having the second smallest population growth of any state, according to 2005 Census Bureau estimates, West Virginia has struggled to hold on to residents since the early 1950's, when layoffs in the coal industry sent people elsewhere looking for work.

For West Virginians, the tension between the economic push to leave and the emotional pull to return plays a central role in the state's cultural identity.

Just ask a West Virginian about these pressures and they will probably tell you a joke. Like the one that asks why the governor of West Virginia has decided to resign. Answer: because Ford has called its workers back.

Or the one about the capital of West Virginia being Akron because of all the West Virginians who moved to Ohio in the 1950's to work in the tire plants.

But the joke they are most likely to tell is the one in which St. Peter is escorting a soul through heaven and is asked why there is a section that is walled-off. He replies: "Oh, that's where we put the West Virginians. Otherwise they try to go back home on the weekend."

The novelist Denise Giardina, a native West Virginian, said the obituary page of The Charleston Gazette, the state's largest newspaper, was the best indicator of the ebb and flow.

"I've lived a lot of places," Ms. Giardina said. "And I don't think I've ever seen an obit page like the Gazette's with as many people who have lived outside their state their entire life but in death have come back home to be buried."

For added perspective, listen to traditional West Virginia music.

In July, Scott Hill, a music historian, will release the second volume of "The Road Home," a compilation of songs about West Virginians longing to return.

"You see it in 'The West Virginia Hills,' which talks about leaving and longing and is the official state song," Mr. Hill said. "You see it in 'Take Me Home, Country Roads,' which is our unofficial state song and is what we sing after major football games."

He added, "Coal and people have been our two biggest exports for a long time, which has definitely shaped how we think of ourselves."

Officials have tried to convince natives to stay and to attract newcomers and investment. In 2001, the state set aside some $30 million to guarantee full in-state tuition to students who met grade-point standards and other testing requirements.

Last year, Gov. Joe Manchin III began changing a slogan on some state highway signs from "Wild and Wonderful" to "Open for Business."

The state has attracted some retirees, but it has had less success in holding on to its young people.

West Virginia has the oldest median population of any state, and from 1990 to 2000 it had a net loss of about 18,000 people in the 18 to 22 age group.

In every year since 1997, resident deaths have outnumbered births, although the population has stabilized around 1.8 million, down from a peak of 2 million in 1950.

Students in the state often joke that in West Virginia the three R's stand for reading, 'riting and Route 77. The road is nicknamed Hillbilly Highway because over the years it has delivered so many people to surrounding states.

"They say that brown-haired people cross the border going one way and white-haired people cross it the other," said Bob Henry Baber, the mayor of Richwood. "But the truth is that most West Virginians of all ages come back continually because they don't feel right anywhere else."

Richwood, a tiny town about 60 miles east of Charleston in south-central West Virginia, is famous for its Ramp Feed, a traditional feast celebrating the arrival of spring and featuring dishes made with pungent leeks called ramps that grow wild in the state. Each year, the festival draws nearly 1,000 visitors, mostly native West Virginians returning from out of state, Mr. Baber said.

After living in Pittsburgh for more than 35 years, Sylvia Ghaznavi, who sells used books, returned to her hometown Buckhannon two years ago, taking her bookstore with her.

With more than 200,000 books, her store — called Books Books Books — almost seems out of place in Buckhannon, a town of about 5,800. Her sales are a quarter of what they were before the move, but Ms. Ghaznavi stands by her decision.

"I know this will sound odd to outsiders, but the air and the hills here make me feel like I'm where I belong," she said, unfazed as a lone customer drifted toward the exit without buying anything. "I finally reached the point where I was willing to pay whatever price that cost."

A deeply rooted loyalty to West Virginia remains with those who move outside the state's boundaries.

A couple of years ago, Abercrombie & Fitch came out with a shirt depicting West Virginia as a haven for incest. The Charleston Gazette published an op-ed article denouncing the company and defending the state. It was written by a native West Virginian living in Massachusetts.

"It's like the rest of the country fell asleep during geography class," said Lionel Jordan, also known as 6'6 240, a popular rapper from Morgantown who now lives in Atlanta. West Virginian pride is one of his themes.

"I say I'm from West Virginia, and they all tell me they have a cousin in Richmond," Mr. Jordan said. "No disrespect to Richmond, but I'm trying to put my state back on the map."

Cynthia Olson, who has lived in Vienna, Va., for 11 years, said she and her husband, Steve, were going to put their house up for sale. With jobs that allow them to work from home, she and her husband plan to move to Hillsboro, W. Va., where they own a house on the Greenbrier River.

Mrs. Olson is a native of Richwood. Of her home in Virginia, she said, "You take hiking trips here, and within an hour you are hitting cities and pavement. In West Virginia you enter the wilderness and it goes on and on for hundreds of miles."

As for the jokes and negative images, Irene McKinney, West Virginia's poet laureate, said the stereotypes led natives both to leave and to return.

Many writers, she said, feel that to be taken seriously by publishers they need to live outside the state. "But at the same time," she said, "these stereotypes lead many West Virginians to be defensive about their state, which contributes to an us-against-the-world sense of identity."

"We're like hound dogs," she said. "We want to roam, but we feel guilty and lost if we stray."

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