“Wild and Wonderful West Virginia.” That’s the state motto for that beautiful piece of land on the eastern coast of North America. Pasted proudly on all those “Welcome to,” state signs one finds all over U.S. highways, this is the phrase greets you as you drive into West Virginia, my favorite state.
It was while residing in this captivating landscape that I found my love of beauty, my fascination with mystery, and a great, yet strange comfort in an attractive but unreachable existence beyond me.
I moved to West Virginia when I was 12, and along with my parents and four siblings, I stayed until the eve of my 17th birthday. It was in those tender years that I adopted that mantra “Wild and Wonderful West Virginia” and made it my own – made the state of West Virginia my own.
As Tourist Destinations website explains, “West Virginia is … called the Mountain State, as it is the only state that is completely nestled in the enchanting mountain ranges of the Appalachians.” West Virginia is also home to the Shenandoah River that winds its way through those mountains, and that old song “Shenandoah” now pulls heavily at my heart strings. It is sung from the point of view of a traveler who is bound to the rolling river whose rapids tumble over rocks, meander through little ravines, and flow calmly through Appalachian valleys.
While lying in bed last night listening to Hayley Westenra sing that lonesome and chilling tune (listen to it here) I realized that this year, 2015, marks 7 years since I last visited West Virginia. As the ballad goes (the singer is addressing the Shenandoah river), “’Tis seven long years since last I saw you. Away, you rolling river, ‘tis seven long years, since last I saw you. Away, I’m bound to go, ‘cross the wide Missouri.” The traveler sings forlornly of that place where she found her home, and the sadness she feels about leaving it, (perhaps forever), pervades the lyrics and the melody. This year marks "seven long years" for me, too. I feel the singer's sadness now more than ever.
I identified with that tune, however, ever since I was pulled away from that state the summer before my senior year in high school. That was in 2006. In 2009, I had the privilege of once more, visiting my heart’s home, but since then, I have been in the state of Colorado, pining away for those wild hills. Though over these last seven years I have developed an appreciation and even a love for Colorado, there is something about the way the mist covered the Blue Ridge mountains – the views from the hikes up mountain trails that gave me miles of rolling blue tree-filled mountains to feast my eyes upon, and the small farms and pastures and abandoned grist mills dotting the mountainsides - that never let me go.
My mind learned to wander into the realm of wonder in that place, and I began to ponder things unknown to humanity, and I began to observe the tantalizing hints of the curious world around me. I learned the value of being alone in one’s thoughts here. I found a passion for flowers, plants, and gardening, and became one of those strange people who loved weeding my garden! I became a writer in these parts – I couldn’t help myself – I got inspiration from the expanse of misty mountains, sunlit pastures, and fall trees in all their glory spreading their wonder wherever they went.
My bedroom had a desk by the window, and outside that window, I watched my willow tree grow rapidly; spreading her branches out until they tickled the ground in that forlorn and meditative spirit that willow trees have in stories and tales. I would sit under the willow tree’s gently swaying limbs and feel enclosed in a world all my own. It was a tragedy to leave that willow tree – I got it for my 13th birthday, and watched it blossom in grace and beauty over the last four years of my life there.
I suppose that’s how I feel about myself – my heart and my spirit “blossomed” during those five years in West Virginia. When I had those hard moments that teenagers always have – my solution was to go wandering through nature, or sit at my desk and journal, or watch the sunset while petting my sweet cat.
My father would take us on forgotten roads to visit old antique shops, grist mills turned into little museums, and abandoned stone relics of days gone by whose aging stones and rotted timber made me think of those days when such a structure was newly built: who lived there? What was their life like? Did they find grace and love through the wild wilderness as I did? Did it help them through their seasons of doubt?
Over my years there, I quickly began to feel like that lone tree in the picture above - standing fixedly amongst my mountain friends - alone with them and their almost frightening glory.
The Beauty of the West Virginia wilderness fed my soul. Through her unbounded glory I saw something that could not be undone – something that had been in existence for centuries, millennia, who knows? Though people are born, live, and die, West Virginia had always been. Somehow, those mountains, those rivers and rocks, trees and flowers, began their home there long before I was in existence. They were a constant for me – the softness of their beauty captivated me. It was a gentle beauty – one that taught me that life was going to be alright. Pain existed, and I felt it, but beauty prevailed. Smoothly contoured foothills, grassy fields, and rolling mountains as far as the eye could see comforted a soul in turmoil.
Occasionally I find that I don’t know how to describe myself – am I a free spirit? Am I up for any and all adventure? Or do I like sitting at home by a crackling fire reading a good book? Do I love the small town and its enchanting little family owned shops, or do I love the “big city” life of designer boutiques and one-of-a-kind bistros that win all sorts of top awards? I’m not sure, and it’s true that over the years people develop and change.
Part of me wants to retire with my husband in my mid-60s and hole away into an old country manor in the Appalachian mountains and allow those mountains to be my pen's muse once again. But another part of me wants to stay where I am and build a community of people who live, love, learn, and find beauty in their lives here. Because after all, though West Virginia stole my heart, I found beauty once again, and I know I can teach other people to do the same.
But what I do know, without a shred of a doubt, is that deep in my heart, West Virginia will always hold an incredibly unique and immovable hold on me.
So, go on, West Virginia; steal someone else's heart and shape their journey with your beauty, you wild and wonderful thing!