Frederica Morgan Davis
The song said Take me home, but we used them to leave.
Some of us had never seen a country road in our life, anyway. City people, destined for bigger cities. We took I-77 North, 64 East.
“You’re from Virginia?”
“West Virginia.” We learned to repeat ourselves.
“Did you own shoes? Have a TV?”
We were accused of not having accents, of not being real West Virginians. People said, “I’d never guess you grew up there,” as if bestowing a compliment.
When we said we grew up in West Virginia, people assumed we’d seen hard times, “working class” synonymous with the state, at least on TV. Some of us had not felt the kind of hard times they meant, so when we claimed our native state, our ancestral state, it felt like lying. Some of us had felt those hard times; it was a hard time to be a human, even if the most convenient, comfortable time in history.
Some of us left in the second grade, parents’ jobs relocated. Some for boarding school, as our parents had; we returned for holidays, but unlike our parents, didn’t return to find jobs, raise families. Some stayed for college—WVU, Marshall, State—then left for other mountains, other schools, other fates. Some of us emigrated only in our hearts, found like minds on the information superhighway. Some of us left, but our hearts always stayed. They bloomed into teachers, artists, parents, into protestors who asked for a reasonable wage, demanded choice in a state trying to take it away.
Some of us stayed, and overdosed, and died.
Drugs flooded the state. Big pharma knew what it was doing, pills in every nook and cranny, holler and creek; our newspaper won a Pulitzer reporting the epidemic happening all over the country.
Water flooded the state.
Toxins flooded the water, couldn’t drink or bathe. Red bodies went to the hospital, showered in unaffected counties.
Miners flooded the media when politicians needed our state. We felt for them but they weren’t us and we thought they weren’t our country.
But the longer we were gone the more our thinking changed. What we once distanced ourselves from we tried to embrace.
Country roads take me home but some of us left on flights, lifting off from the hilltop, already in the sky. Romantic to think some left by train, constantly rumbling through our state, but those were mostly used for hauling coal away. Even in the city, coal tinted our lives.
We made homes elsewhere, rootless, restless this way. We contributed to the brain drain, felt guilty for taking our energy, time, and money to homes far from the ones that raised us to be engaged. In Colorado we claimed we were ‘from the Mountain State.’ People laughed at our hills, scratched their heads, said, “Really?” We said, “If you roll West Virginia flat it’s bigger than Texas,” certain we were right. In North Carolina our neighbors, coworkers, teachers were also West Virginians—we laughed about the Hillbilly Highway, but we laughed in a sad way and didn’t like the word hillbilly.
We didn’t trust anyone who mispronounced Appalachia. “Throw an apple-atcha,” we corrected. We didn’t trust outsiders protesting mountaintop removal, though our land was their land. We reminded people: “redneck” referenced bandanas miners wore across color, class, creed uniting against mine owners’ greed. We reminded people: West Virginia was not the South, was never the South, was the only Civil War-formed state. West Virginians never owned slaves. But it was a line drawn on a map. No sense in pride for being born to a certain history. No sense in shame?
We couldn’t speak for everybody. It wasn’t fair to try, wasn’t fair not to try. What is “appropriating,” “assimilating,” “honoring,” “taking”? We watched outsiders write what we wanted to say; we bullied outsiders for telling our story; we tried to tell our story. Roots severed, were we also outside?
We’d heard John Denver just needed an extra syllable. We learned a couple driving through Maryland wrote most of the song, claiming West Virginia sounded as exotic as Europe to them. Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River barely touch our state, but this doesn’t stop us from singing and stomping, hooting and hollering, wrapping arms round shoulders every time Country Roads plays. We slip coins into juke boxes, shut down dance floors at weddings, let those teardrops mist our eyes. Yet even our anthem assumes we’ve traveled those roads away.
Frederica Morgan Davis earned her MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she staffed Ecotone Magazine and Lookout Books, co-directed the Young Writers’ Workshop, and co-hosted Chautauqua on the Air. She is the associate prose editor for Shenandoah and her author interviews can be read on True. This is her first CNF publication, and she has flash fiction forthcoming from Press Pause Press. She is an eighth-generation West Virginian, if you count by when her family moved to the land that would in 1863 become West Virgina. She lives in California, though currently shelters-in-place in Maine, where she is developing an interview series with West Virginians who have left and stayed.