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“That Other Part” of Virginia

[Editor’s note: This story is the third of the regional rants that will follow this article about a sense of home. Please send me stories that introduce me to your corner of the world, as I unfortunately don’t know good writers in every region.]

Virginia is made up of four cultures, all corn-mushed into one state. The Old South culture around Richmond and Charlottesville, a remnant of rich English tradition, values gentility and relation to Confederate "royalty" above all else. In an ever-expanding ring around Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia (NoVa) suffers from chronic, recurring suburbia and may never recover. Virginia Beach contrasts carefree vacationers with a large military contingent at Norfolk. And, finally, there is "that other part" of Virginia where the tourists don’t go; and as far as anyone else is concerned, the sun may not even shine.

But after six years of living in western Virginia, I attest that the sun does shine there, as beautifully gilded as the first day the sun ever shone. Cupped in a valley that runs the state entlong, my hometown enjoys daily mountain sunrises and sunsets. Granted, my Colorado friends have informed me that we don’t have mountains so much as, well, warts. But regardless of size, our Blue Ridge Mountains are bee-yoo-tiful.

Wal-Mart is, in a sense, the cultural hub of my city. Church friends, neighborhood friends, my English teacher—everyone I know shops at Wal-Mart. Go into the parking lot on any given day and you will see: College students lugging heavy cases of bottled water, men in wife-beaters with their brown left arms hanging out the windows of their souped-up pick-up trucks, women in cotton dresses driving a team of horses to the hitching rail (yes, our Wal-Mart has a hitching rail).

You are a well-established western Virginian when you can make sense of the driving directions, which generally rely on a hazy sense of mileage combined with hard-to-spot landmarks, running something like this: "Go down the ol’ Mill road by the red gas station—the road where, oh, what’s her name, used to live. After you pass the fourth cornfield, take the left fork—you’ll know the one when you see it; you really can’t miss it. Then go a little ways, and our street is the ninth one on your left. I’m not sure if they’ve got a sign out there yet, but it’s called Mike’s Hollow. Or was it Dan’s Hollow?"

The modern Protestants are divided between hard Scottish Calvinists that emphasize "the GOS-pel" to the exclusion of all else and large charismatic churches whose names all begin with the word "grace" or "free[dom]" and look down on denominationalism and other churches in general. Everyone who’s not a member of one of these churches, either avoids church altogether or goes the wild way and joins some liturgical tradition. You can tell that your friends have completely gone for it when they start using words like “antiphon” and celebrating unheard-of holidays like Epiphany and Maundy Thursday.

People who move here want to stay, because western Virginia has a friendly feel to it. True to my hometown’s nickname “The Friendly City,” perfect strangers on the street smile at me. The lady who cuts my hair asks me how my mother’s doing and how I liked the area high school since her sons are getting to be that age.

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Typically southern, the librarians give me a big, too-sugary-sweet, lipstick-red smile each time I walk in. I’ve got a track record there—last summer I did two dramatic renditions of "I’m an English major, and I don’t like fiction! Please recommend something good!" This seemed to intimidate them, and I feel sure that they eye me warily whenever my back is turned.

The people of western Virginia are easily likable. They are hard working, kind, quirky and pleasant company. The women tend to be hardy and practical, ready to give advice to anyone whose speech holds even a hint of uncertainty, and the men always have a twinkle in their eyes. But for the same reasons that hometown people are quaint and charming, they also tend to be narrow: To undervalue independent thinking if it ranges outside a strictly defined set of conventional Protestant norms. They ask why you would ever, ever leave home for college (Why can’t you just go to Hometown State? They have your major there.), and are less than interested in hearing about your latest writing project.

Even though I occasionally bristle at their comments and cannot resist laughing at their foibles, I comfort myself with the thought that the good folk of western Virginia are likewise laughing at my own idiosyncrasies behind the closed doors of their white-picket-fenced homes. This doesn’t bother me; at this point, laughing or no, we are bound together as fellow western Virginians for the long-haul. Because there’s one thing you have to remember about the South—if you can survive the gossip, well bless your heart, you can live through anything.

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