Recently, we spent a few days in a couple small towns in West Virginia. Yes, this intergaycial couple from “Liberal California” spent an extended stay in what is often assumed to be hyper conservative, “backwoods” West Virginia. I’m here to say, that many of those assumptions are not true.
Wheeling, West Virginia is where Jeremiah calls home. I must admit: when we first met, my only knowledge of West Virginia was somewhere between the movie Deliverance and John Denver’s “Country Road”, where we all belt out West Virginia, Mountain mama! Take me home, country road. But it was always the way Jeremiah spoke so fondly of his youth here that made me want to continue seeing what it was all about myself.
There’s no easy way into Wheeling. They have an airport (I think) but flying into one of the larger cities is often easier and cheaper. This trip found us in Columbus, Ohio before making the roughly two and a half hour trip out of the midwestern hub into the rural West Virginia mountains. The countryside slowly swallows the plaines and you find yourself engulfed among the sugar maples and oak trees. We were yearning for fall, yet the leaves had not begun their transformation from green to the vibrant oranges, reds and yellows of a postcard. As we descended the final hill from St Clairsville, Ohio into Wheeling, you’re welcomed by a bridge that guides you across the Ohio River.
My mind wandered while I was fascinated by the number of bridges I could see left or right as we crossed the gap between Ohio and West Virginia. In some ways, this signaled the end of the Midwest and the start of the “south”. But when you look at a map of the United States, West Virginia seems too far north to be considered part of the former Confederacy.
Jeremiah interrupted my thought as we drove across the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge:
“Bridge day is really popular here,” he said. “Every year, people jump off one of these bridges, I can’t remember which, into the Ohio river, to commemorate the beginning of summer.”
To me, West Virginia is a place filled with bewildering facts. Its statehood was established because of opposing views on slavery from Virginia, becoming a state in the Union June 20, 1863. But when we were walking around the towns of Wheeling and Huntington, seeing a Black person was few and far between. It is a state whose Black population hovers around 3.6%, according to the 2020 census, so I guess it makes sense. Surrounded by so many white faces, this was also a place that, at times, I felt comfortable sharing my full Blackness. Perhaps it was the fact that I was with people born and raised in the area - When you’re with a group that’s so familiar with their surroundings, it takes a lot of the fear out of it.
Even walking, just the two of us, at night, didn’t feel Hitchcockian.
That one night we did walk around, we found ourselves at a local brewery. The Brew Keepers tap-house is like many others I’ve been: a patio for large and small groups, plus however many dogs beer people can bring; baseball on tv, but nobody watching - either because they don’t care or they don’t understand the game. It was talking to them, while drinking an Appalachian-style IPA (truly one of the best beers I’ve ever had) that got Jeremiah and I thinking about the new direction of West Virginia - Wheeling in particular.
Jeremiah has been learning about his Celtic heritage and has told me, on many occasions, that my Celtic animal is the butterfly, and that every time I see one, it can be deemed a sign. In a way, that’s how it felt listening to the head brewers talk about the area. They spoke about the changes that have slowly been happening around them in such a way that I couldn’t help but see Wheeling in its chrysalis phase. From my first visit to the area seven years ago, I could feel the change in the air. Since that initial visit, Wheeling has started to update itself - and it’s not because the roads are under construction.
In 2020, Wheeling elected Rosemary Ketchum to their city council. There are many things that make Rosemary special: it could be her ability to hold her own as the only female on council, with five male counterparts or perhaps her work with Grow Ohio Valley. Most remarkable, though, Ketchum is a trans woman and, after winning her council seat, became the states first out transgender elected official. Now, she’s running for mayor and appears to have a strong chance of winning.
This is the new Wheeling. Scratch that, this is the new West Virginia
While Wheeling was part of the reason for the trip, we drove further south to Huntington, home to Marshall University, so we could attend the Appalachian Queer Film Festival, where Jeremiah had a short film nominated for an award. As we drove through winding back roads, it felt like yet another time where I needed to be on high alert: A car full of queer folk, heading through a conservative state en route to a queer film festival sounds like a plot to an A24 horror movie.
There seems to be a constant with every small town I’ve been in or driven through. Typically, they’re filled with the same things: people who are so nice you don’t know if they’re you’re friend or frienemy, a general store where you can get everything you think you need, and at least one church (often Methodist).
The last Trump sign was seen maybe twenty minutes before we arrived in Huntington, which still had me cautious - the only thing scarier to me than a loud Trumplican is a quiet one. A modest township, Huntington was like a larger Jacksonville, where I grew up. The film festival was held at The Foundry Theater, with films not only highlighting queer Appalachian film makers, but also films from around the world. The first night, my nerves on edge, made it a little difficult to concentrate because I was hyper aware of my surroundings and, truthfully, terrified that someone would jump out of the shadows and the worst would happen. Those feelings subsided when the opening film started.
Kokomo City is one of the best documentaries that I think I've ever seen. Without telling their stories in this blog, the documentary follows four Black trans sex workers "as they confront the dichotomy between the Black community and themselves" (tagline from IMDB.com). This beautifully crafted film will stand the test of time and become another piece of queer cinema, much like Paris is Burning or Tangerine. Through their courage, I was able to find my own. I was able, then, to see the area I was in not from a place of fear, but one who was truly taking the state motto and applying it to their every day lives.
The state motto for West Virginia is “almost heaven”. At first, it’s a phrase that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Why would you say that your state is “almost heaven” instead of something more cliche like “heaven on earth”, especially since it’s a state where religion is deeply rooted. I started reflecting on my own experience with religion and it made me think about how my parents described God to me and my siblings. Instead of taking us to various churches, sitting in uncomfortable pews with preachers using scare tactics to keep you coming back, my parents took us on a drive to the beach. Where we were located in Jacksonville meant a drive south through the California Redwoods before making the bend back north to Brookings - a small coastal town in southwest Oregon.
One time, during a drive like this, a conversation about God and religion came up. This time, my parents decided to stop and had all of us get out.
“You want to learn about God,” my mom said. “Let’s go for a walk”.
We all groggily got out of the car, stretched and followed our parents into the forest. When we were a good distance from the car, the car just a speck in the distance, our parents stopped.
“If you want to know about God,” mom continued, “then look up.”
We followed her instructions.
“This, to me, is where you can find God. Do you hear how quiet it is, even though the car is right there? Do you see how tall these trees are or see the birds flying from one to the other?"
Mom paused, her eyes twinkled with hope. She looked at each of us and said:
"If you're ever wondering about who God is or where to find Him, just come out here - or walk in the woods at home - and you'll feel him. Now, lets go get some fish and chips!"
And that's West Virginia: The only state entirely within the Appalachian Mountains, its state motto makes sense. I encourage everyone to go out and stand amongst the trees - sit if you have to. Listen to everything around you, feel everything the world offers. And if you ever find yourself in West Virginia, take time to explore Wheeling and Huntington, and every place in-between. They know they aren't perfect, that there are more than a few things that need to be improved. Heaven is a perceived place of perfection and West Virginia is almost there.
PS: Jeremiah's short, 24 Hotdogs, won Best Narrative Short Film while we were at the Appalachian Queer Film Festival. Words can't describe how overjoyed I am for him, for this short he made with friends in the middle of the pandemic, and for where this will take his creativity. When I'm allowed, I'll share it with you.
Artist: Curtis Harding
Year Released: 2021