Skip to main content

Third World America

In my writing, I've previously questioned the tourist concept of authenticity. How as tourists when we say we want to see the "real" Mexico or Thailand or Zimbabwe, what we want is, in fact, not the authentic experience but some antiquated notion of what the country once was. We want to see people in developing countries dressed up in colorful, embroidered peasant clothing instead of cast off Gap jeans and donated t-shirts with NBA and NFL logos. We want an ocean of small food stalls selling pupusas or samosas or meat pies, with not a McDonald's or Subway anywhere in a 1,000 mile radius. We want cars from the 1950s or mule-drawn carts, not a Toyota Corolla. What we want, is to hold the rest of the world back, frozen in time, unable to progress, for our entertainment. But the authentic experience is exactly what you see when you are there, at the time you there. That is the world the people of that place inhabit. That is their reality, American cultural encroachment and all. 

Now similar thoughts are swirling in my head as I consider my experiences here in West Virginia. As a tourist, I'm in love with this place. For me, southern West Virginia has almost everything that somewhere like my recent home of Boulder has: endless hiking trails, gorgeous scenery, history, abandoned mining towns, mountain activities (though here it's underground caving compared to Boulder's above ground rock climbing) great restaurants, and culture (well, in non-COVID times). I'm captivated by this area. What this area doesn't have (and what I'm thrilled to have left behind in Colorado) is clogged highways and mobbed trailheads. 

While the lack of people is great for me, it's a problem for residents. Yes, there's COVID-19 and yes it's winter, but the roads and trails are "pleasantly" empty in large part because there are no jobs here. West Virginia is the second poorest state in the country. Young people flee. People who stay don't have enough money to go out and enjoy the state in all the ways that I can. Things are bad here, really bad. Downtowns are gutted and there are abandoned properties everywhere you look. The county north of where I'm staying is a total food desert with nothing but a destructive Dollar General/Family Dollar here and there. McDowell county is so poor it couldn't even support a Walmart. The opioid crisis is dominates several West Virginia counties. In the first two weeks that I was here, I drove through one extra super superfund site, a chemical plant exploded, and a pharmaceutical factory announced it was shutting down and eliminating 1,500 jobs. Two weeks.  

I'm not telling you anything you didn't know, I'm sure. West Virginia is the butt of a lot of jokes because of its desperate circumstances. But what you might not have known is just how fantastic it is here. This region of the country is truly a treasure. Every time I drive out of town for a hike, I fall more and more in love with the hills and countryside, even now in winter when all the trees are bare. I would love to come back in the summer and stay again when everything is green and alive. Everyone I talk to who has spent time here says the same thing; the mountains of West Virginia are magic.

But I don't live here. I'm an outsider with a really good job and salary. So, yes, even though my time here has been perfect, I want things to change. This shouldn't be only for people like me to fully enjoy. The authentic West Virginia changed once already in the recent past, from prosperous boomtowns to near total ruins, and it could change again. I want more locals to be able to afford to dine out and buy theater tickets and have the energy and willpower to get up early on a Saturday morning and go out adventuring because they got a good night's sleep and good meal. I want my tourist experience to take a backseat to the resident experience. But until then, people like me can at least donate and spend our tourist dollars seeing what a wonderful place this is. 

Civil War battlefield marker

historic home

dog on suspension bridge

dog on boardwalk between boulders

covered bridge

covered bridge

historic buildings

woman crawling through a cave