Laid-back life in the hills

(Charleston Gazette, Sept. 20, 1994)

By James A. Haught

While big-city people hide behind triple-locked doors and fight commuter stampedes, there's a lot to be said for life in the slow lane in rural West Virginia.

I went home to Wetzel County over the weekend for the Shortline Reunion, and the old magic got me again. Lush green hills with the first yellow splotches of autumn. Lazy creeks threading corkscrew valleys. Fields blazing with goldenrod.

I reached my brother's hilltop farm at night, and moonlight made glimmering lakes of the fog in valleys below. Pure poetry.

There's a gentle simplicity to life in the sleepy towns and roadside clusters. My home town, Reader, is so sleepy it's nearly comatose. The old wooden house where I was born, the post office where my father was postmaster 40 years, the creeks where we caught water snakes -- it all might seem tacky to anyone else.

People living beside the country roads have a sense of belonging, an identity with the land. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig told of cruising in the country and envying families by back roads.

"The whole pace of life and personality of the people who live along them are different,'' he wrote. "They're not going anywhere. They're not too busy to be courteous. The hereness and nowness of things is something they know all about. It's the others, the ones who moved to the cities years ago and their lost offspring, who have all but forgotten it.''

One of the hills near Reader is called Slim Chance. I never knew why. A ridge is called Chiselfinger. Naming every hollow, every bend, even the major pools of the creek, is a way rural folk personalize their region.

From Parkersburg north to New Martinsville, then east through the hills, little has changed in a half-century. A plant here and there, a few shopping malls, satellite TV dishes and discount store swimming pools -- they're new, but incidental.

The rest of America is being urbanized into freeways and high-rises, but West Virginia's ruggedness is a barrier to congestion. Even as more development occurs, the hills will remain a sanctuary of low-key life. That's an asset.

The Shortline Reunion is named for the old Shortline Railroad from New Martinsville to Clarksburg. It's for all graduates of all years from three country high schools -- Reader, Pine Grove and Smithfield -- that no longer exist, replaced by consolidated Valley High. There were 13 in my graduating class.

At the reunion banquet Saturday night at Pine Grove (at the Robert C. Byrd Community Center, naturally), grizzled grandparents recalled teen-age pranks, circa World War II, and told each other about their life journeys. Noticeably, all the former farm youths seemed to have done well. Hill people are hardy and diligent.

On the return trip, I saw multitudes of Canada geese at a roadside lagoon, and lunched at a park where barefoot children squealed and romped.

In the newspaper business, we focus on the horrors of Bosnia and Rwanda, the hopelessness that bred the Los Angeles riots, the danger that forces metropolitan schools to have metal detectors and armed guards.

It's reassuring that a secure and placid life prevails through much of this state. People still climb hills with their children and dogs. Whippoorwills still make their sad call at night.