Serenity worth more than money
(The Charleston Gazette, Sept. 30, 2000)

By James A. Haught

WE CHARLESTONIANS think we're urbanites - but we're light-years away from big-city life.

Thank heaven.

About once a year, I travel to a metropolis, and I always suffer culture shock.

How can people live amid such crowding, noise, rush, chaos, 10-lane traffic, crime, congestion, frustration, time delays and sky-high expenses? They're drowning in the human swarm. Don't they need the easy pace we West Virginians enjoy, and the comfort of nearby nature?

Obviously, hundreds of millions of Americans can tolerate the crush, because the country is turning into a megalopolis. Relentless population growth is spawning wall-to-wall development almost everywhere, except in our mountains.

This year my first stop was Chicago. Looking down from the plane, I beheld the world's largest sardine can. Block after block of crammed-together houses stretched for scores of miles in all directions. O'Hare Airport alone seemed as populous as, say, Parkersburg.

Next came the much-smaller city of Austin, Texas, and even it was suffocating. To get from the airport terminal to the airport parking lot required a long bus ride. Then the drive to my nephew's house across town was like a trip from Charleston to Huntington.

Residents told me that Austin had 450,000 people in the 1990 Census, but is expected to reach 650,000 this year. A news report said the city gains 350 more cars per day. What astounding growth. How can a city cope with it?

It reminded me of an amazing statistic: In the 1940 Census, both West Virginia and Florida had 1.9 million population. Today the Mountain State still has about 1.9 million, and Florida is near 15 million. Ours is the steady-state universe; theirs is the Big Bang.

I know, I know - West Virginia doesn't boom because the rugged mountains are hard to develop. Therefore, commerce is limited, income is lower, and many young people must leave to find careers elsewhere. Two of my sons live in San Diego, where they pay $2,300 monthly rent. I tell them they could get the Governor's Mansion in Charleston for that tab.

Recently, a New York Times ad called West Virginia "the nation's own slice of the Third World." Annoyed, Charleston publicist Becky Kimmons wrote a Gazette commentary, saying mountain folk may have less income, but they have rewards unknown to Manhattanites.

Many West Virginians, she said, are "people for whom money and the constant pursuit of it are not the central issues of their lives."

Many years ago, an editor at The Baltimore Sun called to offer me a job. I said I'd think it over - but I'd hate to leave my little lake just 20 minutes from work, with its beach for the kids, and a dock for my sailboat, and hiking trails through the hills, and squirrels and raccoons everywhere. The editor paused and said, "Never mind - I'll come to West Virginia."

Life is gentler in the hills. We feel a kinship with the terrain. A West Virginian is never more than minutes away from a shady ravine, or winding ridge, or mountain meadow. There's less stress, more safety, more serenity. This has a currency as valuable as money.

Now that the Information Age enables high-tech offices to be located in any place with electricity and phone lines, I expect to see frazzled families fleeing the big-city rat race and opening businesses in the green hills, where they can have easier lives. As coal reserves disappear, tranquility may become West Virginia's best natural resource.