Crossing into West Virginia, banjo music plays in my head and the cruel dialog from Deliverance burbles up from somewhere deep. The roads go narrow and winding in the green hills, and the dogs look mean and bark at my passing, turning in furious circles against their chains. Coal trucks race past, and the massive smokestacks of a distant power plant rise in odd conjunction with a new wind farm in the Allegheny Mountains.
Outside the town of Mount Storm, an artificial lake provides fresh water for the power station's turbines. Steam and smoke belch from one tall stack, and the plant dominates the landscape. There's a knot of pickups in the parking lot, along with some tents. Three boys walk down to the water's edge with scuba masks and fins and ease in.
My first thought is, you guys are nuts. But they insist it's not bad. "It's okay today, but it's beautiful when all them boilers are going. It's like bathwater then." The boys are there with family on a week-long vacation camped out in the parking lot. In the tepid power station runoff, they swim like sunburned otters.
It would be easy to caricature these people, and to mock them. The state suffers a reputation for grinding rural poverty and a fondness for handguns, shitty pickup trucks and Mountain Dew. But it's also a state of uncommon beauty, fearsome independence and a resistance to being just like every other damned place in America.
These young boys were utterly without guile and the family welcomed me, a stranger with unknown intentions and provenance, into their circle. A traveler can ask no greater kindness.