Mountain Momma

Country roads take the author home.

chris gall

     One of the reasons I decided to write The Feud: The Hatfields & McCoys is that I have an abiding fascination with West Virginia, whence my family roots on both sides lie. The often-overlooked state, whose most famous historical event is America’s most infamous feud, understandably has a bit of a chip on its shoulder. When I was living in New York City, I once went into a travel bookstore and asked for a guide to West Virginia. The clerk led me to the guidebooks for Virginia. He didn’t seem to be aware that it is a separate state.

     Although John Denver’s song “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was perhaps originally intended for Virginia, I am not sorry that our western offspring, which looms large in my childhood memory, got a break (apparently because the line needed another syllable). I remember on trips to Parkersburg, a town on the Ohio River, building ships with scraps of wood, glue and a hammer and nails on my father’s parents’ sagging front porch. My grandfather—whom we called Guvver, short for “Governor,” my father’s nickname for him—worked for Pennzoil, rode the country gas lines on a horse, and could put a whole package of Mail Pouch chewing tobacco in his cheek at once.

     My mother’s parents’ considerably larger house was filled with dark Victorian antiques. My uncles had rooms full of model cars, airplanes, and ships that they had built and that I would put into action. My grandmother handed down to me my uncles’ castle and knights and Steiff stuffed dinosaurs, which became my prized possessions.

     My Great Aunt Varena and Uncle Tub lived in the town of Hundred. In college, when I wanted to take my girlfriend, Jessica, to visit them, I asked my father how to get there. He told me that all we had to do was back out of our driveway in Richmond, take a left on Three Chopt Road, and keep going for six hours until we reached Hundred. When I asked him how to find the house, he said, “That’s easy. It’s the last one on the left.”

     It sat on a wedge of land between Route 250 on one side and a creek and train tracks on the other and shook at night, when trains loaded with coal came by. Varena cooked her chicken so long in the oven that it didn’t just fall off the bone: You ate the bone, too. In the evenings, an albino deer drank out of a concrete fish pond in the shape of the state of West Virginia in the yard. Uncle Tub, a retired coal miner, had a hog pen across the road. He had built a porch on the front with a rocker and a makeshift phone line so that he could call Varena in the house.

     Over the years, I visited many unusual places in the state and began to write about them for magazines. There was the rustic Smoke Hole Lodge, an off-the-grid fishing camp on the South Branch of the Potomac River, built of Western red cedar, poplar and knotty pine. The only way to get there was in the bed of the owner’s truck. Cheat Mountain Club, a former hunt club built by Pittsburgh industrialists on the Cheat River in 1887, is a grand log cabin with a veranda on a prime trout stream. John Burroughs, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison visited it in 1918 on one of their famous driving tours. They strung up lights and illuminated the cabin’s lush yard.  

     My favorite place to visit is Helvetia (the Roman name for Switzerland). I still remember the first time my father took me there. As we turned off 250, we saw a huge, dead, black bear tied onto the top of a hunter’s pickup truck. Forty minutes back into the mountains, we arrived at an enchanting village with Swiss architecture, the babbling Buckhannon River, and a great story: At the end of the Civil War, a party of recently arrived Swiss farmers set out from New York City to find a place to settle. They made it to the new state of West Virginia, where a group of locals showed them a lush, green valley. After a night of quaffing moonshine together, the Swiss farmers took the locals’ advice and bought the whole valley.

     Many years after my first visit to Helvetia, I planned a special trip there with Jessica. On the way, I proposed to her next to a split-rail fence in Hightown, Virginia, as it started to rain. Between there and Helvetia, the sun came out, and a full rainbow appeared. We pulled off the road and stood on a picnic table to admire it.

     We arrived in Helvetia for their annual harvest festival. After moving their families there, the Swiss farmers had put ads in newspapers around the country calling for other Swiss nationals to join them. And they did. Today, Helvetia is still Swiss in feel, with a West Virginia twist. We went to the town hall to see their prize vegetables. There were beautiful specimens of cucumbers, gourds and squash … beautiful and miniature. Just six inches down, the valley’s rich soil turns into solid rock. For a century and a half, these West Virginians of Swiss descent have been growing their food in half a foot of dirt. Nonetheless, they continue to cling to their beloved valley.

     As most visitors find, West Virginia is a place of such natural beauty and inviting earthiness that it crawls inside your soul and stays.

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