It starts with a road, a two-lane blacktop called West Virginia Route 219 that spines its way through Pocahontas County and serves, depending on the stretch, as main street and back street, freeway and byway, sidewalk and catwalk.
It is June 25, 1980, just after the summer solstice, and a young man named Tim is driving home for the night. He had driven to Lewisburg, the big town almost an hour away, and is coming back now, with fresh laundry and groceries.
The road is made of black tar with a healthy gravel shoulder that gives way to ditch and then forest on both sides except when it climbs up or down a mountain, which is often. On those stretches, the ditches are replaced by tight metal guardrails with reflective yellow arrows that point drivers around the hairpin turns, some nearly one hundred and eighty degrees — a true switchback. To drive this road requires skill, to know when to tap the brake and when to press the gas. Tim is new in town and still learning. It is tempting to slam on the brake every time he sees a switchback, but the better move — for safety, gas efficiency, and natural enjoyment — is to do nothing, to let the speed ride and then, halfway through the turn, give it more gas. Beyond the guardrail is a steep drop-off into a valley where happy cows huddle together under ancient trees. The stakes of driving this road are high for Tim, as the many dents and welds in the guardrails remind him.
If a traveler were so inclined, she could drive this road in its entirety, all 524 miles of it, from Buffalo, New York, to Rich Creek, Virginia. Just south of the modern Mason-Dixon Line, this road roughly traces the original boundary between the land to the east called Virginia and the land to the west that has had so many names: West Augusta, Trans-Allegheny Virginia, Kanawha, and finally, when it declared itself a sovereign state, West Virginia.
In the beginning, the Seneca and the Cherokee used a route that would become this road to travel the wilderness from where the St. Lawrence River flows through New York state all the way to Georgia, long before there were any white people here.
Soon the white people came, first only to the coast at Jamestown but then crashing west across the forest floor. To stop the flow of blood, King George III issued the Proclamation of 1763, declaring what would become this road as the dividing line between what was “rightful” English settlement and what was not. Whites were forbidden to settle west of this boundary, and any who had already crossed were commanded to return; likewise Native Americans were forbidden to go east of it. But do the white people listen? They do not listen.
Tim sees two people lying there in the cleared patch off to his left…two women, almost perfectly perpendicular to the lane, their feet to the road, their heads in the grass.
Choosing this road as the boundary wasn’t arbitrary, nor was it empathy for the rights of Native Americans, just sheer capitalist pragmatism. West of this road was wild, and not in a good way: it was steep and craggy mountainsides unsuitable for farming — “trash land.” But for those who had left England seeking opportunity in the New World — largely the poor, the criminal, and the disenfranchised — many found that such opportunities were not easily forthcoming in Virginia. A powerful class-stratification system had quickly been established, a scramble for power that left some on top but most out in the cold. Those who had come with slightly more resources and ties to the upper classes back in London rushed to expand their claims over those who had fewer. By 1770, less than 10 percent of the white colonists owned over half the land in Virginia. To everyone else, the land beyond this road, forbidden or not, looked good.
Before long, smoke from the fires of simple timber homes marked the presence of a different kind of settler than the Virginian gentleman farmer: the intrepid woodsman squatter. To choose this place meant choosing violent struggle and disobedience, meant choosing years of raiding and being raided by the Seneca, meant choosing to sign up to fight in the American Revolution against England in such great numbers and with such enthusiasm that George Washington said of the region, “Leave me but a banner to plant upon the mountains of West Augusta, and I will gather around me the men who will lift our bleeding country from the dust and set her free.”
Tim’s car clears the hamlet of Renick, and the road flattens and straightens into a stretch called the Renick flats. Route 219 winds up and to the left, and the world becomes darker as the sun falls away and the pavement narrows and begins to hug the side of Droop Mountain. “Pocahontas County,” the sign says, and then Tim is on the mountain’s summit, where the road flattens again and takes him past a church marquee and the two-story farmhouses and single-wide trailers of his neighbors, past the pens where they raise chickens and sheep and pigs.
Take your right hand, and give the world the middle finger. Extend your thumb. If this is West Virginia, Pocahontas County sits in the thumb’s fleshy heel, a jagged raindrop of land nearly the size of Rhode Island. It was named after the Native American princess we know so well, but there all familiar stories end.
Half the county is Monongahela National Forest. Eight major rivers have their headwaters here, rivers that feed the Gauley, then the Kanawha, the Ohio, and eventually the Mississippi, so that water that begins in Pocahontas County flows as far south as Louisiana. This is not coal country. Instead, its main exports are timber and people.
Each of Pocahontas’s nine thousand residents could have her own nine square miles of land, but all the kids go to a single high school. If the kid is athletically inclined, she can become a Pocahontas County Warrior — unremarkable in football and track and field, but excellent in agriculture and archery. Snowshoe Mountain ski resort is here, on land that was logged throughout the first half of the twentieth century, then left to burn. It’s owned by out-of-state prospectors, though exactly who owns it and where they call home will change too often to keep track — a North Carolina dentist, a Tokyo development company.
The world’s largest fully-steerable radio telescope is here too, a mountain-sized white satellite dish atop a construction crane that is visible from most anywhere in the northern part of the county. In 1958, the federal government established the National Radio Quiet Zone, a thirteen-thousand-square-mile swath of land spanning the West Virginia–Virginia border inside which cell phone signals and Wi-Fi will be severely restricted to minimize interference with the telescope’s work of detecting faint interstellar signals, and all of Pocahontas County sits inside it. Take this state of affairs, and layer on top the profit margins of private telecommunications corporations, and the result will be that even in the second decade of the twenty-first century, Pocahontas County will remain a white spot on AT&T’s orange map.
This is a place where those who wish to be undisturbed by pings and rings can do so in peace. There is a deep awareness here of what the rest of America thinks a life should look like — the newest model, the fanciest vacation, the highest paying job with the best retirement plan — and, among many, a rejection of that life. Some people grow their own corn and make their own music and choose to give birth at home without beeping machines. Some are not just off the grid but off the record — no company knows their name. The Gesundheit! Institute, Patch Adams’s movie-famous hospital for alternative healing is here; ditto Zendik Farm, an intentional artist community originally formed in 1969 in California.
Some people teach school or fix cars or stack the plates of the tourists who come here to hike and fish and ski. Some people are nurses and doctors and home health aides and lawyers and Tudor’s Biscuit World servers and Rite Aid employees. Many people cannot get work in their field of interest because the jobs do not exist here, and some cannot get jobs at all. Some are not able to work and subsist on disability. West Virginia ranks forty-fourth out of all the American states for overall physical health of its population and forty-eighth for quality of care. Despite having the second lowest average annual income in the country, West Virginians pay the eighth highest health insurance premiums under the Affordable Care Act. Though it has the worst mental health of any state according to the CDC, it is ranked forty-eighth for access to mental health services. A therapist or a specialist is often a drive of an hour or more; the state has a single abortion provider in the state capital of Charleston, 140 miles from Pocahontas County.
Some vote in every election, picking up their elderly relatives, driving them into town to pull the lever, and putting signs for their candidates of choice, both local and national, in their yards. Others don’t vote at all, because the government doesn’t care about West Virginia, so why bother? Some call the sheriff ’s office with the slightest information; others don’t trust its deputies — you could trace law enforcement corruption back more than a century, to when the railroad companies and logging companies used hired guns to force people off their land or sell their mineral rights. This will happen all over again when fracking is invented and prospectors will draw the Atlantic Coast pipeline straight through Pocahontas County.
Tim puts on his turn signal and gets ready to pull the car off to the left at the small green sign for Lobelia Road. It is easy to miss, he is learning; if he sees the rectangular stone marker for Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park, he’s gone too far. The park is a popular spot for picnics and family reunions and reenactments of what happened here more than a hundred years ago, a battle that sealed West Virginia’s statehood forever. It is said that you can still find musket balls in the dirt there if you dig down deep enough.
The story of West Virginia’s birth as a state and how that shaped Pocahontas County in particular is a tough and exciting story, full of pluck and verve and no taxation without representation, an American story of David against Goliath and freedom from bad rules.
Unlike eastern Virginia, where farms were massive agricultural operations powered by African-born people forced into slavery, western Virginia was still primarily small homesteads even into the nineteenth century. People fished, trapped animals for fur, or cut timber. Families raised small beds of crops and livestock to sell to the rich people in eastern Virginia. Few plantations here — not enough flat land, not enough money, but some families did keep small numbers of enslaved people in bondage. To bring lumber from the Great Lakes states to the booming cities of the East, the railroad companies laid track through western Virginia in the 1820s. Thousands of people could now hop a train from eastern Virginia to western Virginia, and thousands did, looking for cheap land. City land promoters sold immigrants arriving from Europe on the dream of western Virginia. In the 1840s and 1850s, the Irish fleeing the potato famine made these mountains their own. But most still did not legally own their land, and without legal claim, they had to continually guard against threats from other squatters and from powerful city people with money and laws on their side. All this made the people of western Virginia vigilant, scrappy, and resourceful, engaged in the constant task of survival.
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Many in Richmond and Washington, DC, looked down on western Virginia, regarding it as a lawless place where poor families occupied land they didn’t own and didn’t farm, a lifestyle that was at odds with both the Puritan ideals of family and Southern aristocratic values. Something “had to be done” about this place. The Virginia government adopted a policy that anyone squatting on land in the western territories of the state could claim first rights to buy it, but if they couldn’t come up with the cash fast, they would have to either start paying rent or move on. Most families in western Virginia made their livings from the natural world or bartered; they didn’t keep money on hand. Great swaths of land were sold to rich investors in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York.
Further, new laws also made owning land a qualification to vote and participate in democracy. But even if they could scrounge up the money, the system was rigged against western Virginians. In a baffling rule, a farm animal was now taxed at a higher rate than an enslaved person, making it far more expensive to farm in western Virginia than in eastern. People here just couldn’t compete with the big plantation operations that churned out crops at bargain prices.
Western Virginians did all their own work and without the evil of slavery, so they should pay less in taxes than the slave-owning farmers to the east, they figured, not more. Plus they always seemed to be getting the raw end of the deal when it came to public money to build courthouses, jails, and schools. They didn’t have good numbers in the state legislature — partly there had always been fewer people here, partly enslaved persons counted toward population tallies in eastern Virginia (though, disgracefully, as only a portion of a human). As early as 1831, western Virginia farmers backed a movement to free all people enslaved in Virginia — though whether motivated by racial justice or financial self-interest no one can say for sure.
Western Virginians grew savvy and pissed off. They began to talk about separating and making their own state, and this in the midst of the larger conversation circulating in Richmond and throughout the American South about separating from Lincoln’s Union. Western Virginians were squeezed in the middle once again — counties closer to Richmond with more flat land and financial prosperity were in favor of sticking around and following their mother wherever she might go, even if that meant following her away from the Union. But many of the westernmost counties didn’t want war and weren’t inclined to follow Richmond anywhere. Twenty-two delegates from the mountains met in secret and resolved that they would oppose secession and keep as much of Virginia as possible loyal to the Union, and that they would eventually, when the time was right, move for their own state.
Richmond did not approve. Western Virginia offered a plentiful supply of young men who could go off to the fight without the risk of leaving enslaved people “they would leave “unsupervised.” The mountains were also a necessary strategic and geographic link between the Confederacy’s natural resources and the bulk of their troops. The two parts of Virginia were still united when the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter in 1861, and still together in May when a majority of Virginia’s state delegates voted to secede, but after two years, a special convention, and a popular election to make official what had long been felt, West Virginia officially broke with Virginia to stay in the Union and become the thirty-fifth American state on June 20, 1863. Its motto was, is, montani semper liberi — “mountaineers are always free.”
Yet in every county and town and household, the people of what was now West Virginia had to choose for themselves. West Virginia officially fought for the Union in the Civil War, sending approximately thirty-six thousand soldiers to the blue. But a hearty sixteen thousand soldiers took up for the grey. Neighbor against neighbor, et cetera, but in Pocahontas County, it really was.
We like to talk of turning points, of moments that swing the door open or shut forever, and if you believe in such things, the Battle of Droop Mountain was one. November 1863: a small brigade of five thousand Union soldiers was on its way to an area of southwest Virginia near Roanoke on a standard slash-and-burn mission when they ran smack into seven hundred fifty Confederates under the command of Mudwall Jackson, disgraced cousin to Stonewall, at a bend in Route 219 a few miles north of Droop Mountain. Vastly outnumbered, the Confederates scuttled up Droop Mountain, while the Union brigade stayed put. From their perch that night, Confederate soldiers could peer over the edge of the slope and look down into the valley, where thousands of Union campfires burned. They would fight, they knew, and they would die.
But that night, Jackson managed to send panicked word to another Confederate general who was camped in nearby Lewisburg with some 1,175 foot soldiers. In 1980, it would take Tim forty-five minutes to drive the thirty miles back from the grocery store, but in 1863 it took twenty-four hours of continuous walking. They marched all that day and all through the following night and reached the summit of Droop Mountain around nine the next morning. Within an hour, Union forces attacked. By the end of that day, blood was soaking the ground of Droop Mountain, and West Virginia would never be part of the Confederacy.
Wrecked men and women returned home to Pocahontas County after war’s end. Virginia tried to sweet talk West Virginia into getting back together, but West Virginia held strong. Those who had peeked over the mountain’s edge and those who had lit fires in the valley, however, now found themselves once again sharing a town. Most had not wanted to be Confederate, but saying no to a thing is not the same thing as saying yes to its opposite. For years and maybe forever, the state would struggle to be fully and truly part of the Union.
At the green sign for Lobelia Road, Tim turns left off Route 219, follows the paved single lane steeply downward until it wrenches to the right, revealing a view of the giant maple at the valley’s center, and then keeps going into the small hamlet of Lobelia. He slows a few miles from his home and turns off at a neighbor’s driveway.
At twenty-one, Tim has just been discharged from the army and moved to Pocahontas County weeks earlier; it is supposed to be an interesting place to be, a haven of sorts. In the 1970s, this part of West Virginia, particularly along this road, became the chosen home of a critical mass of people who wanted to move away from cities like Philadelphia, New York, and San Francisco.
Throughout the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, many Americans felt dispossessed by where the country was heading and how it was heading there — the Vietnam War principally, but also the way the government had responded to the uprisings motivated by racial injustice in Los Angeles and Detroit. Fleeing cities, they went to “the land.” Between seven hundred fifty thousand and a million Back to the Landers, as they were dubbed, lived in communes by the mid-seventies, and an additional million were homesteading, either as singles or as couples in some of the most rural parts of the United States. If Helen and Scott Nearing’s The Good Life was the blueprint for this way of life, Mother Earth News was its instruction manual. In 1970, the magazine published an article on the country’s most homestead-friendly land available for purchase. Its conclusion: “north-central Pennsylvania” and “almost the entire state of West Virginia.”
In 1975, a gaggle of Back to the Landers from all over the United States set up a commune in Pocahontas County called Island of the Red Hood. They set up a small farm, though they struggled with the hard soil and narrow growing season. Other Back to the Landers came as couples and families, some having driven all over the country in Westfalia camper vans before finally settling in West Virginia. They bought land, built slipshod timber-frame houses, and tried to put gardens into rocky, frozen ground. They had come to live off this land, but they did not know how.
West Virginia officially broke with Virginia to stay in the Union and become the thirty-fifth American state on June 20, 1863. Its motto was, is, montani semper liberi — “mountaineers are always free.”
Some locals who had grown up here for generations enjoyed watching them fail and flail, some kept a polite distance, but most succumbed to empathy or pity or the thing that flows between neighbors. They showed the newcomers how to plant and how to can, how to insulate and how to dredge; they lent car parts and seeds; they brought wood and installed carburetors and fixed wells.
Friendships happened. One local woman whose husband worked for the state highway department and was gone for weeks at a time invited the commune women over for quilting and soup, and soon they were sharing child care, dog care, recipes, dreams and fears. Many local Pocahontas County residents were surprised to find that these new people were a lot like them — neither group cared much for material things, and neither had many. They were surprised to find that the Back to the Landers shared many of their same values too — values like self-sufficiency and freedom.
But by 1979, the bonds of the Red Hood commune were fraying — people were having babies or getting divorced, or they were tired of the hard work and the meetings where so and so went on about whose turn it was to take the chainsaw to be sharpened. Some of the Back to the Landers returned to the cities from which they’d emigrated, but many stayed, remarrying and buying land as family units. Pocahontas County had been losing population at a steady clip since 1920, when the logging boom burst, but the 1980 census delivered a shot in the arm: numbers were up.
It is around a quarter to nine when Tim pulls out of his neighbor’s driveway, but the sky still has some light to it. He turns off Lobelia onto Briery Knob, a narrow gravel road that pitches slightly uphill. He drives for two miles through the forest until the turnoff for his dirt lane appears. He turns in toward his lean-to cabin and drives a hundred fifty yards or so, as is his routine; the lane continues, but deep ruts up ahead will scrape the underside of anything but a pickup. When he leaves most mornings, he backs up into a patch of earth cleared of brush, where he can turn around and drive out again.
But as he drives into his lane on this night, Tim sees two people lying there in the cleared patch off to his left. The pair seems to be having a private moment, Tim thinks, having sex maybe, so he continues on through and parks. When he turns to look at them once more, something is not right, and it is in their bodies. Too still. Tim walks back to where they lie: two women, almost perfectly perpendicular to the lane, their feet to the road, their heads in the grass. They are on their backs, and their eyes are open. They have been shot. Fifteen minutes later, and the dark would have hidden them.
* * *
Emma Copley Eisenberg’s work has appeared in numerous publications including Granta, The Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review online, The New Republic, Salon, and Slate. Her work has been supported by the Millay Colony for the Arts, the Elizabeth George Foundation, Lambda Literary, and the New Economy Coalition. Her reporting has been recognized by GLAAD, the New York Association of Black Journalists, the Deadline Club and Longreads’ Best Crime Reporting 2017. Eisenberg lives in Philadelphia, where she co-directs Blue Stoop, a community hub for the literary arts.