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Leaving West Virginia

April 1, 2016

(Editor’s Note: Mary Ann Henry is the 2016 New River Gorge Writer-in-Residence at Lafayette Flats. This is her fourth and final contribution to this blog.)

Scratchy eyed from a restless night spent checking the train status on my cell phone, every hour on the hour. Nerves are on edge with anxiety: how does a person flag down a train? For that is the very definition of a flag stop. And that is what Thurmond, West Virginia is. No real train station there. Just a beautiful restoration of the original, which serves as a tourist attraction for three months out of the year and then an empty shell for the remainder. If you’re actually trying to catch a train, there are no attendants.  So, you better know where to stand. And you better have your hand signals ready.

Mary Ann atop the Endless Wall

My friends Rick and Janet came to Fayetteville to spend the last weekend of my writer’s residence with me. Somehow, our saying goodbye required a lot of hiking and a lot of wine. We did our part: spending Saturday afternoon on the trail known as Endless Wall, which winds around the rim of The New River Gorge; the evening bidding adieu to the town of Fayetteville and my hosts at Lafayette Flats, Shawn and Amy.

The morning of my departure, we give ourselves plenty of time for the drive to Thurmond.  After we leave the highway, the road that winds down the mountain is scenic. We pass through land formations that, in my West Virginia childhood, I learned to call hollers. Land formations that result from indentations in the hillside, forming protective pockets for small communities. Maybe the word is politically incorrect now. I keep it to myself and peer at the ramshackle buildings and trailers that somehow look enchanting in the morning light.

We arrive at the station early and I position myself in the middle of the railroad crossing, not in front of the faux station, which is what I’ve been told to do. Rick and Janet are excited. It’s hard not to be, standing at the bottom of this massive gorge, with the river thundering by only a few hundred feet away.

The Thurmond Bridge

“Go, go stand on the bridge,” Janet urges, pointing to the small wooden span.

I don’t want to leave my post, I tell her. I can’t miss this train. There’s not another one for three days. She doesn’t give up. I make her promise to signal the train if it comes and venture toward the bridge.
The wooden decking has boards that are at least a foot apart, if not more. I’ve been living next to the New River during the past winter. I’ve hiked along its tributaries. I’ve thrown stones into it, from its banks, I’ve driven across it in a car on the famously, massive span which draws people from all over the world. But, somehow, standing on a small, wooden bridge in the middle of the river, peering down through what look like planks that could snap at any moment, I feel its raw power. The sun, cutting over the mountains, sparkles on the water. The sound is deafening. The moment is mystical and personal and I carry it with me, still.

Thurmond Depot

A few weeks before my departure, I saw a story on a local television channel about Thurmond and learned that there are five people and one dog still living there. A few minutes before the train is supposed to arrive two members of the two-legged population and the one four-legged member come to see me off. It’s Missy and her husband, Chad, and their dog, Depot. Or maybe they’re just being polite because I’m standing in their way. Still, it’s nice to consider their smiling faces as part of my send-off. Imagine!  One half of the entire population of a town coming to say goodbye. I decide to feel honored.

We hear the train before we see it. I’m struck by the bittersweet nature of the moment and almost forget to raise my arms. But I do and so does Janet. Rick is standing by, quietly, ready to help with my backpack. He and I go a long, long way back. After all these years, it’s as if no time at all has passed. It’s hard to say goodbye to Rick. Hard to say goodbye to Janet, my new, friend, a soul sister.

If you’ve never ridden a train through the New River Gorge, there’s no better way to see how its mighty force has carved out a picturesque route, in a state known for its natural beauty. This morning, it feels as if the beautiful weather and scenery have conspired against me, forcing me to confront my feelings about my birthplace. Fayette County is part of my spiritual home. It’s where the old Henry home place sits just a mile or two over from Greenbrier County. It was where I spent my girlhood summers. It was where I tasted true freedom as a child, where I developed an affinity with nature.

The town of Fayetteville, where I lived these past, long, winter months freezing and writing and freezing – and, well, you get the picture – is a unique place where I felt an instant connection to many of the townspeople.  In spite of its welcoming atmosphere, I occasionally struggled with the cold and isolation. Yet, I will never regret my decision to accept the Winter Writer’s Residency. After all, I made my way through polishing an entire draft of 388 pages of a manuscript titled The Spring House, a coming-of-age story that primarily takes place in the mountains of West Virginia. I can’t imagine being able to accomplish what I did without being physically rooted in the same (albeit, frozen) soil that grounded me in my earlier years.

But, that’s the trouble, you see. West Virginia still feels like home. No matter how long I stay away. No matter how much I relish living in the sub-tropical climate of the Other Charleston, the one in South Carolina, the bond is as ever-lasting as the mountains I can see looming, outside my window. I am, and always will be, a West Virginian.  Which must be why unexpected tears flow, as natural as The New.

The train follows the river down the tracks and I know: I’ll be back.

comments +

  1. Gail says:

    Your essay brought tears to my eyes as well. How beautiful. And how I can relate, after 35 years living in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio, the valleys and mountainsides reside within, beneath the skin, into the beating organ that keeps the shell going. Love your beautiful reflections.

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