HPSBFFT2008 – Chapter 4: Charleston, Day One

My first official day in Charleston, and I wasn’t really in Charleston that much at all.

Today was supposed to be a ‘background’ day; a day for gathering general information on the West Virginia coal industry and the historical/cultural interpretation thereof. A month ago, I spoke to someone who may have been able to help me out in that regard, and was asked to get in touch with them when my travel plans firmed up. I did. Twice with no reply.

I was hoping that today would be the day to meet with that person. To talk with them, to listen, to learn. But it didn’t work out that way. Not content to let the day go all to hell, I hopped in the car and headed an hour down the interstate to Beckley, WV where there is an exhibition coal mine. I figured if I couldn’t talk one-on-one with a coal heritage expert, at least I could go to a museum and tour a mine myself.

But, well, that didn’t work out either. The coal mine itself is closed for renovations (that just sounds bizzare), and the attached museum just happens to be closed on Mondays. I sat in the parking lot and let myself get annoyed for about 2 minutes, and then a thought occurred to me. I didn’t really need to see the museum or the exhibition coal mine in order to include them in to my paper. I just need the paper to include a section on how WV’s coal heritage is being interpreted and make reference to the exhibition coal mine/museum as well as other sites that I’ll conveniently be able to find on the internet. I got out of the car and snapped some pics of the museum facilities that I could see and left happy that at least part of my paper’s outline was falling in to place.

With nothing else on my agenda, I decided to return to Charleston, but I decided to do it without involving the interstate. The way I found was heading northwest out of Beckley on state route 3, a winding and sometimes steep road that snaked through the Coal River valley. I passed coal mines and coal towns. The rivers and creeks were a disturbing shade of bright green. The towns has names like Metalton, Montcoal, and Surveyor. I passed an elementary school with a barbed wired-fenced schoolyard that was directly next to a looming coal processing facility. There was beauty there; steep-sided valleys, fields and meadows, rows of company houses with well-kept yards. But there was poverty too. So much poverty. Coal trucks came rocketing around corners, giving me a scare each time. At one point I came around a corner to see the immediate aftermath of a car accident. Paramedics had already responded. The line of cars I was in moved on and, when out of sight of the scene, I was immediately passed by the service truck that had been following me. We were on a blind curve with a double yellow.

Back in Charleston, I returned to the hotel, checked my email, and sat down for a bit. I went downtown for dinner, finding it almost exactly as deserted as it had been the night before. I can’t figure out Charleston’s downtown. I’m sure I go there at all the wrong times, but it strikes me as a weird and empty place. There are signs of its former life: tall buildings, fine architecture, banks, theaters, department stores. But it’s gone now. And I really haven’t seen suburbs yet. I don’t know where everyone is.

While wandering around trying to find dinner, I stopped in at a local independent book store I’d heard of. Taylor’s is a great place – exactly what a store of its type should be. While walking around I found a book called Coal River about the very communities I drove through today. The clerk said it was an excellent book and that the author was a really nice guy. I can’t wait to read it.

After I ate (roast beef sub), I graded some midterms for the class I’m TA’ing. As I said to Emily, if you’re ever feeling positive about the intellectual capacity of our nation’s young adults, try grading some midterms for an undergraduate history course.

My. God.

But now it’s late and I’m tired and I have a big day tomorrow! I meet with people! I get to have actual conversations with someone other than a.)my wife by cellphone or b.)myself.




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