I recently rode again through the mountains of West Virginia. Each time I do, the rich black hills pull at my heart’s strings. I climbed the highways that cut through the heart of Appalachia. Coal mining towns dot the valleys. Homes, trees, buildings and vehicles are covered in a blanket of black dust from the mines.
A simple folk live in these hills. Bred with black etching the lines in their fingers like ink on a roadmap, most of them are the next generation of miners. In each house on every row between nowhere and the mine, there lives a coal miner’s daughter.
Decades ago, a country music singer left the mining town in search of another life. Loretta Lynn gave us a glimpse of what life was like for those who mine the black gold. A hard existence from birth to death, but these people don’t complain. They just willingly accept their place in America. Most of them…
I know Miss America, 1993, Leanza Cornett. I watched her grow up. When then Miss Florida was crowned, she was the epitome of clamor and glitz. She was flawless. Breathtakingly drop dead gorgeous. Her personality would make you feel as if you just stepped into the presence of an angel. Precious young lady inside and out.
Looking at her crowned in all her glory, it’s difficult to imagine her humble beginnings. Like Loretta and the women in each of the houses on miner’s row, Leanza is a coal miner’s daughter.
Her father, Dick, decided to take a road less traveled. He escaped the mines, moved to sunshine and fresh air of Florida and opened a sandwich shop. The coal miner’s daughter decided to follow in her father’s footsteps. She believed the world was hers and she seized it.
As I drove through Charleston, I tried to imagine Leanza running through the black ash playing. Did she dream of being Miss America some day? Did she realize there was a place in the world that did not have coal dust? I searched the eyes of those in cars as I wound my way through the mining communities. I saw hundreds of coal miner’s daughters who drive the same black soot roads to the local Walmart where their mothers bought their baby food and diapers. They will marry a coal miner and will give birth to another coal miner’s daughter.
Finally, the gold and black capitol building in Charleston was no longer visible in the rearview mirror. I only had to drive a few miles to the east to feel the solemn quietness that looms over Huntington. I can’t help but wonder which of the protruding hills claimed the lives of the Marshall football team decades ago. After more than forty years, the town seems to still grieves those they lost that rainy night when their plane crashed and burned. Or perhaps they are mourning those who were swallowed up by the mine. Whatever the reason, an inconsolable heart has found a way to beat on, continuing life in spite of tragedy.
I know there is more to the story of West Virginia, far more than I could extract during a drive through the region. There are battles fought and beliefs stood up for by these strong, tough as nails mountain people. Just as there is so much below the surface of these mountains that most of us will never see, there are stories these folks have not told. They would most likely paint a different portrait than me but I cannot deny what I feel as I visit the hills in Appalachian coal country. It is a place like no other on earth, and one I would like to take time in to explore.
But I rolled on as truckers to. And here in West Virginia, men will keep descending deep into the mountain to bring out the black gold. Women will give birth to a coal miner’s daughter who’ll grow up to marry another coal miner. Such is the circle of life in the coal mining town.
The mountains breathe in the coal dust and exhales it into the beauty all its own, where coal miner’s daughters remind us that the heartbeat of America is alive and well in West Virginia.