Sunday, June 23, 2013

Signs of the Times: Losing My West Virginity

Confronting one's own prejudices is an odd task.  Realizing that the time was drawing near for me to board a plane to West Virginia (well two planes actually because there are no direct flights from California to West Virginia) to visit my sister's family, I wondered if I was ready for the seed spitting contests, the backwoods fashions, the roadkill cuisine, the hollers, the homemade haircuts, the inbreeding, the all-banjo orchestras, the bare feet, the fascinating (mis)use of the English language in that distinctly-Appalachian accent, the jugs of white lightning, the baby bottles filled with Mountain Dew, the fine layer of coal dust on every surface, the dental disasters, the necks of red, the readiness of firearms, the family feuds, and prejudice itself.  It seemed more than slightly hypocritical to be so terribly concerned with others' prejudices when I clearly had a laundry list of my very own.  I spent much of the flight considering what I had gotten myself into by going to West Virginia and wondering if the stereotypes would be justified.  Our pal, Deke, had done nothing to dispel my preconceived, if totally predicated on Hollywood depictions and cartoons, notions about West Virginia with his musical contribution to The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginiawhich I watched as mandatory viewing in my Daniel Day Lewis-esque preparation for the role of "Visitor" to their fair state.

Although they'd only been there two months, my sister rolled
up with freshly-minted, West Virginia license plates on her car.
"Wild & Wonderful?"  We'll see about that.

Upon leaving the tiny airport in West Virginia's capitol city, I looked around and found immediate beauty; the verdure of the rolling hills was absolutely breathtaking.  Charmed by the southern homes (unlike anything in Southern California's architectural vernacular), with their deep porches, scalloped awnings, and shade trees, I was being taken in by a place that was in the country of my birth but felt so very foreign.  We drove over and back the broad rivers on bridges built by the WPA into landscapes I had never seen before.  We saw names of streets and buildings and towns that were unpronounceable to a tongue raised on secondary Spanish rather than Native American.  We saw so many wonderful signs - neon, engraved, hand-painted, light box, corrugated - that I was reminded of my own credo, "wacky tacky is where you find it."  Almost at once I thought to myself, "I kind of like it here" and in that instant (it doesn't take long), I knew I had lost my West Virginity!

To think that Mt. Hope could have existed with only a handful of partial department
 stores before Aide's "Complete Dept. Store" came along is truly beyond belief.
 Sadly, I think Mt. Hope is once again back in the dark days; Aide's is long gone.

It must be said that I can't stand the flavor of Coke (or any cola for that matter),
but there is something so delicious, refreshing, and fatigue relieving about
advertisements painted on the sides of buildings!

We met a nice husband and wife who remembered this
 building when it was first painted; henceforth, we referred
 to them only as "The OTT Couple."

I am fascinated by secret societies but even more
fascinated by old neon signs.  Add another entry
 into my "Neon by Day" file... 

There is something special about this not-so-special sign.
It has weathered many years on Mt. Hope's main drag and its
steadfastness has been rewarded; no one has ever thought to
 relieve it of duty...a good sign is a good sign.  

It seems like our world refuses to think
 in these shapes and colors anymore.

"Soggy Bottom," that is all.

I live in an area prone to wildfires but I can't
remember the last time I saw Smokey the Bear.

Again with the secret fraternal orders.
There aren't many qualifications one must have to become a Knight of Pythias,
 so it just tickles me that membership is basically guaranteed as long as one
 is not a drug-dealing, professional-gambling Communist.

I can appreciate his ambition, his sacrifice, and his desire to rise
 above a truly unfair lot in life...also his name is "Dick Pointer."

Lewisburg is a little "bougie," but it is
 also historic and quaint...and timely.

Double exposure?
Coca-Cola/Coca-Cola and Gray & Gray Druggists at the True Reformer Building

More Masonic neon

High-class, hillbilly jewelry.

Like the Hatfields & McCoys, this battle rages on.

Dogwood blossoms are always a welcome sight.

Signs that have seen better days are always a plus in my book.

Thanks again, Smokey!

My sis wondered how I even saw a sign painted on this building.
I knew it at once because on the very rare occasion that I drink a
soda pop I prefer it to be Nehi Peach.  We had one local retailer,
Galco's, who stocked it until California's rigid and over-zealous
restrictions against lead contamination banned the importation
of Nehi's glass bottles.  Aargh!!!

Wait a minute? Where are we?

Okay, so I won't be awarding this one a "World's Greatest Sign" mug at the
awards ceremony, but for a state synonymous with the hillbilly lifestyle,
this is one of the very few markers acknowledging West Virginian identity.

Small town theaters are great.
Small town theaters that are still operational are even better!

"Defunct dairy bar," three of the saddest
words in the English language.

I don't even know what The Snake Pit is/was but I was glad to have managed to snap the
 picture before they released the hounds; no sooner had I closed the car door than a couple
 of angry dogs came out to greet me.

A new sign paying homage to the old gets high marks in
our book for keeping with a time-honored tradition.

Familiar face, strange name...It took me a moment to remember that east
 of the old Mississippi, Carls' Jr. is "Hardee's."  Hardee har har!!!

While not technically a sign, I couldn't help but get a kick out of
 a graffito's washable work on the back of a panel truck - crude but fair.

10 WEST VIRGINIA REALITIES (from my perspective):

1. West Virginia has some wonderful signs - rusty, rustic, and sometimes rude, but wonderful.
2. There are more naturally red-headed people there than I have ever seen in all the years of my life combined.
3. Many people speak with an accent but the depth varies.  That said, the stronger the accent the more I love (and try to impersonate) it.
4. West Virginians like their food sweet (even the savory food is incredibly sweet).  It's like many years ago some jokester made his way to every restaurant and filled each salt shaker with sugar; the restaurants, getting no complaints, maintained the shenanigans and the world's oldest practical joke thrives as a culinary tradition.  I would almost believe that except that the sodium level in all the food is enough to bring on instant heart failure as well.
5.  West Virginia is THE smoking section!!!  I thought the "e-cig" was an uber-annoying trend but I'm almost ready to cheer the presence of nicotine-laden water vapor rather than traditional tobacco smoke. (note: I have plenty of friends who smoke but in over-regulated California the number of areas to do so has dwindled to the point where I am almost always treated to simply good, clean smog everywhere I go). 
6. In hillbilly territory, Wal-Mart is NOT the best place for viewing said specimens in their natural habitat. Super Wal-Mart is the go to spot for everyone in town so there is plenty of diversity (read: normal people).
7. Coal mining is still a common career path for West Virginians and coal trains are often seen chugging through the landscape.  If I had to choose, I think I'd prefer to work in a drift mine over a slope or shaft mine any day (yeah, I totally know the difference between mine styles).
8. Mountain Dew is a popular beverage.

As if we needed added incentive...

9. For every hillbilly stereotype that is proven true by a member of West Virginia society (let's be honest, it seems like the White's kin extend far beyond Boone County), there is an equal number of educated, hard-working, thoughtful people who are determined to make a difference in their community (I'm crossing my fingers that this doesn't sound too condescending).
10. The Whites scare me to death...and that's probably the way they like it.

Wild AND wonderful after all.


Mr. Tiny

p.s. We have so much more coming from our wacky tacky West Virginia adventures; be sure and stay tuned for all of the fun.


  1. Thank you for sharing. I've only been to the south once, and I was only traveling through, no real time to stop. It's a whole different world from the west coast. They told me I was the one with an accent, not them, lol. And I sure got funny looks when asking for my iced tea to be unsweetened. (I eventually gave up and strictly drank Coke)

    1. It really is a completely different world!!! I can't tell you how many arguments I overheard regarding sweet tea - the worst being when a restaurant ran out of it!!! I thought a riot might break out!

  2. I have family in WV and have been there many times over the years. Definitely interesting! My grandmother lived in Yawkey, the hills, of WV, for a bit. Lot of hillbillies around there! It's very different ;)

    1. I looked up Yawkey - not too far away from where I was staying. I have to imagine it is especially different from the desert! It is a nice place to visit but despite my sister's best efforts, I'm not sure that I could live there.

    2. I couldn't live there either. I feel you on that one! ;)

  3. Thanks for a great tour. Love those signs. Can't wait for more. I live only one state over(Ohio) come here sometime and dispel some stereotypes of Cleveland.

    1. I was always told that "Cleveland Rocks!" Why would we want to dispel that stereotype?!!! Hahahahaha!!! One day during my trip I crossed the river into Ohio (Marietta) and found it pretty charming. My dad's family is all from Ohio but I haven't been there since I was very young. I can't wait to go back!

  4. Fabulous post -- I feel like I've been on vacation! Wouldn't your sister's family be your family too?

    1. Thanks Peter! Hahahaha...yes, technically it is my family...but it is her new nuclear ("new-clear?") family (husband and son).

  5. Have a safe flight tomorrow! This post makes me want to get out of the state a bit, we are WAY over due for an adventure. Can't wait to hear about your travels!

    1. Thanks pal! I finally made it home. Let's party!!!

  6. oh what a great post to start out your adventures. i haven't traveled that much outside the south so it is weird to me to think that the landscape seemed foreign to you! i cant wait to come to california in a few months! i've only been past the mississippi once, and that was trip to la that was little more than a drive to huntington beach, then a drive to san bernadino. i can't wait to see what else you got up to here in the south!

    1. Thanks Rae! Well, you've basically seen my hood (I live very close to Huntington Beach). I wish I had more time to explore the South - particularly TN!

  7. What a fun, and dare I say educational, post! I've never been to West Virginia, but it sounds a lot like Kentucky, where I have a lot of distant cousins. I went there (Corbin, KY) one time a few years back and they all observed me with great interest, like I was a strange and amusing insect specimen in a jar. It was weirdly fun! :)
    Thanks for such a fun post. Can't wait to hear about the rest of your trip!

    1. Yeah, I got a few looks...I think they could tell I wasn't a local. My grandparents lived in Kentucky for a short time when I was very young. I have very few memories of our visit but the culture and landscape were definitely similar.

  8. I was in West Virginia once and was also impressed with its beauty and how our stereo types about the people are just not always correct. Great signage.

    1. Thanks! Yeah, I've found that many stereotypes exist for a reason but they're not always as far-reaching as we might expect. I might a lot of really wonderful people on my trip that definitely set the record straight!

  9. Too Grandfather was briefly in with the Knights of Pithias! I have never been anywhere like West Virginia so I wouldn't know what to expect but it looks like you are discovering some true wacky tacky gems on your visit. Looking forward to reading more about your West Virginia adventures ;-)

    1. Thanks Elisa!! My grandpa is technically a Mason but not active at all. I love the idea of these fraternal orders but wonder if they are a dying breed in our society. I just want to know the secrets (probably something I could easily look up online).

  10. I just had to share this with an Appalachian-American friend of mine. Enjoy your trip!

    1. Thanks Lily! Is that the politically correct term for hillbilly, "Appalachian-American?" Hahahahaha!!! Only kidding... I hope they don't get offended. I really enjoyed the state, the landscape, and the people!

  11. Good to see you again; I was wondering where you had gone! Anyway, you must be told: Freemasonry is NOT a 'secret society". They are "a society with secrets". Please...what sort of 'secret society" would have NEON SIGNAGE out front?

    I was in NOLA in 1998 and again in 2001. While there, I encountered a "Georgia Cracker"; I swear, her dialect was absolutely incomprehensible and like something out of "Deliverance". Fortunately , I was not the one she was talking to because I thought she was 'putting it on"- it was a shock to realize that that was the way she actually talked! I hadn't heard anything like that since a friend introduced me to his relatives from the Midlands of England- and I swear I could hardly understand one word in three of what they said to me!'s all "English"! I can now sympathize with Chinese people from different parts of China who can not understand each other's dialects and can only communicate effectively by "drawing" the ideograms on each others hands!

    1. Yes, the range of accents varies widely. Some folks spoke like they had never left the bottom of a coal mine and some people had no distinguishable accent at all. Like I said, my favorites were the VERY heavy ones; I tried to record them because I love trying to recreate them!

  12. I got the impression from watching that movie that the Whites scare *everyone* else in the state but themselves!

    I'm glad you found some things you loved in the state. I love West Virginia!! I spent a large part of several summers in my formative years going to a small adults music/folk art camp in a town in sort of northern central WV that was on a college campus. I have super fond memories of the state and some of the gor-gee-ous landscape, and came to know an interestingly large number of transplants to the state (who knew). I've always wanted to do a trip there as an adult!

    I know it was in Kentucky, not WV, but as you seem to be knowledgeable in the ways of coal: have you seen Harlan County, USA? Definitely one of my most favorite (and haunting) documentaries.

    1. Yes, those people are scary in every way! Isn't it interesting, almost all of the friends my sister has made are people from outside of the state; lots of transplants. If you are considering a trip there (I know you just got back from an awesome trip), stay tuned for all of the upcoming WV posts. I am adding Harlan County, USA to my must-see list. Thanks!!!

  13. What a fantastic post, and what a fascinating place! You had me at the very start, with your list of prejudices... :) I can't wait to hear about the rest of your trip!

    1. Thanks Melanie!!! Stay tuned...there is so much more coming!