Update: I found something amazing in West Virginia.
West Virginia should and could be one of the coolest states in the country.
Surrounded almost entirely by mountains, this state has virtually no excuse for being one of the most obese in the country. Yet the state ranked as third most obese by WebMD continues to defy logic. It’s as if West Virginians are surrounded by beautiful, scenic treadmills and StairMasters, and somehow find a way around them.
Obesity is a problem in much of Appalachia. But West Virginians have the worst excuse of all for succumbing to the epidemic. After driving through with a stop in Charleston on my way to the Great Smoky Mountains, I’ve determined Charleston and the whole of West Virginia should be one of the coolest, outdoor-inspired places in the country — drawing adventurers, writers and artists from around the world.
The beauty of Appalachia first hits you in southeast Ohio before crossing over the Ohio River into West Virginia. But it’s in the Mountain state where the scenery truly begins to absorb you. And with the leaves beginning to turn, it was the perfect time of year to be in West Virginia.
I’ve heard many scoff at the mere mention of West Virginia, especially New Yorkers and others in the Northeast who simply can’t imagine why folks think they’re snobbish and elitist. Truth is, I went in an optimist. I expected (hoped for) small, walkable towns featuring street musicians, farmers markets and outdoor-inspired stores, selling locals anything and everything to prepare them for the adventures that lie within a mile of their front door. Essentially everything I found in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and would later witness in Asheville, North Carolina (more on that later).
Unfortunately, reality struck.
Homes adjacent to downtown Charleston were tattered and worn. The streets themselves were virtually empty of pedestrians, and the people, indeed, were rather large. That may not be politically correct, but to paint it any other way would be like calling a nuclear war roughhousing amongst friends.
Rob, fellow traveler and photographer, and I attempted to visit the Bluegrass Kitchen around 9am on a Monday to try something local. It was closed, forcing us to a damned chain for breakfast.
Our limited interaction with locals left me thinking Charleston is a friendly town, and the brief time we spent walking around Summers Street between Quarrier and Lee showed the potential for a kickass town. There were red brick sidewalks with old looking, black street lamps I see in films depicting the early 20th Century. Though some buildings or shops were empty, the infrastructure is there for the right businesses to open that can begin harboring that creative, outdoorsy atmosphere that makes towns in the Pacific Northwest and Southwest the awe of every adventure traveler.
One drive certainly is not enough evidence to diagnose a town, state or entire region. But the plight of Appalachia is well documented, so I feel safe in assuming the town I expected in West Virginia doesn’t exist.
But it could. Charleston, surrounded on all sides by mountains with the Kanawha and Elk Rivers crossing through, puts the city of 51,400 in the best position to be a mecca of recreation, creativity and adventure. Hopefully residents and regional leaders agree, solving the surrounding area’s struggles with poverty and obesity in one — admittedly grandiose — blow.
And I’ll be more than happy to return.