On my recent West Virginia trip, I spent every morning on Dolly Sods, a rocky wilderness area in the Monongahela National Forest, which forms part of the Allegheny Mountains.
Standing in the dark on a rocky outcrop, facing northeast towards the rising sun, I felt that familiar, quiet thrill of being back in nature again.
To be standing on this rock at 6:00am each morning, I woke up at 4:15am, drove an hour, mostly on dirt roads, from Davis, where my hotel was, to get to Dolly Sods by 5:30am; then trekked for half an hour in the darkness to reach the rocky overlook from which I wanted to photograph the rising sun.
And yet, when I rolled up to the parking area in the dark at 5:30am, the place was already abuzz with several photographers intent on doing exactly the same thing as I was doing. Fortunately, Dolly Sods is so vast that I was easily able to avoid my fellow-photographers.
In the internet age, when information about even the most remote photographic locations is strewn all over social media, it’s hard to find a place where one can be alone, even in the middle of the night standing on a West Virginia mountain top.
Every time I visit West Virginia, I feel conflicted between admiration for its natural beauty and concern for its unmissable poverty. While it has famously been called “almost heaven”, the state is also hellishly impoverished: of the U.S. states on the mainland, only Arkansas and Mississippi are poorer. One sees the effects of such poverty everywhere: in the ancient pickup trucks that most people seem to drive, in the dilapidated state of the houses where West Virginians live and in the bargain-basement stores where they shop.
When in West Virginia, I always make a point of staying in a locally-owned guesthouse, not one of the national brandname hotel chains, and of eating in locally-owned restaurants. It’s a small gesture but it salves my troubled conscience a little to think that I am putting my tourist Dollars into the local economy in such a way that they will probably stay in the state, rather than being siphoned off to some corporate headquarters elsewhere.
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