Thomas Howard Brown
The afternoon when Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin landed on the moon found me sitting glued to a TV screen — as, I suppose, it did several million other folks.
This particular screen was located in the living room of my parents’ home at Green Bank, in Pocahontas County. That community, for those who don’t know, is located in a rather impressive mountain bowl between the Alleghenies and Appalachians in what is still the National Radio Quiet Zone in eastern West Virginia.
The night before the moonwalk, and rather late that night, I was driving “home” from Beckley. Whenever I go home to Pocahontas County, for one reason or another, it is nearly always late at night. One reason: I was going to college in Michigan, and driving one way or the other got you near your destination in darkness. On this particular night, I had been working at The Raleigh Register, a newspaper in Beckley, and the Register staff worked late into the evening to get the Sunday paper to press.
It was raining — or had just rained — typical of my night-driving experience. There were wisps of fog about three feet above the surface of the paved (but narrow and winding) road. It was like being in an airplane, flying just above the clouds. You can see where you’re going, but you can’t see the ground. This isn’t completely safe, but it’s exciting.
And it’s always like this, on my trips home at night. I was nearing the town of Minnehaha Springs and just about to get bored with the fog when another common phenomenon began. Up ahead, where the peaks of the Alleghenies and the long, lofty line of Cheat Mountain had drawn their nightly shades of fog and darkness, the lightning began to flash, each time briefly illuminating the entire valley, then giving way again to the gloom of the Pocahontas night.
The lightning, like the countryside itself, is spectacular. To me it occurs as a sort of warning, as if painting the sky with the message, “Warning! You Are About To Enter God’s Country.” And nearly every one of the half-dozen nights I went home every year, that lightning seemed to escort me all the way.
When the first light of dawn illuminates Cheat Mountain to the west of our house, it also outlines the Ramshorn and its Allegheny foothills to the east. By now, many have seen the grandeur of these mountains at all hours of the day. They are always beautiful. Between them is a spectacular valley full of farms and trees and very few people. The twentieth century was present in the form of the several telescopes of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. But in that place — just as with Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon — the twentieth century was an intruder. As a whole, the place may as well never have progressed past the Civil War era. And I didn’t care.
I didn’t care because I loved the land the way it was. Its beauty was — and is — the unadulterated original, lying there almost as it lay the day after the first human being (almost certainly Native American) set eyes upon it.
And in that present day, I loved the people. The population of those mountains were in approximately the same state of health, education, and prosperity as they had been for the previous fifty years. Their hardiness and friendliness and simplicity were characteristic of every man’s secret ideal.
The people spoke of something which has always been common to true West Virginians, from those who first mined the “honey in the rock” to those who fought over it. It was something largely indefinable but undeniably lovable; something buried deeply within every Mountaineer, whether they migrated from New York or went to work in Cleveland or went to college in Michigan.
It is something that will wake you up some night in a hotel room in Louisville or stop you dead in your tracks on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and make you suddenly feel homesick. It will strike you as you gaze at Mount Everest in the Himalaya or the Grand Teton in Wyoming or a cup of coffee in an Ohio truck stop and give you a sudden longing to be looking out the window of a coach on the George Washington as it passes through Prince or Quinnimont.
Or on a winter evening in Michigan it might send you looking for a summer job with a newspaper in Beckley, USA.
At night, when you’re alone and tired and you’ve been driving for a long time, you will salute the West Virginia state line with a loud and unheard shout.
Monday evening, when the moon had been left unpopulated for a while longer, I left Pocahontas County again, consoled by the knowledge that at least I wasn’t leaving West Virginia.
As I left Minnehaha Springs and drifted south toward Raleigh County, I reflected on the historic events of the weekend and the curious place where I had paused to watch them. In the car, moving, driving, I felt somehow happily suspended in time between the space age and the ancient splendor of the mountains which surrounded the highway. And I felt as though, someday, I should tell someone about those feelings.
The evening was warm and my arm caught the breeze from the open window, and the air was humid. And the air, as it always does on a Pocahontas evening, was growing cooler, and soon it would be chilly.
Across the stillness of the valley came the sound of distant thunder. The lightning would be there again tonight.