Last fall, after stumbling off a plane in Los Angeles and being confronted by a cameraman from TMZ, I made a very ill-considered, off-the-cuff joke about what I might feed President Donald Trump—and the knives were out. The alt-right trolls online were calling for my head, the conservative talking heads were equating me with Lee Harvey Oswald, and the Secret Service was waiting to interview me in New York.
But I was far away from New York, in the coal country of McDowell County, West Virginia, the heart, presumably, of God, guns, and Trump’s America. Any concerns about how I might be welcomed there, however, quickly disappeared.
The hills of West Virginia are breathtakingly beautiful. The people I met there were unfailingly kind, and forgiving of my liberal tendencies. Though the culture, landscape, attitudes, voting tendencies, and religious beliefs were about as far from my own as they are from Saudi Arabia’s, I felt at home. I was enchanted—both by the people I met and by McDowell County’s mist-covered small towns.
Like any other episode of Parts Unknown, whether in Vietnam or Nigeria, or any city in the United States, this West Virginia episode is a plea for understanding of the people whose personal histories, sense of pride, independence, and daunting challenges deserve respect. It’s a walk in somebody else’s shoes.
The stereotypes about West Virginia, it turns out, are just as cruel, ignorant, misguided, patronizing, and evil as any other. Every meal might have begun with saying grace, but there was nothing hypocritical about it. People do care about each other. Friends, family, and the community are held close. The men and women who come from families of four, five generations of coal mining are not naive about the promises of cynical politicians—or the inevitable future of fossil fuel. Their identities, their aspirations, and their situation are far more complex than one can imagine, and their needs are more immediate.
There’s a reason why so many West Virginians love their birthplace so fiercely and have fought so long and so hard to preserve it. I hope this show gives you all a glimpse.
I am intensely grateful for the kindness, hospitality, and patience the people of West Virginia showed to this ignorant rube from New York City who arrived with so many of the usual preconceptions, only to have them turned on their head.
Everybody in our crew felt the same. This is a show we worked particularly hard on. And we all hope that the people who opened their homes and their hearts to us feel we did right by them.
Highlights from West Virginia on Explore Parts Unknown: