In 1999 I finished up graduate school and moved to the Washington, DC region, a part of the world that I still call home. Even at that point I hadn’t lived full time in Southwestern Virginia for more than five years, and calling it home was a stretch. Moving around a lot as a kid I’ve lived in 10 states and Roanoke, Virginia was my home city for a scant three years before graduating high school and leaving for college. And yet I consider it to be my hometown, a spiritual connection to a place we all experience but in my case it was a tenuous one. I recently had the chance to revisit this beautiful part of Virginia and along the way I couldn’t help but wonder why I call this unlikely region home.
What is home?
This is an easy question for most people to answer and they’re lucky. Most people don’t move around a lot growing up and so their hometown is easily and quickly identifiable. For me it’s different and I began to wonder why it is that I consider Roanoke, Virginia to be my home instead of Mountain Top, Pennsylvania or Lexington, Kentucky, two other towns I’ve had the fortune to call home at different points in my life. Like all things in life, the answer is bound up tightly with emotions, my emotions. High school is a time of change and confusion, and it was a brief period of time that greatly influenced the person I am today. Friends I made back in the early 90s are still my closest friends today and our adventures and experiences serve as the base for my personality – for better or for worse. But there’s something also inherent about the Blue Ridge Mountains and Southwest Virginia that makes it seem like home, it just feels like a place where people can be comforted and sheltered. It was a long drive, so I also had the time to think along another tangent, what is it exactly about Southwestern Virginia that makes it so very attractive not only to me, but many others who call this beautiful part of the world home.
After I graduated high school I couldn’t wait to leave Southwestern Virginia – I even stayed away during most university breaks. That means when I packed up the U-Haul in 1994, I never looked back and certainly never returned to live full time. The reasons were many, a fiercely independent person I couldn’t wait to just be me and start my own life. But I also didn’t feel like there was a lot for me in Roanoke, and there wasn’t. With just around 100,000 people, Roanoke may be the largest city in Southwestern Virginia, but that’s frankly not saying much. It has an airport, but it’s small and pretty much just connects to cities like Charlotte and Atlanta. With two degrees in international relations and no access to the rest of the world, I always knew that Roanoke could never be my forever home. But now, as I approach 40, it’s those qualities that endear the community to me.
There’s a lot to be said for not being able to access everything immediately and even saying that, Roanoke isn’t all that bad. Having lived many years of my life in small and poorly located towns I understand that sometimes you have to drive a few hours to get anything done, from really good shopping to a major airport. But it’s inconvenience that I think many of us relish, the ability to separate ourselves every now and then from the rest of the world is a beautiful thing. It was driving through the stunning mountains of the Blue Ridge that I remembered how precious this inconvenience can sometimes be. Driving south of Roanoke, passing Blacksburg my phone failed to pick up a signal. Nothing, not even an inkling of a data network but instead of worrying, I actually looked out of the car windows and began to appreciate everything around me. Leaves starting to change color and tranquil valleys that many people dream of seeing are commonplace. I had taken all of this for granted for most of my life, but at that moment I was determined to right that wrong.
The soul and personality of the people
My partner is a northerner and as such he doesn’t really “get” the people of Virginia, much less those who call the Southwestern part of the state home. He’s had plenty of practice going to undergrad and law school both in Virginia, but from my own observations he never allowed himself to fully click with the great people who call the state home. A lot of that is based on stereotypes, a topic I devoted an entire post to since it annoys me so very much. But some people just don’t understand the South; they’re not comfortable there. For me it’s the opposite; for me everything seems so much easier whenever I’m back in the Blue Ridge. Instead of harried conversations and endless traffic, I’m met with kind-hearted people who thank me for opening doors and always tell me to have a nice day. It’s a personality quirk you’ll find everywhere, from gas stations to shops in downtown Roanoke and for me it’s a comforting part of the soul of Southwestern Virginia.
Places are not defined by their landmarks or their natural beauty, at least not entirely. No, they are defined by the people who live there. It is the people that give places their heart and soul and make them a nice place (or not) to live and even visit. I’ve spent years disparaging Southwestern Virginia, but that wasn’t fair. I put it down in the past because of purely personal emotional reasons and it was only age and distance that made me rethink my opinions of the region. For a long time I didn’t understand why people liked it so much, why they moved there or went visited on vacations. But in the last year I’ve been back twice now – that’s more than in the previous 5 years combined – and I’ve experienced the same version of Southwestern Virginia that they see. I looked past family squabbles and instead reflected on what my time in Roanoke and Salem meant to me, how that time changed my life and a certain level of gratitude started to creep up. It’s not often that I’m accused of being mature, but in this situation I think I am. I think I’ve found that yes, you can go home again if you really want to. You can recapture those elements of your hometown that are most important to you and even over a brief weekend you can once again experience what it means to be loved by an entire region and to love that region back. I have Southwestern Virginia to thank for many things in my life, but for that important life lesson I am perhaps most grateful.