CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Picture the map of West Virginia as your hand, with your thumb stuck out like a hitchhiker and the middle finger pointing rudely toward Ohio and Pennsylvania. Then imagine the interstate system as arteries in that hand, connecting the local highways. Country roads may be what comes to mind when people think of West Virginia, but I first learned my adopted state through the Eisenhower Interstate System.
I moved to West Virginia knowing nobody. I brought with me no one except two yowling cats that were convinced I planned to kill them en route. They had a point. It was January, foggy and sleeting, making the Sideling Hill Cut terrifying. I could barely see 10 feet in front of me, oblivious to the area's natural beauty as I white-knuckled the car down the steep grade and slid into Morgantown.
It's not that I couldn't drive in difficult conditions. I learned how in Atlanta, then lived in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, all known for terrible traffic. But none of these cities has much snow, nor 7 percent grades. The West Virginia mountains were new territory for me, and the learning curve was steep. But to their surprise, the cats survived our move to Charleston.
When spring arrived I began exploring, first by interstates and four-lanes, then branching out to two-lane and even lane-and-a-half roads. Always an adventurer, I loved adding places to my mental map. Some were so out of the way a friend once said, "You went where? You should have told me. I'd have stopped you!"
She didn't understand my compulsive need to learn my new home. A native, she took for granted the beautiful mountains, the wonderful music and craft festivals, and the salt-of-the-earth people I met along the way. I loved it all: the secluded hollers and rolling ridges, the white-water streams and deep-water rivers. I continued to explore, getting farther and farther off the beaten track. But the interstates were my lifeline. If I got lost, and often did, I knew I could get home if only I could find the interstate.
Then I fell for a man who loved exploring as much as I did. He was thrilled to show me places I'd yet to see. But my boyfriend lived a 100 miles away and so began a year of commuting down the West Virginia Turnpike. By then I had lived in the state long enough to be used to its twisty, hairpin curves. But to visit my beau I had to get off of the turnpike and take I-64 to Greenbrier County.
This route features a 7 percent grade going up and down Sandstone Mountain, accompanied by the peculiar smell of trucks wearing out their brakes. Back then, I had a little 4-cylinder Nissan Sentra and getting up Sandstone in the summer proved challenging. I'd turn off the air conditioner, roll down the window, and pedal as hard as I could. About halfway up I'd be in low gear with my blinkers on and sharing the slow lane with the semis.
My beloved says I drive like a city slicker, which I suppose is true. He learned to do some city driving himself when we married and he moved to Charleston. Then I learned a new route: I-77, going northwest toward the Ohio River. Traveling to visit family in Parkersburg, we drive to birthday parties, basketball games and hospital visits. I could make the drive in my sleep and probably have once or twice.
I've lived in West Virginia for almost 20 years. If I were to move away, I'd grieve for the mountains I now call home. I take for granted driving up and down the curvy roads and steep grades, even in snow.
I forget how frightened I was when I first moved here -- until my sister-in-law arrives from North Carolina, Dramamine in purse, and kisses the ground when she successfully makes it to our ridge-top home. I've forgotten because I've gone native. I'm a mountaineer now. All West Virginia roads -- interstate and two-lane alike -- lead to home.
Kathryn Willoughby Weed of Charleston may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.