CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- You could say the banjo brought her here. But that's only half right. In West Virginia, 25-year-old Texan Sara Cottingham found the best of the two worlds that move her.
A banjo player lured primarily by her passion for traditional Appalachian music, she's also a fierce environmental advocate with a background in preserving natural resources and revitalizing areas around them.
She's finishing her second year here as a VISTA volunteer assigned to the Coal River Group, a nonprofit organization working to restore, manage and promote the Coal River watershed.
Exuberant and athletic (a champion rower), well-traveled (four continents), well-educated (fluent in four languages), she felt an immediate affinity for West Virginia. She calls it "an inextricable calling."
Here, she finally learned to play the fiddle, the instrument she was drawn to in childhood. (No wonder those Suzuki violin lessons didn't last.)
The community and the Coal River volunteers opened their arms to her. She plans on sticking around.
"I was born in Hawaii. My dad was a pilot for Continental Airlines. He and my mom are native Texans back five or six generations. By the time my sister started school, they were ready to move back. They settled northeast of Houston. I was about 3.
"I have a really close extended family, most from the Austin area. I spent every holiday with uncles, aunts, cousins, my grandmother. I consider Austin my hometown.
"They're a pretty eccentric bunch, curious about all kinds of different things, arts, music, sports. My mom worked for the Houston Chronicle and then for the Harris County Democratic Party.
"I wrote my first book when I was 7. I'd been learning about Texas history, so my story was about Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin, the fathers of Texas.
"I started taking German in the seventh grade. Everyone else took Spanish, and I wanted to be different. I love languages. In high school, my German teacher was one of those teachers who change your life. I spent three years having conversations with him in German.
"My family took me to a frontier Christmas thing when I was about 5, and there was this little girl playing the fiddle. I wanted to do that. My mom started me out on the Suzuki violin. I thought, 'Oh, this is lame.' After two years, that fizzled out.
"I played concert clarinet through middle school and high school. I liked it, but the music didn't speak to me. Since I moved here, I've started playing fiddle. I went 20 years cold turkey without playing. There are so many good fiddle players here. I've been playing fiddle over a year now. I took to it immediately.
"I was always passionate about the environment. I decided to go to the University of Texas for the in-state tuition. I'd already taken my first two years of college in high school, honors classes that were entry-level college classes, so I came to college as a junior.
"I wanted to study abroad every year and take languages and my environmental classes. But then I started rowing. I was in Alaska on a glacier mountaineering course sitting on top of the mountain I had climbed. My instructor said the most meaningful experience of his life was rowing in college. We're on a glacier in the middle of nowhere, and he says rowing is where it's at?
"So I walked on the team. It became my whole world for the next three years. I was training for the national team. We won the first-ever Big 12 Championship for women's rowing. By the end of the first year, I was on full scholarship and flew across country to compete. I competed in Canada and Germany, too.
"One day, the counselor called me in and said, 'Sara, you have to graduate.' I said, 'No, don't make me graduate.' I wanted to stay on the team. She asked if I'd considered graduate school. So I applied and was able to stay. I had my bachelor's and master's on a rowing scholarship by the time I was 21.
"I studied in Germany, then did an internship in Idaho with the U.S. Forest Service. Idaho was transformational. It shaped the way I viewed natural resources issues. Dealing with loggers, miners, ranchers and the Forest Service took everything I'd learned off the pages of a book and put them into real life.
"I was in a little town of 500 people in the middle of nowhere. I was working for a hydrologist doing watershed restoration where they had mined gold.
"It was engaging to me to be working with these crusty gold miners. I realized I was drawn to rural mountain communities, the ones most people don't care about.