CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Coalfield Expressway, or U.S. 121, an unfinished highway in Southern West Virginia, is a monument to its people -- a 62-mile monument of Southern West Virginia neglect. Little over five miles of the monument are paved, and at the pace of funding it will take every bit of a lifetime to finish.
Southern West Virginian counties continue to spend thousands of dollars each day to patch the coal-truck wear-and-tear on its secondary highways. Residents wind up and down gas-guzzling mountains, twisting around tedious curves, inching behind 200,000-pound coal trucks going a sluggish 20 miles an hour (however delaying, still a beautiful testimony to Southern West Virginia's hardworking coal miners.) A smooth 30-minute trip on a newly paved Coalfield Expressway takes almost an hour otherwise.
Ambulance rides to Beckley hospitals are like riding on the front car of the Vortex at King's Island -- and without exaggeration, some passengers never make it because of travel time. The small towns nestled throughout the southern mountains are home to the friendliest people, where like Cheers, "everyone knows your name," but when faced with the depleted infrastructure around them to stay connected and current, they feel forced to leave the communities and people they love.
But, maybe this is our plight. Maybe Southern West Virginia's country roads are the red carpets for aspiring documentary makers who prey on hillbilly stereotypes and portray our communities as "God-forsaken" (Oxyana producer Sean Dunne's word depiction of Oceana. The beautiful Twin Falls State Resort, the yearly 30,000 trail riders on the Hatfield and McCoy Trails, and the amazing hospitality of the region are just footnotes glossed over by a pop culture that still longs for feuding Hatfields, tap-dancing Jesco Whites, backwoods moonshine, and the failing infrastructure that keeps these regional stereotypical images alive.
Maybe the depressive stigmas of Southern West Virginia are so deep and ingrained in the popular psyche that imagining a Southern West Virginia with a developed infrastructure seems laughable, and forward-thinking initiatives like exploring road bonds to fund the Expressway instead of relying on limited state highway funds and federal pocket change are beyond creative grasp. Isolated by geography and lack of sufficient roads, the chances of diversifying Southern West Virginia's economy are held back by lawmaker's lack of commitment to build the infrastructure.
Roads are the veins and arteries of West Virginia commerce. Where there is blood, life flourishes. Where there is a lack of blood flow, life ceases. Southern West Virginians are suffering from poor circulation. Left with a baby aspirin regiment of filling potholes, what they really need, is a complete bypass surgery creating a new source of blood flow for a region starving for new life and opportunity.
Mitchell is pastor of the Pineville Church of the Nazarene, pinenaz.org.