EDITOR’S NOTE: Jan Pytalski is a relative newcomer to the Mid-Atlantic region. As he’s explored areas outside his Washington, D.C., home, he has been sharing some of his stories with Daily Yonder readers. The Daily Yonder generally examines communities through the eyes of the people who know it best — the people who live there. Jan is an exception to that general practice. We’ve been drawn to his perspective precisely because he is so new to the U.S., more importantly, his stories convey his sense of wonder and appreciation for what he’s found beyond urban northeast Virginia.
If you’d like to read more stories by Jan, you’re in luck. Jan is covering Washington, D.C., for 100 Days in Appalachia, a news project produced by the West Virginia University Reed College of Media through a publishing partnership that also includes the Daily Yonder and West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
When rolling into Morgantown, West Virginia, at night, you can’t see much. All the hollows and hills dotted with flickering lights stretch far and wide. The road meanders and it’s easy to lose any sense of direction. The sky seamlessly passes the line of the horizon, melding with the dark hills, while the panoramic windows of the bus create the impression of a hall of mirrors.
I was visiting for a work retreat at West Virginia University. Some years ago I decided to stop doing any major research on the places I go visit. If it’s a short trip, I try to abstain from any reading and get my facts on the ground. It’s a double-edged sword and can get you in some embarrassing trouble. On the other hand, it provokes surprises and creates that particular kind of urgency and discipline one musters up when needing to figure things out and quickly.
Morgantown is vast; vast by the standards of a college town in America. It sprawls in all directions and is currently going through a lot of development. Everyone I met talked about the new malls, all the businesses coming in, and all the new sports arenas that WVU is planning to build.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Morgantown has a permanent population of about 31,000. With adjacent population, it is large enough to qualify as the anchor city for a metropolitan statistical area. That makes Morgantown urban, using the metro/non-metro definition of rural, which is the simplest way to define rural. The Morgantown MSA, however is small. It ranks in the bottom quarter of MSAs in the U.S. by population and encompasses only two counties, Monongalia and Preston, making it one of the smallest in the nation in land area.)
But all the growth is on the edges. The downtown holds to its industrial-era architecture. WVU brings around 30,000 transient souls to exploit its bars, coffee shops, and clubs. The Monongahela River runs from South to North, dividing the city into two uneven parts. Monongahela means “crumbling banks.”
There is some space-like quality to the place. The landscape is not exactly “lunar,” but that’s what comes to mind when I look around – the first colony on the Moon. From my hotel, which is part of a new development of shopping malls and car dealerships built less than two years ago, I could see giant pylons of smoke billowing endlessly, day and night, into the atmosphere. “They are terraforming the alien atmosphere,” I thought.
I relied heavily on Uber and the hotel shuttle service. Whether students from far away, transplants from across the region, or locals, every driver seemed to enjoy the place.
Younger guys wanted to leave after graduation, older men were settled. One of the shuttle drivers took me on a complimentary tour around town. “This is all new, all apartments for students,” he would say every couple turns, pointing to giant apartment complexes. “And inside this big building right here, they built a giant Sheetz… but without a gas station! Just food! It’s really huge.”
After touring the oldest of several campuses in existence, he pointed to a line of concrete pillars. A vintage science fiction-looking rail system suddenly emerged from between the buildings. “You’ve been on the PRT? No? Oh, you have to try it, it’s something else. We’re the only town in America that has something like that.”
Boeing developed the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system that runs between the WVU campuses and downtown in the early 70s. It’s a fully automated, driverless system of eco-friendly light rail that zooms above the ground—guided by some obscure algorithm I can only imagine. It’s famous for breaking down and is adored by students and faculty alike (or so I am told).
It costs 50 cents for a ride if you’re a random Joe (and not a student or faculty), but the general rule seems to be that other students simply swipe their IDs for you at the gate.
PRT is what the colonists always use to travel between different campuses of their space colonies in old sci-fi books. The concrete pillars holding the rails crumble, and the small, blue and golden cars wobble, while cruising at 30 miles per hour alongside the Monongahela’s banks. If I doubted my lunar metaphor before, now I’m certain Morgantown is an experimental community, and a successful one at that—proving that a thriving colony can be established on the Moon.
At night, I’m awakened by blaring sirens. I dream of smokestacks being fired up at one of the power plants over the ridge in the distance, belching more smoke, providing more energy that propels us further at a cost we have yet to fully estimate. I think of an impending explosion, but the alarm soon dies down and the night turns quiet.
I’m in an Uber again. “I used to visit Washington, D.C. a bit myself,” the driver tells me upon learning I’m visiting from the Capital. I tell her I’m a journalist in Washington and ask what she used to do there. “I partied with the bike messengers. Around them I was the one looking like a square,” she laughs. Now she’s a journalist herself and writes about relationships. It’s her second night as an Uber driver.
Morgantown feels far away, but it’s not. It seems very appropriate to see its geography as another metaphor—this time for learning about West Virginia or, more broadly, Central Appalachia. Because as much as I was able to learn about Morgantown from the people I met, I haven’t got a slightest idea what’s beyond or behind another ridge. Unless you make it across that mountain, there will be no epiphany or free insight. It’s clear I’m the alien—unaccustomed to the ways of the colony and at the mercy of the good people willing to drive me around and tell me about their home.
In Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia, Steven Stoll warns us about the false narrative of Appalachia being cut off from the outside world—a cosmic colony that has been hard to reach ever since it was established. He argues something of the opposite: Whenever convenient, the nation has used that remoteness as a tool or an excuse. Well, it’s no longer an excuse—and parachuting into the region can no longer stand in for responsible and engaged journalism.