Williamson has a few two or three story buildings. But it is not much of a city anymore. Not like it used to be. Three-thousand people live along a collection of streets that snake along the flattest ground. Between the roads and the river is one of America's largest rail yards. More than a dozen railroad tracks sit side-by-side, ready to take all of the coal that comes down out of the hills north to Huntington and the barges. Everything in town is a bit monotonous and inconspicuous, except for the thing you see when you turn left on to East 2nd Street. There, among the vacant storefronts, is the Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce, which sits inside The Coal House, a black cube created from 65 tons of coal mined from a single mammoth seam in Mingo County.
I know all of this now. I didn't know any of it when we drove through a gap in the flood wall and left.
From Logan, we drove south along Route 10, through Stollings, Lyburn and Man, which consisted of a few intersections and lonely groves of buildings. The two-lane road ran next to a railroad track, which ran next to the north-flowing Guyandotte River. The occasional grocery store whizzed by. Back in Logan, I made the impromptu decision to find the extravagant grave site of Devil Anse Hatfield, the patriarch of the family from Logan that had once so famously and bloodily feuded with the McCoys, supposedly over a pig.
We never found it. The four of us drove onward, and the novelty of our voyage started to wane. Somebody looked at the road atlas and groaned. We were at least an hour and a half away from home, with nothing but windy country roads and rolling green mountains in every direction.
At Gilbert, we decided to head home on U.S. 52. It was the shortest way back. One of my co-workers started to feel sick as the minivan rounded another corner and rolled though Varney in the blink of an eye. At Delbarton, she begged for me to slow down, her stomach churned from the g-force created when I rounded a bend at 55 miles per hour. Our minivan was now a full 85 miles south of Huntington. That realization made her even sicker.
The sun dipped lower in the sky, and the shadows started to grow, creeping out from mountainsides into the hollows. The four of us sped around a hillside on U.S. 52, past a dozen side-by-side railroad cars heaping with coal and into downtown Williamson. We really didn't want to see it. Between us and home was two hours of the Tolsia Highway, a four lane road where coal trucks passed you just a little too close and a little too fast. The road went winding north along the Tug Fork, through towns with interesting names like Crum, Kermit and Fort Gay. We had all been curious about them when we saw them on the map when the trip started, but since then we had driven through other curiously-named places named Ranger and Harts and Big Ugly and found nothing there.
As we pulled up in front of The Coal House, I figured out where I had gone so wrong. I had come to see things, and not to understand them. I hadn't bothered to try. We had talked to three people the entire day. Tops. I hadn't taken the time to ask or read about the places I would be visiting. There was so much that I missed. There were shootouts between unionizing miners and coal company mercenaries. There were stories of vote buying in Logan to help John F. Kennedy win West Virginia and the presidency in 1960. The Hatfields and McCoys? It was about more than just a pig. It was all there, and I didn't see any of it because I was too busy concentrating on the road.