When we first moved here seven years ago, living in West Virginia wasn't all that different from living in Atlanta.
We lived in a rented home in a typical suburban neighborhood. It was the kind of lifestyle we were used to: There were two Krogers within five minutes of our house – the brand new "Gucci Kroger," which was bigger than any grocery story I had ever walked into and the older, smaller one we called "Murder Kroger" after an Atlanta landmark. (Google it.)
Elizabeth and I showing our solidarity for an Atlanta landmark that was finally torn down in 2016. The new one built in its place is still called 'Murder Kroger' by the locals. (Photo: Benyamin Cohen)
It wasn't until I started meeting the people in this unique corner of Appalachia that I knew I wasn't in Georgia anymore. There was a culture shock, and things were about to get a lot more entertaining.
We hired a guy to mow the lawn at our rental house. Most people mow their own lawns here. So when you hire someone, you get a character. That's how we met Joe. And with Joe came the coyote urine.
The first time I encountered him, I saw this 50-something-year-old guy in our backyard, shirtless and with a bandana on his head. His boombox was blasting Kenny Loggins' 1980s "Top Gun" anthem "Danger Zone."
Joe would show up often, finding more work that I didn't know needed to be done — whether it was re-tilling our soil or power-washing our deck. One time I found Joe on the roof, spits of tobacco raining down on the driveway.
And then one day I noticed a foul smell around the property. Joe was spraying coyote urine from an industrial sized growler hooked to a backpack and hose. Where do you even find coyote urine? Do you just hang out downstream of coyote homes? (I later learned that, like most things, it's easily obtained on Amazon.) The stench is supposed to repel the deer that were eating all the plants at our rental house.
Like the deer, Joe came with the property. Our landlord, Seth, would often bring Joe over for any project they fancied. Like when they hatched a plan to get rid of the groundhog that was burrowing holes under the shed. It was the West Virginian version of "Caddyshack."
Joe and Seth were just the beginning. Our first months in the Mountain State introduced us to an ensemble cast of characters. Sure, there were the expected motorcycles and mullets. But there were others I wasn't anticipating. Like the cross-dressing owner of a Halloween costume shop who was also the town's resident wood furniture expert. He repaired my grandmother's antique coffee table to perfection when it got chipped during the move.
There was the professor who lived down the street who was training moths to sniff out bombs for the United States Department of Defense. (Side note: He's allergic to moths.) After we unpacked, we gave away all of our boxes on Craigslist and they were picked up by a pair of rocket scientists from NASA.
This was not the West Virginia I had envisioned.
But we were in a college town, in our own Appalachian bubble. Physicists and Ph.D.s shop at the same TJ Maxx as those who grew up in a mountain holler. Students roam stores in their baggy pajamas. I rarely see anyone — even doctors and lawyers — in a suit and tie. I bumped into my neighbor at Sam's Club and he was wearing overalls. And we talked about our chicken flocks. The laid-back, small town vibe is refreshing.
My eye doctor, like most everyone else in town, lived in our neighborhood. Each morning I'd see her jogging past our house and, when I had a medical question, I'd simply wait by the window for her to pass and then I'd bolt out the door running after her. When I caught up, I lifted off my glasses and asked, "Hey, do you think this is pink eye?"
The local synagogue invited me to join their men's club, a group of mostly AARP members who gabbed over lunch once a month. It was often at Ali Baba's, a Mediterranean restaurant that's located inside our tiny one-gate airport, which features small propeller flights to D.C. and back. It's the only airport I know of where you can park five feet from the building. I have a closer spot there than I do when I go shopping at Walmart.
Sure, I've met a lot of quirky characters since we moved here, but it's also provided some beautiful and unexpected moments. Take the time I was at the mailbox at our new house in the country and bumped into our neighbor Bunnie, distraught in tears. She told me she had lost her horse, Mia. "Well, let me help you find her," I replied. Turns out when she said "lost," she meant Mia had passed away.
At that moment, her husband was using his tractor to bury the horse, and Bunnie was too raw and sad to go watch the burial. So we invited her into our home, offered her dinner, and we spent the next four hours looking at all the beautiful pictures Bunnie had of Mia on her phone. "That horse could read my soul," Bunnie told us of her faithful Oldenburg mare. She said that her husband, Brooks, used to sing to Mia and show her cowboy videos of Roy Rogers singing "Happy Trails to You."
If you had told me a decade ago, when I was living in the bustling metropolis of Atlanta, that I would be sitting shiva with a woman over a horse while her husband was burying the equine with a tractor — and that we would be neighbors — well, let's just say I didn't see that coming.
And that's what makes living here in West Virginia special — the people, the community, the unexpected moments ... and the occasional scent of coyote urine.
"Atlanta to Appalachia" is part of an occasional series about life in the wilds of West Virginia through the eyes of a man who never dreamed he'd love it there. Read previous installments here.