Wondering what "Atlanta to Appalachia" is all about? It's part of an occasional series about life in the wilds of West Virginia through the eyes of a couple who never dreamed they'd love it there. Read previous installments here.
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To get to my neighbor's house on the banks of the Monongahela River, you drive down a long dirt road to the middle of nowhere. It's tough to find the "middle of nowhere" in a state as sparse as West Virginia, but we managed to do it. Go past the 200-acre dairy farm and through a forest, all on winding, gravelly and hilly terrain.
When we first moved to Morgantown seven years ago, we lived in a typical suburban neighborhood. In 2017, we picked up and moved onto a more rural property in the woods. We now live on a dirt road that's two miles long, and there are only six homes on the entire street. And yet, we are more friendly with are neighbors here than we ever were back in suburbia where I could see 10 other houses just standing in my driveway. I guess when you live this far out, you stick together.
After the Revolutionary War ended in the late 1700s, the U.S. government couldn't afford to pay Capt. John Hoard for his service to the country. So instead — much to the chagrin of the local Indians — the feds gave him hundreds of acres of riverfront property here in West Virginia. It's now known as Hoard Road, and it's where we call home. A great-great-great-grandson still lives here and joined us at the party wearing a straw hat and an American flag T-shirt. The Hoard family members are buried on our street in a makeshift cemetery that features headstones more than 150 years old. Rumor has it that the ghost of Capt. Hoard still roams the premises.
A gathering of far-flung neighbors
We drove down to our neighbor's house at the bottom of the street because we'd been invited to their July Fourth party. There were a few dozen of us there — not to mention the menagerie of animals including dogs, cats and Larry the shy llama. A mom and daughter also galloped in on horseback.
Hoping to fit in, we told our neighbors about our new chickens (aka "The Co-Hens"), and said they should expect lots of free eggs from us soon. They laughed. Turns out, most of the people who live on our street already own chickens. I guess we'll have to think of something else to share!
Prior to this party, my only experience with homegrown Appalachian celebrations had been the short-lived MTV series "Buckwild," which followed a group of West Virginian young adults as they drank and partied in the state's backwoods. But real life is so much more nuanced than a reality show could ever portray.
The party was BYOB so we brought some from the SweetWater Brewing Company, a local mainstay from life back in Atlanta. For the table, we brought some cobbler, made from fresh blueberries that we'd picked earlier in the week. The all-day festivities officially started at 2 p.m. and were expected to go well into the night. (This party would last longer than two presidential debates, I thought.) Some of our neighbors had come for lunch, gone home to rest up, and returned for dinner. Those who stayed took the jet skis out for a ride on the river. The invitation came with a warning from the hosts, Brooks and Bunnie: "If you stay late enough, you may even get to see the sheriff shut down the party."
The party's pièce de résistance would be the fireworks, and we're not just talking about a few Roman candles and sparklers. Brooks had enough fireworks to light up a small town.
We hopped into the ATV where the fireworks were stored. A Red Ryder BB Gun, the same kind Ralphie pined after in "A Christmas Story," rested against the dashboard. Brooks drove us around his property and down to the banks of the river. A large Sternwheeler riverboat rested on shore. The family had used the houseboat for weeks-long trips up the river to Pittsburgh.
A barge big enough to carry a car or two still floated in the water. That's where Brooks and some pals set up the fireworks station, as the rest of us set up chairs.
Sunset finally arrived and the fireworks began. Loud speakers blasted patriotic song after patriotic song. Sitting here amidst nature — as opposed to a mall parking lot — just felt right.
There's something to be said for celebrating America with neighbors. We may have all originated from various places across the country but something — perhaps fate, perhaps luck — had brought us all to this shoreline together.