2018 has been quite a year. It started off quietly but picked up speed with the beginning of the teachers strike, and it hasn’t really let up since. This year I had my byline in almost every major publication across the country for the first time, traveled to South America, made some important personal life steps, met so many amazing people, and had experiences that have profoundly impacted me. Looking forward to what 2019 has in store.
It’s now been a year and two months since I moved to West Virginia.
When I accepted the job at the Gazette-Mail, I was almost a month into living in my best friend’s loft in DC after moving back from South Dakota; where I worked at the Rapid City Journal for four months before being suddenly laid off. Other than Harpers Ferry, I’d spent no time in West Virginia. “why are you here!?” was a common question. Admittedly, the first time I visited Charleston, I wasn’t impressed. From the height of its population of eighty thousand in the 60’s, the city count barely scratched fifty thousand now, and that number showed itself in the numerous closed storefronts and vacant lots that lined the streets. With the exception of Capitol street, every other one seemed like a random mishmash of drab office buildings and parking garages. I liked my apartment well enough, but I knew it’d take some time for me to warm up to this place.
On the road to Dryfork. Route 32. West Virginia.
Truck lights frame a house in this long exposure taken in the town of Daily along the Seneca Trail.
The John Amos power plant is seen in a long-exposure from across the Kanawha River in Poca, W.Va., on Sunday, November 26, 2017.
WVA Manufacturing. Alloy, W.V.
Night over Gauley Bridge, W.V.
In a city where the median age is 39, making friends in my age bracket hasn’t been easy. Thankfully, that has changed as of recently, and I’m the happiest I’ve been since I moved here. The scene continues to get brighter as new restaurants, cafes, bars and other businesses pop up around town. I’ve made some great friends, and only grown more comfortable here as time has gone on. Meanwhile, West Virginia itself is undeniably beautiful. I’ve swam in more creeks and rivers and done more hiking here then any other place I’ve lived. Nature surrounds you everywhere, and there are few places in the entire country more beautiful than West Virginia in the fall; when the entire state turns into a sea of gold and crimson.
Lights from a house are illuminated in fog that blankets the road ahead under a starry sky in rural West Virginia
Hawks Nest Overlook.
All too often states like West Virginia are depicted in extremely simplistic stereotypes; coal, trump country, moonshine etc. A lot of people would probably be surprised to learn that the coal industry makes up less than 3% of the state workforce, whereas other sectors of the state economy such as healthcare and tourism combined make up over 26%. While it’s true that all 55 counties of West Virginia voted for Trump in the 2016 election, it’s also true that all 55 counties voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. More than that, Democrats dominated state politics for generations. It’s only been over the past 20 years or so that West Virginia’s legislature has flipped to a republican majority. Moonshining was popular in West Virginia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but moonshine has since been legalized and sold as a commercial product. Marijuana growing has long replaced moonshine as the illicit product of choice in West Virginia, with cash flows far more lucrative to its cultivators than moonshining ever brought to its distillers.
Star trails swirl around Polaris, the North Star, in this hour-long exposure at Calhoun County Park outside of Grantsville, West Virginia;
Summersville Dam & Gauley River.
Despite a steady stream of stories that come out of here that focus on the things you’d expect to be covered here, the truth is West Virginia is not the backwards, poverty stricken hell hole it’s often made out to be. West Virginia is a complicated state, with a history that is complex and deeply misunderstood. This isn’t to say this state doesn’t have major problems; Near-colonial exploitation of the state’s natural resources for generations by out of state entities that cared little for what collateral damage they inflicted on the land and people, A drug epidemic fueled in part by pharmaceutical companies that flooded West Virginia with prescription drugs, a steady exodus of young people, lack of opportunities, poor education and infrastructure from lack of proper funding. longstanding political corruption that makes a lot of other state governments look saintly in comparison. The list could surely go on.
in Charleston, W.Va., on Thursday, October 22, 2017.
at Dolly Sods on Sunday, September 24, 2017.
in Charleston, W.Va., on Thursday, October 22, 2017.
But I’ve also met a lot of amazing people here; people who love this state and do their best every day to make it better. For each person that may pine for the “good old days”, there’s another person eager to look to a future beyond the resource dependent, boom-bust cycle economy that the state has largely relied on for much its 155 years of existence. I’ve also seen some pretty amazing things. Thousands of teachers across all counties in the state converged for weeks at the capitol demanding higher wages and a stable state health insurance program; a victory that has turned into a movement across the country. 4th and 5th grade students giving presentations to their classmates about everything from ways of solving the opioid crisis to alternative energies, 3d printers and more. People who’ve started farmers markets and greenhouses to alleviate the food deserts that plague the state. People who left the state and came back to open businesses and help their communities grow. I’ve learned a lot living here, and I’m glad I made the decision to do so. I thought i’d end this post with a small gallery of photos in no particular order dedicated to the people who make up West Virginia and give it the spirit it has.
Prestera counselor Sue Howland hugs longtime friend Dawn Streets after having recognized her in Huntington, W.V., on Thursday, April 19, 2018.
Larrecsa Cox of Cabell County EMS lookes over clients that the QRT will visit that day as she sits inside the QRT office of the Cabell County Emergency Service building in Huntington, W.V., on Thursday, April 19, 2018.
Connie Priddy, coordinator of the Quick Response Team stands in the doorway of the QRT office of the Cabell County Emergency Service building in Huntington, W.V., on Thursday, April 19, 2018.
Camp Director Dave Hurd speaks with a colleague before the evening sermon at Shenandoah Family camp in Culloden, W.V. on Thursday, August 02, 2018.
Curator Roger May is seen in the apartment earth art gallery in Charleston, W.V. on Wednesday, August 08, 2018.
From left, Brenden Hosten, Dylan Buckley, Jackson Stanley, Lauren Ballard, Zane Justice and Zamiyah Brooks present their project-based-learning (PBL) showcase on Hydroelectricity inside Mrs. Nesius’s 5th grade classroom at Kenna Elementary School in Charleston, W.V., on Tuesday, May 29, 2018
Dr. Gabriel Al-Hajj poses for a portrait in his office in South Charleston, W.V., on Tuesday, April 24, 2018.
Brianna, Ruth Kelly, Isaac and Kachina have a moment together before sampling the day’s specials at the Fruits Of Labor Cafe in Rainelle, W.V., on Friday, April 13, 2018.
Executive Chef Roy Lynch speaks with a reporter at the Fruits Of Labor Cafe in Rainelle, W.V., on Friday, April 13, 2018.
Sophie Fatu, professional cute kid, poses for a portrait in Charleston, W.V., on Friday, March 09, 2018.
Paul, right, laughs as Gary pretends to tie him to his cart outside of the Charleston Men’s Emergency Shelter in Charleston, W.Va., on Wednesday night, December 13, 2017.
Hurricane High School Redskins celebrate their victory over Wheeling Park High School in the Class AAA state baseball championship at Power Park in Charleston, W.V., on Saturday, June 02, 2018
Mike Pushkin (D – Kanawha, 37) poses for a portrait with his taxicab outside of the State Capitol building in Charleston, W.V., on Tuesday, April 24, 2018.
Dr. Rahul Gupta, state health officer and commissioner for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Bureau, poses for a portrait in his office in downtown Charleston, W.V., on Monday, April 16, 2018.
John Berta of Oceana in Wyoming County, W.Va, shows off his mining helmet before President Trump takes the stage at a rally in support of the Senate candidacy of Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, Monday, Aug. 21, 2018, at the Charleston Civic Center in Charleston, W.Va. Berta worked as a coal miner for 36 years.
Kylie Robinson, forefront, covers her ears as police cars wail their sirens during the third, “Operation Citation” at the Dunbar United Methodist Church in Dunbar, W.Va., on Tuesday, November 28, 2017. Created by the Charleston Police Department Traffic Division, ‚”Operation Citation” honored four Girl Scouts this evening.
West Virginia Governor Jim Justice criticizes an article by the Charleston Gazette-Mail while holding a copy of the newspaper during a rally by President Trump in support of the Senate candidacy of Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, Monday, Aug. 21, 2018, at the Charleston Civic Center in Charleston, W.Va.
West Virginia State Senator Richard N. Ojeda II (D – Logan, 07) poses for a portrait in Logan, W.V., on Thursday, February 22, 2018. Ojeda is seeking the democratic nomination to run for the 3rd congressional district.
Fiddler apprentice Jen Iskow and fiddler master John Morris play a song together inside John’s home in Ivydale, W.V., on Monday, July 30, 2018.
Herbalist apprentice Kara Vaneck follows herbalist master Maron Harless around Maron’s garden outside of Elkins, W.V., on Monday, July 30, 2018.
Dyer Stanard, who participated in the invasion of Normandy and other strategic campaigns of World War II, poses alongside his medals, pictures, patches and other memorabilia inside his garage in Hurricane, W.V., on Wednesday, July 11, 2018.
West Virginia Sons of the American Revolution Association members Zach Mason, left, and Bob Grumbling, respectively dressed as a soldier of the 7th Virginia Militia and as a soldier of the Westmoreland County Pennsylvania Militia, pose for a portrait on West Virginia day outside of the Culture Center in Charleston, W.V., on Wednesday, June 20, 2018.
From left, Joel Mckinney, his mother Linda Mckinney and his wife Melissa Clark speak with a reporter inside Five Loaves & Two Fishes Food Bank in Kimball, W.V., on Tuesday, March 27, 2018.
Chelsea Carter, a former addict who is now a program director and addiction counselor at Appalachian Health Services, is seen in her office in Logan, W.Va., on Friday, January 26, 2018.
Owner, baker and stylist Linda Javins laughs while on the phone inside Guy’s Cut-N-Shave along Midway Road in Yawkey, W.V., on Friday, March 23, 2018.
Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader embraces Andrea Harrison, a recovering addict during a panel discussion at the University of Charleston in Charleston , W.V., on Thursday, February 15, 2018 after a screening of Sheldon’s Oscar-nominated documentary “Heroin (e)” which focuses on three women dealing with the drug crisis in Huntington. Harrison who thanked the Huntington fire department for providing Naloxone.
Rafael Barker poses for a portrait outside of Underground Cinema in Charleston, W.Va., on Friday, December 08, 2017.
A man walks down Capitol street amidst a squall in Charleston, W.Va., on Tuesday, December 12, 2017.
Bud Sears rocks a baby inside the NICU of Thomas Memorial Hospital in South Charleston, W.V., on November 06, 2017.
Johnny “Tarzan” Copley of Salt Lake City base jumps while dressed as a unicorn during the 40th annual Bridge Day on the New River Gorge bridge in Fayetteville, W.V., on Saturday, October 21, 2017.
Employee Scott Mckenzie is seen inside Appalachian Cannabis Company in Cross Lanes, W.V., on Thursday, August 31, 2017.
Malyka Knapp-Smith gives a hi-five to Asmael Saifo of Syria during her English as a Second Language class at the Garnet Career Center in Charleston on Monday, August 28, 2017.
Hurricane fans crowd the stands during the Hurricane Redskins-Winfield Generals football game at Hurricane High School on Friday, August 25, 2017.
CRAIG HUDSON | Gazette-Mail Cheryl Laws speaks about her plans for Cafe Appalachia inside the former St. John United Methodist Church as her daughter Sydney Atkins looks on in South Charleston, W.V., on Friday, August 18, 2017.
CRAIG HUDSON | Gazette-Mail Belinda Harnass, Housing Authority director for Mingo County, looks into a room at the Sycamore Inn in Williamson, W.V., on Wednesday, August 09, 2017.
CRAIG HUDSON | Gazette-Mail Carol Bellamy, right, and Cickie Cox make chili dogs before the nigh’t festivities in Iaeger, W.V., on Tuesday, August 01, 2017.
CRAIG HUDSON | Gazette-Mail Nada White and Joseph Miller sort through orders at a farmer’s market outside of the Cabin Creek Health Center in Dawes , W.V., on Thursday, July 27, 2017.
Captain Mark Strickland drives on patrol in Charleston on July 26, 2017.
CRAIG HUDSON | Gazette-Mail Eli Hamilton, 7, jumps into the Elk River as his grandfather don watches on Thursday, July 20, 2017.
CRAIG HUDSON | Gazette-Mail Anjeanette Spencer of Columbus OH hoists up her fish as her aunt Catherine Saunders continues to cast her line at Kanawha Falls outside of Glen Ferris, W.V., on Wednesday, July 19, 2017.
CRAIG HUDSON | Gazette-Mail Lois Vance and Mary Aldred-Crouch share a laugh at the Kanawha City Health Center, a branch of Cabin Creek Health Systems in Charleston, W.V., on Tuesday, July 11, 2017.
CRAIG HUDSON | Gazette-Mail Ruth Andrien, a former dancer with Paul Taylor Dance Company, instructs Sheena Madden Jackson during a master class at the Charleston Ballet studio in Charleston, W.Va., on Thursday, June 22, 2017.
Visitors line the street and yard of the famous Kenova Pumpkin House in Kenova, W.V., on Halloween night, October 31, 2017.
Mary Kathren Robinson, longtime Administrator for the Hubbard Hospice House in Charleston, W.V., pauses in front of the memory tree, which is filled with the names of those who have passed on in the care of the hospice house.
I hope the reader understands, even just a little, that there’s a lot more to West Virginia then what you’ve read or heard. Thanks for reading!
Hey everyone. Long time no talk. Sorry I’ve been away for awhile. I’ve been meaning to start writing again. A lot has happened in the past couple months. At the beginning of February it was announced that our paper was declaring bankruptcy in order to be sold; and that wasn’t even the worst part. Our buyer was to be a company that was well known for having a penchant to slash newsroom staffs; often by dramatic numbers. None of us had much hope for keeping our jobs, the only upshot to the whole situation was that the process was to take relatively two months to complete; with the final auction being held sometime in later March. Meanwhile we still had a job to do.
I spent the first half of the month mostly shooting high school basketball; the notable exceptions being groups of teachers were staging throughout the state along highways and busy street corners. I knew almost nothing about the various issues facing teachers in West Virginia; that wouldn’t last for long.
West Virginia has long suffered from a debilitating brain drain, as workers can often make substantially more money doing the very same job in a neighboring state than they can in West Virginia. Teachers are no exception. When it comes to teacher pay, West Virginia ranks 48th in the nation; second only to Mississippi and Oklahoma, where teachers are now staging their own statewide walkout. As one teacher from a group who came from the Eastern Panhandle told me, “I can drive 20 minutes North and make $20,000 dollars more per year than I do right now, or I can drive 40 minutes South and make $27,000 dollars more”. While it’s true that the average teacher’s salary is higher than the average income of most West Virginians, it’s often still not enough to raise their families and pay off student loan debt accumulated to get the necessary credentials to teach, forcing teachers to take a second job to make ends meet. So for many of the teachers that I talked to, the money was less an end in itself than a means to continue doing what they really wanted; to do their part for their communities in educating the next generation of West Virginians.
Teachers and school personnel were also striking for a longer term solution to their insurance plans under the control of PEIA’s (Public Employee Insurance Agency) Finance Board. As reported by the Gazette-Mail’s statehouse reporter Phil Kabler a few weeks ago, “In December, the PEIA Finance Board approved changes in the 2018-19 plan that would have cut benefits and raised premiums by a total of $29 million — primarily through significant premium increases for family and for employee and spouse coverage for most insurees.” While the Governor froze premiums for the coming year, the measure was deemed inefficient as it offered only a temporary solution to the issues of funding that have plagued the agency for years. Because PEIA affected all other public employees who were not permitted to walkout, the striking teachers and school personnel insisted that they weren’t just striking for themselves but for all public employees in their efforts to stabilize the agency. As it stands, a special task force ordered by the Governor in the midst of the strike has been assembled to address the issues.
One of the things that admittedly took me by surprise was just how many of the people I spoke with were not merely supporters of the strike but actual teachers or other important school personnel; cooks, bus drivers, librarians, etc. I’ve been to a lot of rallies and protests, but I don’t think i’ve ever been to a demonstration that was almost exclusively made up of the very people the topic of protest was about; and in such huge numbers. On top of that, none of the people I spoke with hesitated when I asked for more than just heir name. In fact they were proud to mention their position, their school and their county; even continuing to do so after they had temporarily lost their legal protection when their Union leaders called the strike off. Hell, hundreds of them wore red shirts with the names of their respective counties like they were team jerseys.
Another thing I loved was that despite the seriousness of the issues, there was no shortage of creative signs, costumes and lighthearted moments along the sidelines and halls of the Capitol. For me, those quiet moments that happen while everyone else’s attention is elsewhere can often say just as much if not even more than the loudest ones.
I shot the strike for as many days and as much time as I could. Because of our paper’s connection to the AP my images started appearing all over the place; major newspapers, some networks and even an appearance on Late Night with Seth Myers, haha. It was a strange combination of emotions; feeling the most successful and fulfilled that I’d felt in years, all the while not knowing if I would have a job at the end of the month. The truth is I had convinced myself I was going to lose it, so I went about my work assuming it would be the last big assignment I’d be doing for the Gazette-Mail. Thankfully that didn’t turn out to be the case, but it motivated me at the time to get as much work as I could out there. I finished out the rest of the month shooting as best as I could for the assignments I had. Last Monday was the day we were supposed to find out if we were staying or leaving, with sealed letters placed on each of our desks to let us know if we’d get a rose or not. I had my editor open mine up, and thankfully most of us in the newsroom stayed on board. We did take some bad losses though, especially the loss of our executive editor Rob Byers, who’d dedicated himself since joining the paper straight out of college to keeping it as successful and important as it has been for West Virginia. Things are still calming down here, but I’m happy to say that at least for now, I can look past the date of March 31 and start moving forward on some stories I want to do and really dive into this state now that Spring is upon us!