Letter 3

When I bike through most places on this trip, it will be my first time visiting. I usually react to a first visit with two emotions–first a sense of amazement at the beauty of the land and people, then a regret at not having visited earlier. In general, the latter does not prevail for very long, since it doesn’t make sense for me to have visited every possible location. But, it was different in West Virginia. When I rode through Canaan Valley, an incredible high-elevation valley with marshes, creeks that run black, and expansive mountain views, and up Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia and my trip’s highest point until Colorado, the regret was intense.

Before going on this trip, I thought I knew a lot about the mid-to-southern Appalachian Mountains. My family has taken many trips to the Laurel Highlands in Pennsylvania and mountains of western Maryland, the huge national forests surrounding Asheville (which Duke introduced to me through the PWILD pre-orientation program), and Shenandoah National Park. Yet, when I biked through Canaan Valley and up Spruce Knob, I felt sheer amazement, wondering how it was possible that I had been all over but never to such beautiful places, both so close to home. My sense of familiarity with the region had led me to prefer re-visiting old haunts in North Carolina or to assume a storied place like Shenandoah would have the best natural areas around. This tendency to overlook our “familiar” surroundings is one of the biases I have recognized in myself, but one that likely we all share.

When I arrived in Charleston, I had spent the past week on my own, in rural areas that were exotic to me, only sometimes crossing highways that reminded me of home. I had the pleasure of chatting with others in towns or at campgrounds or simply saluting them as I biked past. These interactions on their own could not dispel a latent longing to have many people around. I wasn’t aware of this need until I rolled out of Charleston’s South Hills, down the steep hillside and into a sweeping view of the State Capitol across the river. I felt it from the outset, and I would come to see it even more as I spent time there–that Charleston was exactly what I needed, both to synthesize what I had experienced over the prior week, and to find the community for which I so yearned.

As I left the hotel to explore (I won’t be camping during my city-stays, in order to allow me to reside closer to the people and local action), I was struck by a strange dichotomy: that a waiter could simultaneously paint Charleston as boring with nothing to do, yet also rattle off all of the places to visit and events and festivals to check out. As I visited more places, I gained some insight into how different people conceptualize the city and state as a whole. Some mentioned how the bigger cities in West Virginia formed cultural islands that weren’t well bridged by the people, who tend to stay in their own small part. Others spoke of how Charleston served as a focal point of the arts in the state (and I saw this firsthand in all of the festivals). But, a narrative I heard time and again was how there was something different about West Virginia, something quiet and free that some migrants to the area used as an escape from the big cities in Virginia and North Carolina. This sentiment has had a tangible weight that I could feel in the air and on the roads as I have biked through the state, something that could likely only be felt when you step out of a car and into a town or the country (or ride a bike through both).

Growing up, I didn’t think or know much of Charleston. I shared the quiet bias of Pittsburghers against West Virginia, likely arising from the Pitt-WVU rivalry I learned of, something not all that different from how Duke students can view UNC. But, as I spent more time there, I found parts of Durham, parts of home, and parts of myself in the people I met and conversations I shared. On Friday night, there was a kickoff to the weekly concert series, Live on the Levee, which brought citizens of what felt like all races, incomes, and parts of the city together to enjoy food, music, and fireworks, with the backdrop of the Kanawha River, upon the resources of which this town was founded. Watching all the children running and old friends arriving together to sit and enjoy the evening, instilled a sense of community within me that, despite being so far from my family and friends, made me feel welcome and at home, around all these people and places I’d never seen in my life. As I watched the fireworks launched from across the river, I couldn’t ignore the crazy feeling that, despite my transience in this city, for a brief moment on that night, I was a part of Charleston.

John Benhart, T’19, is the 2019-2020 Kenan Postgraduate Fellow. As an undergraduate, he was a 2018 Kenan Summer Research Fellow and a participant in the Institute’s Citizenship Lab.

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