I was typing in the main office when a salesman stopped by to give our secretary his card. With an associate, he had recently opened a computer sales and service company in nearby Pendleton County, by area the least-populous county in West Virginia.
Here is another city refugee, I thought. But it surprised me that a computer business would be starting up so far away from an urban center. We chatted and, yes, the city life, the beltway grind, the fear of crime, the impersonality of condominiums had gotten too depressing. He had washed his hands of it and headed for the hills.
I was well aware of what he was talking about. Over the holidays I had traveled in the East, with stops in several cities. I hadn’t made this trip in some time, and I’d forgotten how congested the seaboard is, from Washington to New York becoming one big city, now closing together on the map in solid yellow.
On this trip, I also saw clearly for the first time how West Virginia, though slightly removed, is also an Eastern state, a mere hop and a step from becoming tied into this massive congestion, as the Eastern cities—now connected North and South—bulge westward for breathing room.
Unfortunately, that hop and step is about to be bridged with the probable construction of Corridor H, which will link our interior with I-66 to D.C. and thus to the whole megalopolis; and, in a time shorter than we imagine, will make us a colony to it.
The first argument that got West Virginians behind this superhighway was, of course, the “free” federal dollars to build it. (We match one-fifth; but then pay all future maintenance.) Everyone except the smallest children knows that nothing is free.
The second argument was that it would bring jobs to our “poor” state. I asked the computer salesman if the highway coming had anything to do with his decision to locate his business in Pendleton County. He said no, but that he supposed it was a good thing, if it helped the area to grow.
“But,” I reminded him, “wasn’t it uncontrolled growth that drove you out of the city in the first place?”
“Oh, but we are a long way from that here,” he smiled. I replied: “It’s amazing how fast a superhighway will change the character of a region. I don’t think there’s ever been one built, any place in the whole country, where, afterward, the local population was happy for it. And, furthermore, it won’t really help the unemployment problem as everyone is saying.”
“Of course it will help,” my new acquaintance said. “Interstate access will obviously encourage business ventures and expansion. Thus more jobs.”
“But rapid business expansion also brings in outsiders to fill those new jobs,” I replied. Take for example the burgeoning chicken industry in Moorefield, which, even in anticipation of Corridor H, has grown so fast in one year as to create serious in-town traffic jams, not to mention pungent air pollution and befouled rivers.
At first everybody wanted this expansion, crying a desperate need for new jobs so their kids didn’t have to uproot to the cities to find work. But what they didn’t realize is that jobs created here in quick, great numbers will also attract, equally quickly, great numbers of job-seekers to compete for them. In today’s world, there will always be a job shortage. And for all its quality-of-life losses, Moorefield hasn’t improved its unemployment figures even a fraction of a percent.
“We have to keep trying, don’t we?” the salesman snapped. I replied: “But at the cost of one of the last truly great rural landscapes in America? As they are, our towns are so colorful and personal; and as for nature, three-fourths of our state is magnificent enough to be made a national park.”
I said West Virginians should imagine a different future, as a place which promotes and protects our special qualities. A place willing to pay a cost-of-living price for clean water, fresh air. A place with a balance of people, wild animals, fields and forests. A place where one knows one’s neighbors.
“Is it fair for us to come here and then close the door on others?” he challenged, starting to positively dislike me, I thought.
“Not close the door,” I clarified my position. “Rather not open the floodgates. Our lack of a superhighway is our best defense against uncontrolled growth. Our two-lane roads are like a winnowing device. The modern city person has become unadventurous and fearful of anything that isn’t fully automated, including roads. Even criminals are afraid of us. That’s why we can still leave our doors unlocked at night, and walk our streets in a relaxed way. Our simple roads discourage the very people we don’t want anyway.”
“Well, I’ll be going,” the salesman excused himself. “Numbers of people, in and of themselves, don’t make a better life,” I yelled after the man out the door. “What we should be after is low numbers of high-quality people. Then the future will take care of itself.”