I drive five hours across some of America’s most breathtaking scenery to meet Mike Weaver. “Almost heaven, West Virginia” opens John Denver’s classic song “Country Roads”. Almost Heaven is also the name of the Washington-based yacht of Joe Manchin, the state’s Democratic senator, who berths in the capital when Congress is in session.
You can inhale the song’s lyrics as you spin through the deep gorges, wide meadows and craggy mountain byways. The state is utterly bountiful. Few landscapes could be so misleading as to the condition of its people.
“Eat your rice Han Ling, don’t you know there are children in West Virginia who are starving,” said a Chinese mother to her child in a New Yorker cartoon a few years ago. That was obviously comic exaggeration. Nevertheless, a child in West Virginia has a greater chance of dying from opioids than of becoming a doctor.
Many kids enter the school gates as “drug babies” — either having become addicted in the womb or as victims of parental overdoses. One small town, Williamson, with a population of just 3,000, shipped in more than 20 million opioid pills, mostly oxycodone and hydrocodone, in a seven-year period. West Virginia’s rate of resource extraction — timber, coal, gas and agribusiness, which are its principal industries — seems to be matched only by the inflow of prescription drugs.
The steep decline of the coal industry is partly to blame. But other businesses are flourishing. The state’s mountains are criss-crossed with pipelines from the big fracking companies. Farms have been bisected, and their water tables polluted, by the often poorly compensated land seizures. A number of locals told me that the state’s fastest-growing suicide rate is among its farmers.
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