DISCLAIMER: Before you read any further, you should know, the next few pages are going to be a bit more personal than anything else on this trip, or this website. There’s a good reason: I used to live in Beckley, West Virginia. I escaped, um, make that “moved away” in 1997. There’s a good chance that whatever I write, over the next few pages, will be tinged with the perspective of what it’s like to grow up in a small city deep in Appalachia. If something I say gets you worked up, or rubs you the wrong way, and you feel the need to angrily email me, that’s fine. Just remember, I lived here long enough to know what I’m talking about.
When I arrived in town, on this trip in 2008, it had been more than five years since I had paid the town a visit. This time, my stay would last less than 24 hours, and my goal was to take as many pictures as possible of things I remembered, and things that hadn’t changed. I had driven a long way on Day 5, but one thing kept me going: the thought of a hot, double-pepperoni pizza from King Tut Drive-In.
King Tut is a Beckley institution. It’s been in operation since the 1940’s, and owned by the same family since 1955. Its website claims that King Tut was the first restaurant to sell Pizza in Beckley.
That pizza is what I had been craving for days. It’s a round pie, but cut into squares. Somehow they get the pepperoni to be crunchy on the edges. If there’s a better pizza in Beckley, I’ve never tried it.
There aren’t any prices on the menu boards, but don’t worry, it’s not expensive (except for the drinks–consider bringing a 20 oz. soda from a convenience store).
I happily tore through almost the entire pizza at once. When stuffed, I turned my attention to my other objective: photos. For weeks I had hoped to take a great nighttime picture of King Tut. I thought it would light up beautifully in a picture, thanks to the awesome neon sign out front. So, I pulled my car out of the sheltered eating area, and into the parking area, and unpacked my camera gear.
I took a few pictures from across the street (like the first one on this page), then walked back and took a few more of the parking area and building. I got the pictures I had hoped for. It was a wonderful evening. I had my pizza, I got my pictures, and I was ready to go back to my motel.
And this is where we get to the part of the story that will inevitably make someone send me an angry email.
As I walked back to my car, the waitress who had served me earlier, re-emerged from the kitchen, and approached me.
“Why are you tekin’ pitures of us?”
Because I’m an al-Qaeda spy, and I’m planning my attack on King Tut. That’s what I should have said. Geez. I took some pictures because I wanted some pictures.
“I used to live around here, and I just got back in town. I used to eat here all the time, and I wanted a few pictures of the place.”
“Well, we don’t like havin’ our pitures tekin.”
“Really? Why not?”
“Well we just don’t like it.”
“I was all the way across the street, and I was taking long exposures, so no one’s face will be recognizable.”
“I hope not. Are you the same one who was tekin pitures round here last week?”
“No, I just got into town tonight.”
“Well, we don’t want you tekin any more pitures.”
At this point, I’m obviously putting my camera away–not normally something you do before taking morepictures.
“I’m just passing through town. I won’t be back.”
As I drove off, I realized, she wasn’t upset with me taking pictures of people, she was upset with me taking pictures of a building! A local landmark no less, one that lights up the night with the biggest neon sign in town. One that people love: people like me, who drove 300 miles that day, looking forward to my pizza the entire time. This defies logic. This makes no common sense.
Then I remembered, I was in West Virginia — Beckley, West Virginia. I hadn’t managed to be in town for an hour, before something brought back every memory of why I had left.
There are lots of stereotypes and jokes about West Virginia, and some of them are right. Sure, normal people live here too, but it seems the state, and especially my old hometown, has more than its fair share of backwardness.
I’ve taken a lot of pictures in a lot of places, and I’ve had a lot of people approach me. Most ask me what kind of camera I have, or if it’s nighttime, how long an exposure I’m using. They are almost universally nice, and even somewhat proud when they realize that I find something in their hometown to be worthy of a picture. No one had ever told me that it was wrong to take a picture of a building, that is visible from a public street. You would think I had been peeping through her bedroom window!
So what’s my point in all of this? I’m not completely sure I have one. I’m just telling the story of my return to Beckley. It is different there. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit — but you should be prepared for moments like this.
Note: This trip was first published in 2008.