The waitress in Monterey's tiny diner confided to me, "I've only been here for three weeks, and I've already put on 30lb." This bronzed young Floridian had fallen for a blue-eyed West Virginian and made the long trip north; for our part, we had driven for hours from Washington, DC, as the West Virginia highway rose higher into the mountains with every switchback we traversed. Then, finally, there they were: the seemingly endless peaks of Appalachia's Blue Ridge mountains.
At a gas station, we'd picked up a John Denver CD, which we played over and over as we wound through little mountain communities of trailer homes and broken-down cars, where some families still do not have running water.
It seems that not every part of America is intent on turning their countryside into one endless strip mall. West Virginia has somehow remained largely untamed. It has valleys rushing with some of the best white-water rivers in the US, and mountain scenery that has changed little since the first settlers pushed west into unexplored "Indian country". Don't come expecting fancy restaurants – but at a time where there seems to be a Starbucks at every major intersection, it is a welcome break to strike out for some home cooking.
We found ours in Monterey, an idyllic-looking town in the high Alleghenies, part of the vast Appalachians, which run for 500 miles from Pennsylvania, through Maryland and West Virginia. The diner menu was full of West Virginian favourites. Dana, our mahogany-tanned waitress, assured us that the ribs were the house speciality. Looking at the white-bearded mountain man in the corner, his plate loaded with brisket, we decided to take her at her word. Dana soon came over to my bar stool to fill me in on an agonising decision: whether to stay with her unemployed West Virginia beau through the bitter winter, or head back to the warmth of the Florida keys.
"Sure, he's cute," she said. "He's even got steel-blue eyes. But there's not much for a computer guy to do in West Virginia. Matter of fact he's out cutting wood for the winter today." This is West Virginia: an unvarnished, what-you-see-is-what-you-get sort of place. I wanted to hear more but late afternoon was approaching, and we wanted to avoid a long mountain journey in the dark.
As soon as we left Monterey, we found ourselves deep in the landscape described by Thomas Jefferson in his Notes – right at the majestic confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers: "The first glance of this scene hurries our sense into the opinion that this earth has been created in time, that the mountains were formed first, that the rivers began to flow afterwards, that in this place particularly they have been damned up by the Blue Ridge mountains."
Jefferson believed that a huge ocean of water would burst through the mountain. The forces of nature at work here were so powerful and catastrophic that he believed America's future lay beyond the peaks, where he saw "a small catch of smooth blue horizon" inviting people on. There, beyond the tumultuous landscape of history, was the harmonious landscape of America's future. But the peaceful expansion into the North American interior that he envisioned led instead to terrible wars with the Native Americans.
The Indian Removal, as it has been called, cleared pretty much all the land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi river in order to create a continental empire. In 1820, there were 120,000 Native Americans living here. By 1844, there were only 30,000, many of the rest forced to migrate west.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the pioneer settlers of West Virginia broke with the Confederacy: a huge betrayal in the eyes of slave-owning Virginians to the east. Over time, the social and cultural differences between the two sections of Virginia grew extreme. A few "old" Virginians still point out, somewhat fancifully, that the Supreme Court has not yet ruled as to whether West Virginia had the legal right to declare itself a state; they even harbour notions of a reunion.
On one particularly treacherous bend on the tight, winding mountain road, we found ourselves suddenly loomed over by a "tractor trailer" – a huge articulated truck, all screeching breaks and silver smokestacks. We pulled over to compose ourselves – at what turned out to be a spectacular viewing area.
Before us, about eight miles south-east of Cheat Summit fort on US Route 250, was a Civil War gun emplacement built of huge boulders, a defensive wall for cannons that once blasted down the valley. Some of the first actions of the Civil War occurred along the Staunton-Parkersburg turnpike, which Union and Confederate forces needed as a transport and supply route. Soon we encountered the train tracks that run through the little town of Cass in Pocahontas County, once home to the Virginia Pulp and Paper Mill, a symbol of economic power hinting at a past in which steam railways snaked through the state, linking the cotton-producing south to the Great Lakes ports in the north.
In summer, the Cass Scenic Railroad runs for 11 miles up the mountainside through a series of switchbacks. One of the excursions takes you to the abandoned site of the ghost town of Spruce, once known as the coldest, highest town east of the Rocky mountains.
Things are quiet in Cass: it's a pitstop on the road to more upmarket destinations such as Snowshoe (our final stop), a small ski resort which caters to visitors from the Carolinas, Maryland, Virginia and DC. The mountains provide a natural buffer, a fortress that is as appealing in peacetime as in war, and which somehow defines West Virginia – and the individualism of West Virginians.
STATE LINES: WEST VIRGINIA
Population: 1.8 million
Area: 3 times the size of Wales
Date in Union: 20 June 1863
Motto: "Mountaineers are always free"
Nickname: Mountain state
Charleston is the main gateway to West Virginia. You can connect in Cleveland with Continental (0845 607 6760; www.continental.com).
Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, Cass (001 304 456 4300; www.cassrailroad.com). Restored houses, cabins and cabooses are let as rentals, starting from $46 (£24) per night.
The Cass Scenic Railroad runs day trips to Whittaker, Bald Knob and Spruce. Fares start at $16 (£8.40), one way.
Snowshoe Mountain (001 877 441 386; www.snowshoemtn.com).