Alan “Cathead” Johnston—folk singer, amateur photographer, coal miner’s son—doesn’t have an address. He’s not homeless. He has a sturdy brown house tucked under a canopy of trees and filled with soft-focus family photographs. But, like many residents of rural McDowell County, West Virginia, his house has no number, and his street has no name. The postman doesn’t deliver there.
When I recently set out to see how long it would take an out-of-towner to reach Johnston’s house from Welch, the county’s largest city (pop. 2,406), I was lost from the first turn. Fortunately, the area brims with exuberant direction-givers. A man weeding his lawn answered my plea for help, darting onto the mountain highway to tell me to turn left at the community hospital. Naturally, I made a right instead, down a road that grew ever steeper and narrower. I came across another local, this one sweat-soaked and smoking a cigarette, leaning on his blue pickup at the edge of the brush. “You done lost,” he declared, and led me in his truck as far as the old radio station. Eventually, I found an elderly pastor by the side of the road who knew Johnston. As coal trucks barreled past us, the pastor struggled to think of how to direct me, finally asking if I knew where his house was. I didn’t.
I’d come to McDowell County because, like much of rural America, its streets had long gone unnamed, its roads unmapped. Addresses have historically been an urban commodity; in rural areas, where most people know each other and outsiders are rare, many communities never got around to naming streets and numbering houses. Hence my four-mile, 37-minute journey to Johnston’s house.
Were I to visit him again, however, I would likely have the benefit of a street name. That’s because West Virginia, thanks to a little legal ingenuity, is finally assigning addresses to each of its residents. Eleven years ago, after Verizon was caught inflating its rates for West Virginia customers, the state and the company reached a creative agreement that required Verizon to pay $15 million toward, quite literally, putting West Virginians on the map. Today, the state is using that money to execute one of the most ambitious mapping projects in recent decades. It has assigned about 450,000 formal addresses, but tens of thousands of rural residents are still waiting for theirs.
When I visited McDowell County, long-standing work-arounds were still in use. Residents picked up their mail at the post office and had Amazon packages delivered to city hall or the bank. Directions were proffered in paragraphs; landmarks (“the stone church,” “the old sewing factory,” “the dumpster painted like a cow”) functioned as de facto street signs. Residents of Bartley (pop. 224) still pivoted directions around the old grade school, which burned to the ground years ago. Most people know where they are going anyway: in the hollows, along dirt lanes that wind through valleys and dry riverbeds, everyone knows everyone else.
But certain aspects of modern life demand geographic specificity. Ron Serino, a firefighter in Northfork (pop. 429), told me about his chaotic attempts to locate frantic callers who can’t give an address. Serino keeps callers on the line, telling them to listen for the blare of the truck’s sirens. “Getting hotter?” he asks. “Getting closer?” An ambulance in one rural community found a bedridden man only because he’d told the dispatcher that he still had his Christmas lights up—in April.