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.
West Virginia entrusted most of the mapping project to individual counties, tasking 911 directors with naming thousands of streets. Different directors subscribed to different naming philosophies. Mercer County’s director pulled names from local history books and Scrabble Web sites. Others Google-Mapped out-of-state towns for inspiration. Some directors gave residents the right to name their own streets, despite the risk that future generations would have to endure, in the case of one town, Crunchy Granola Road. In Raleigh County, some communities named their streets after Disney characters or Vietnam War battles.