I'm a Virginian. Born. Raised. Educated: school and sanctuary and stadium. My body's gone to Carolina and all over the sporting world on a million airplanes, but my values and my depth and my manners are rooted in the Appalachian Mountains of Southwest Virginia.
I adore my home state. Commonwealth, as it were. There are only four commonwealths: Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and us. I don't know why.
Virginians are a regional bunch. You're not just from Virginia. You're from Northern Virginia or Virginia Beach or Southwest Virginia or Appalachia or Piedmont. Or Richmond.
We're more prideful about our native regions in our native Commonwealth than our native Commonwealth itself. I love that about Virginia, because environmental factors are pivotal in shaping our clay.
A lot of us talk weird. Those reared in the I-95 corridor between Richmond and DC, and east to the shore, sound normal. But the rest of us, from south of Richmond all the way west to the borders of Tennessee and West Virginia and Kentucky, are a potpourri of glorious and unique dialects, immediately noticeable and authentic -- even if some folks around this country still don't believe mine is real.
There's the easy cadence of the Piedmont, from Emporia west to South Hill and South Boston, where R's don't purse the lips and I's bare teeth. Further west, beyond Martinsville and Roanoke you fall into the Appalachian drawl -- my accent -- with sentences that meld one word to the next and tend to end in vowels, and inch thicker and longer the further you move towards the coal fields in Grundy and Haysi and Big Stone Gap.
I don't know much about other states or their particular sectors. But I can't think of another one -- maybe New Jersey -- that so distinctly separates its regions.
I've been all over the world, and I've never seen any place more beautiful than the Southwest region of the state. Gorgeous purple and navy mountains tower over stunning streams and rivers, and the simple life provides a profound experience.
You learn how to work. You learn how to pray. You learn how look a man in the eye and shake his hand. You learn to hunt and fish from your dad. You learn to love high school football -- and lean on it, too. I still do, almost a quarter-century since my last game at Giles High School.
Athletes, man. Arthur Ashe and Allen Iverson and Michael Vick and Joe Smith and Anthony Poindexter and Ronald Curry and Alonzo Mourning and Bruce Smith and the Barber twins and Ralph Sampson and Russell Wilson and Kam Chancellor and Thomas and Julius Jones and JJ Reddick. On and on.
I remember the magic of watching Park View High's Allen Pinkett run the football against my high school in 1980. Magic is an honest description. I was four years old. He went on to glory at Notre Dame and the Houston Oilers, but his legend lives differently in my mind. It is a foggy image of possibility. Of hope.
And racers. They were my hope. I hitched my wagon to the Wood Brothers, the Burtons, the Sadlers and Ricky Rudd. Rick Hendrick. And later on, 2016 Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin showed up. After he won the 500, Hamlin and I took a photo together displaying our Virginia pride.
I remember sitting on the Richmond pit wall in June 1998. I'd just graduated from Radford University, and I was on assignment for the Lynchburg News & Advance to cover the Pontiac Excitement 400. Practice was underway, and the white and blue No. 2 car screamed by.
"Rusty Wallace. That's RUSTY WALLACE," I thought.
Zoom! The rainbow No. 24. Zoom! The black No. 3.
"Dale Earnhardt. That's THE Dale Earnhardt."
I was so overwhelmed by that moment. The show. I was here. I made it.
And I was at Richmond International Raceway, a place that my father always appreciated so much. Fairgrounds, he called it. My mom had passed away just before this, on May 24th. And every time I go back to RIR, I think about that moment. And I go sit there at that same spot before every race.
And I feel my dad and I feel my mom. It's special to me.
When you grow up in small town America, you fall in love with the idea of getting out. Some do get out. Most don't. And that's just fine. They drink beers with lifelong friends whom they've known since kindergarten. Some fall in love and marry their high school crush. Some meet a girl from a neighboring town and a rival high school and plant a "house-divided" sign in the yard.
And those that leave fall in love with the idea of getting back. I often consider getting back. Maybe it's the idea of what was, that blurry nostalgia of all that possibility. I don't know.
What I do know is this: When I enter the Commonwealth, regardless of which corner I enter, it feels like home.
And it's the only time I experience that feeling.