We piled into the vans on a cold, grey Saturday morning, friends and strangers alike, most having no idea of the journey ahead of us. Some of us expected to come back changed, and others of us did not–but West Virginia was about to work her untamed magic on us regardless.

Slumber filled car rides turned to noses plastered to chilly windows as the miles wheeled by, passengers staring quietly at the blue mountainscape that scudded past. The road wound up and down, sideways and through, over and dipping softly beneath, depositing us deep into the heart of the wild and wonderful… into a scraggle of unloved houses with flaking white paint and sagging porches.

The community center of BCPIA became our home for the first half of the week–the sprawling hallways covered in children’s scrawled names and the artwork of pondering volunteers of years past and the quirky warmth of mismatched armchairs and cramped bunk rooms welcomed us in. Sounds of pattering feet skipping through the halls and coal-black footprints in the showers began to add to the layers of memories that richen the air and dust the baseboards along with the buzzing bodies of millions of ladybugs. Three-hour chicken pot pie pans and nighttime tea adventures added to the flavor and rhythm of living life with twenty-two other human beings, sleeping in the same room, eating off the same dishes, and hearing the same stories of love and betrayal from folk with the lilt of the mountains humming in their speech.

From learning about Joel’s hydroponics, losing ourselves in Marsha’s time-machine stories by the lake, or dancing the night away to Chester’s rollicking music, we immersed ourselves deeper into the land and culture the people of Appalachia hold so dear. We piled onto mattresses in front of a VCR and an old boxy TV and cried for the plight of a small boy with dreams brighter and higher than the mines as we watched October Sky and rose the next morning to blast away pieces of concrete stairs with a sledgehammer, all feeling like mini Thor’s.

As the days accumulated, the exhaustion built. Eyelids grew heavy and heads dropped to friends’ shoulders. Unplanned naps became almost planned for, and appetites burgeoned as blankets and raincoats became constant companions to shield against wind and storm. Yet even as hearts grew wiser and heavier with knowledge, and minds became chock full of information and calculation, and hearts stretched further with all the emotion they could carry, laughter and mischief still glimmered in eyes and echoed around the halls, and the night was full of sneaking footsteps on creaking stairs and the snores and exasperated giggles of a new family, bonded together through an experience that had never been expected, and some never thought they’d have.