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Most miserable state in the union

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BOLIVAR, W.Va. -- The mayor of the happiest village in the saddest province in the U.S. is a large man, 163 kilograms. When I arrive, Robert J. Hardy, age 72 years and 11 months, is contained in an old blue recliner in the front room of his antique shop on the main street of this riverside hamlet, whose name is pronounced to rhyme with "Oliver" and not the proper Castilian way.

Just outside the door is a bronze bust of the Great Liberator Simòn José Antonio de la Santsima Trinidad Bolivar y Palacios Ponte y Blanco wearing a pendant with an image of George Washington on it, presented to this tiny town by a president of Venezuela himself (though probably not by the late Hugo Ch°vez). Below is the Shenandoah River, fat with snowmelt, racing to meet its destiny in confluence with the Potomac, a few kilometres downstream.

Mayor Hardy is serving his third term as the chief magistrate of this town of 1,000 people an hour west of Washington. His wife is serving him a dismally slimming lunch of lettuce, crackers, a one-ounce box of raisins, and a can of Diet 7-Up when I hand over a newspaper clipping that is headlined: West Virginia is the Most Miserable State in the Country.

"Living in West Virginia stinks," the article begins.

It goes on to cite a recent Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index questionnaire that asked thousands of Americans to rank their feelings about their physical and mental health, their financial security (or lack of same), their workplace, and so forth, across 55 categories. In many of these categories, West Virginia came in last.

For the fifth year in a row.

How could this be true of the state that gave to the world Jennifer Garner, Brad Paisley and Don Knotts?

"My mental health is excellent," Mayor Hardy says, beginning his defence of the Mountain State. "I'll be 73 in two weeks and I've spent one night in the hospital, that's not too damn bad.

"I am richly blessed," he continues. "I've lived within five miles of this place my entire life. I get up every morning and ride up to the top of the mountain and look down at the rivers. I consider this one of the most beautiful spots in the United States. I can't say the world, because I haven't seen the world."

The mayor tells me he grew up poor -- "not dirt poor, but poor" -- on a farm just beyond the Shenandoah, and he has tasted true misery in his six dozen years of life, notably when he was working for a vending-machine company for $2.33 an hour and thinking, "Lord, if there's no better life than this, then I don't want to live very long."

Then, he says, he went into the field of inhalation toxicology with only a high school diploma, worked seven days a week for five years straight, and wound up as head of his unit.

"Do people choose to be miserable, or is it forced upon them?" I ask the mayor.

"I believe that men and women can control their own destiny," Hardy replies. "It's not rich or poor -- it's what you decide to do with your life. You can walk out of poverty."

What I keep hearing in Bolivar is that happiness -- or its antithesis, misery -- is not necessarily dependent on health or riches, but on outlook, purposefulness and self-reliance.

"You look up miserable in the dictionary and you'll see my picture," the town's maintenance chief, John Garza, tells me when I sidle across the street to city hall. "I am as miserable as a gut-shot bitch wolf dog dragging nine sucking pups in a Number Four trap."

He falls down laughing.

Across the room, which is equipped with three desks, one typewriter and two fly swatters, is Laura Whittington, the executive town administrator of Bolivar.

"We were all happy and mentally stable, and then you came in and ruined it for us," she says when I show her the survey.

"I'm turning 45 today, so I'm a little shaky," she goes on. "We all have our bad days, but the most miserable state in the country? Oh, please!"

I note that West Virginia may indeed be poor, especially in its coal-mining regions down south, but five of America's six most indigent counties can be found in North and South Dakota, and those states ranked first and second as the least miserable in the land.

Even New Jersey scored higher than West Virginia, and that's where the Dove soap company put up a billboard last week that said "Dear New Jersey, When people call you 'The Armpit of America,' take it as a compliment."

In Bolivar, meanwhile, John Garza is scanning the skies for any hint of approaching inclemency so he won't have to paint new stripes in the parking lot, and boasting the toothbrush was invented right here in West Virginia.

"Anyplace else," he says, "they would have called it the teeth-brush."

Garza is 57, he takes blood pressure and cholesterol medication, and he has diabetes.

"We ain't had this much fun since the hogs ate my brother," he says.

"If you want the definition of miserable," says Laura Whittington, "you should interview his wife."


Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 17, 2014 0

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