It was early September 2017, and Texas residents Desira Baker and Carlos Roches were eagerly looking forward to a week’s vacation in Charleston, South Carolina.
As it turned out, fate had a very different destination in mind.
“We were going to kind of look for some places to possibly relocate and enjoy his retirement,” Desira said. “He had lived in Charleston, South Carolina, previously and thought that that was an area that I would really like as well.”
At the time, though, another visitor was approaching. A very powerful and destructive Hurricane Irma, at points a Category 5 storm, was churning her way through the Atlantic Ocean, expected to make landfall and wreak havoc somewhere on the southeastern coast of the United States around the time they were scheduled to arrive.
Coastal South Carolina was braced for flooding and evacuations. Airlines were canceling inbound flights.
With 24 hours before their scheduled departure, they started checking to see where they could easily be rerouted. One of them — which one, precisely, depends on who you ask — said, “Why don’t we go to West Virginia instead?”
They quickly found an Airbnb space that was beautiful and available the very next day. With that, their plans changed, far more than they knew at the time.
“I said, ‘Let’s go to Charleston, West Virginia, and check it out,’” Desira said.
“I said that!” Carlos called across the room, and they both laughed.
They knew precious little about West Virginia, other than what little they had seen online. Not all of it was positive; but being from the Lone Star state, they tend to take stereotypes in stride, Desira said.
“Everybody thinks that everybody in Texas wears cowboy hats and cowboy boots, too, so you know that’s not the case. ... We didn’t really know what to expect, but I imagined mountains and pretty scenery and things like that. I don’t know if I imagined how pretty it really was,” she said.
“We could see that housing was very affordable especially as compared to what we were looking at in the Dallas area,” she added.
They landed, looked around, and promptly fell in love.
“The leaves hadn’t even started turning or anything but it was just, just beautiful,” she said. “Everybody was so friendly and just genuinely nice, down-to-earth people. And I know that was a huge factor for me anyway.”
They went to the New River Gorge, did some hiking through Kanawha State Forest and wandered into shops and restaurants downtown.
“We went in to the realtor’s office and, I think in typical Charleston fashion, they loaded us up in their car and drove around the whole city for quite some time, showing us all the different areas and kind of giving us tips on where we wanted to be,” Carlos said. “So that was super.”
With retirement looming, he’d already done a little digging into West Virginia’s capital city as well as other cities and states they might consider.
“I had been looking at everything that was being said about the Charleston and West Virginia area. And at the time, which is about two years ago now, it was a lot of information regarding the opioid epidemic and how hard it hit the state. And then about the economy ... so, we didn’t come out here completely blind,” he said.
With research, he put the information he found into context. The struggling economy meant better housing prices, and the crime rate primarily reflected less serious crime than they sometimes faced in Dallas.
There was also a warmth they didn’t always find in the other places they considered — even the other Charleston, which they drove down to a few days later, just to compare.
“I wasn’t impressed after being here, to be honest,” said Desira. “I missed the mountains and I missed the people.”
They officially moved to Charleston, West Virginia, in July — less than a year after that initial visit. They know now that charming, older homes mean a long list of renovation projects, and contractors who aren’t always readily available. Sometimes it takes longer for furniture shipments to arrive, and food costs are higher than expected.
Still, that early infatuation has given way to a deeper, more realistic appreciation for their new hometown — something Carlos said might be lost on long-term residents.
“What I didn’t know when we came out here was how great the people were, and how much you guys have to offer as far as the mountains, the hiking trails, everything that the area has to offer. We were talking with the realtors that took us around that day and saying, ‘It’s like the Colorado of the East Coast, if you market it right.’”