'My People are the River People' - Colt Brogan's Struggle to Stay, Part One

Apr 13, 2017

In high school, Colt planned on joining the Army, or maybe working for a  construction company, anything except working to avoid working in the coal mines, A lot of families in his community have worked as miners.. When he was in high school, he saw many miners lose their jobs- including his stepfather. Despite the economic challenges, he wants to stay in West Virginia to be close to his family, especially his 7-year-old brother, River. It’s been a struggle for Colt to find a way to stay in West Virginia. 

Colt Brogan drives me along the Coal River in a 1996 Geo Tracker. It’s May, 2016, one of our first interviews together.  Every curve of this road has some significance for Colt. As we travel along the river, I learn all the stories that connect him to Lincoln County, all the things he loves, and hates, and all the memories that make him feel he has to stay. Even though a part of him wants to leave.

As a kid he walked miles down this road. During summers, he spent more time outside than at home.

This story is part of the Struggle To Stay series. Reporters have spent 6-12 months following the lives of 6 individuals as they decide if they will stay or leave home - and how they survive either way.

On the hills to our left, we pass nice brick houses, with big, well landscaped  nicely mowed lawns. Those houses, says Colt, are where the rich people live. The other side, the one that floods almost each spring, is where the river people live.

“And my people are the people of the Coal River,” says Colt. “Those are the people that I relate to. They’re the only ones that lived the life that I lived.”

Colt doesn’t live along the Coal River anymore. Now he rents a small, two bedroom house in Hamlin, the county seat. But his real home will always be along this river.

At one point along the drive, Colt points out one of his favorite spots along the river- or was when he was a kid.

“This is where everybody fishes, mainly, cause it’s deep and there’s good access to the river. Cause nobody’s ever there. That cross you see is where somebody was murdered a couple years ago. Came to a gruesome demise, probably drug related, to be honest.”

We drive a little more through washed out parts of the road until we park at one of Colt’s favorite swimming holes. A giant oak tree hangs over us, as we stand on a narrow beach beside the green river. Two kayakers paddle by.

Colt says everything changed in this community about ten years ago, when drugs like prescription pills, and then meth and heroin- started becoming more common.

“And it was almost scary to see that change. To see, what I feel, was the drug epidemic changing the nature of the people to what they are today," Colt says.

After we get back into his Geo Tracker, we drive past small homes, dog kennels, a chicken coop.

Colt doesn’t slow down as we pass his mom’s home. He keeps his eyes on the road.

“This is where I grew up. There used to be a trailer there but we tore it down because of flood damage. That’s my mother’s house. But I’m not welcome there anymore.”

Colt and his mom haven’t been getting along for years, but things came to a head when he stopped by her house for a visit a few days before this interview. They got into an explosive argument over money, he says.  She wanted him to pay the taxes on a property she’d given him next door. He said he didn’t want the property because it floods all the time.

For years, Colt says his mom has repeatedly tried to get money from him. This time, he told her no.  

“And she got upset and started yelling and cussin’ and breaking stuff and asked me to leave.”

Colt tells me his mom has struggled with drug addiction since he was a little kid. Later, I asked his mom if this is true. She says addiction is something from her past. It's how she dealt with abuse she's experienced from men in her life. 

As for this fight over money, she says she was angry that Colt wouldn’t help pay the taxes, but that she didn’t throw him out of the house.   

Colt moved out of the house two years ago, just four days before his 18th birthday.

He doesn’t look sad when he talks about it. He’s angry.

“But there’s nothing for me at that house. It’s nothing but bad memories anyway…mainly.”

We turn around. And this time he does slow down as we pass his mom’s house again. There’s a nativity scene, surrounded by blooming flowers.

“Despite everything, she always had a green thumb. I think that’s somewhat where I got my green thumb is from my mother. She’s planted a little bit of everything, flowers and crops and stuff like that. Everything I’ve ever seen her plant has grown. With almost no maintenance. It’s strange.”

That green thumb that Colt inherited from his mom? He says it’s what’s keeping him here in West Virginia. Because he’s in a training program that’s teaching him agriculture and helping him go to college. But will farming pay the bills after his two years in the program are up? And in the meantime, how is he going to juggle a full-time job, school, and the stress of his turbulent relationship with his mother? Because things do change between them over the next year. Well, kind of.

We'll hear more on that next week on The Struggle to Stay.

Music in this story is by Marisa Anderson.