So, here we are, up on “The Mountain”, free at last from the burden of a 40 plus hour work week and that long skinny parking lot known as I-4, up where the air is clear, the birds are singing, and the cows are, most definitely, flatulent, wondering how my life could have changed so permanently and so quickly. If you’ve ever thought of what the world was like after you’ve finally retired and decided to move to paradise, you may be in for a surprise (or two).
Two months ago I was comfortably ensconced in what everyone but me thought was a dream job, making, as people like to say when they don’t want you to know too much, a “good living.” Our four bedroom ranch was complete with a pool and a half acre of weeds and St. Augustine that you could have sold for a laughably large amount of money a year ago, and a luxury sedan graced my “Taj Garage,” which was big enough to hangar a dirigible. We had plenty of everything: great friends, nearby family, European vacations, and the three basic food groups (Starbucks, Ruth’s Chris, and Mondavi). Our life was a parody of suburban clichés, and I immersed myself in it with gusto. But fate has a way of changing things at the most inopportune moments, I guess to see if we still have a sense of humor. Just when I thought “it doesn’t really get better than this”, it didn’t. I lost my job.
Well, I wasn’t really told I had to leave, just that, like another 10,000 people in my company, I’d be taking my chances to stay. Somehow the words “career” and “gamble” were difficult for me to put in the same sentence, so I took the safe route and accepted an early retirement offer, and life hasn’t been the same since. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t miss my job, which had long sense gone way down a dead end dirt road to end in a veritable sink hole. And I’m enough of a dreamer that I’d often thought of how grand life would be in my later years, with a canopy of palm fronds swaying overhead, a tall tropical drink in one hand and the daily Sodoku in the other. It’s just that I thought I’d be a lot older and have a lot more money when it happened. Once the choice is made, you are presented with exquisite clarity that most of your dreams were, in fact, well, dreams, and in the real world they don’t pay you a whole lot for dreaming, unless you’re in a government-sponsored REM sleep study or something, which I wasn’t.
That’s how my Jimmy Buffet island lifestyle retirement morphed into a mountain home in rural Tennessee. It came down to three things. It had to be cooler than summer in Orlando, where people come from all over the world to suffer from heat stroke in outdoor lines that are cleverly designed to keep you from noticing that your skin is, in fact, on fire. It had to be American, because my Alabama secondary education had exclusively prepared me for a world in which monolingual Southerners ruled supreme. And it had to be cheap, because of the aforementioned pension, which would impoverish a Russian widow. And besides, I, myself, am cheap.
It also helped that we’d already bought a home up there, with a vineyard no less, buying, as is my wont, at the exact top of the market (yes, I’m cheap AND stupid). Most people want a low maintenance affair for their second home, a place to relax from the stresses of city life. Me? I “bought the farm”, literally, 10 acres of lawn and garden just waiting to be mowed, hoed, weeded, watered, sprayed, and graded. The perfect spot for a man with a brown thumb and an innate inability to cultivate so much as a weed. But, being Irish (or at least an Irish wannabe), I like to drink, and the idea of all those free grapes on the vine just waiting to be fermented was more than I could resist.
But to get to our new home we were facing THE MOVE, and being fond of a great deal, and not so fond of broken priceless antiques, I decided that my son and I could easily pack and tote a mere 15 tons or so, and do it BETTER than the pros. Of course, like U-Haul says, and I’ve got to believe that the guy who came up with this tag line is still laughing, moving is indeed an adventure, if not an outright disaster. My wife is somewhat of a pack rat, having accumulated the approximate equivalent of the cargo hold of a double-hulled ocean liner in our attic, so I conservatively (but foolishly) estimated that a 26 foot box truck, 2 trailers, and the cargo bed of our newly purchased pickup truck would come close to being adequate hauling capacity for a two person household, especially after jettisoning a roomful of assorted useless flotsam in three successive garage sales. As usual, I was wrong. After a full week of careful loading, three rolls of shrink wrap, and enough boxes of various sizes to keep a homeless camp in shelter for six months (not to mention more skinned knuckles than a prize fighter), I shamelessly called one of our dearest friends and asked if we could store a garage full of left over junk at her place until we came back in May. Amazingly, she agreed, though I suspect only to further amuse herself at the traveling circus that had become my life, but even more amazing was the fact that, even as I was busily hauling our overage across town, my wife was across the street selecting items for restoration that our neighbors had left for garbage pick up! Thus, as I carried out the excess that we could not haul at one end, my life partner added to the load at the other. Finally, after much cursing, weeping, and gnashing of teeth, and nearly in tears, we loaded the last item on the big truck, the door rolled down with a reassuring thump, and we collapsed into that dreamless state of sleep that only physical exhaustion can provide. An adventure, indeed.
Once we finally said all our goodbyes, we headed to our new home and our new life, not knowing exactly what to expect, but hoping that our friends from Florida were wrong about what they called “The Redneck State”. They had playfully ridiculed our decision to move by hinting that they thought Tennessee might be just a wee bit…backward and that the Appalachians provided most of Jeff Foxworthy’s material. This was usually done in a lighthearted yet subtle way, as in “Why would you want to go there? You know they don’t have any branches to the family tree up in those woods.” Ba-dum-dum. Ha, ha. And the ultimate insult: “It’s cold up north (as if we were moving to Nome). You’ll spend all winter chopping wood.” Uh, thanks for the support, buddies.
What we found was that the Volunteer state’s official song is not the theme from “Deliverance” after all, at least in the metropolitan areas. They have dentists, just like the rest of the country, and the interstate is paved all the way through. I’m able to send this article via a high speed modem just like normal folk, and the same poisonous fast foods and television programs are available here as well. Yes, it’s poor, especially where I live, and it seems there’s a fairly large inventory of used appliances in the front lawn of way too many homes. But for the most part, this state is as civilized and regular as they come. It’s the comfort food of America, like breakfast at Cracker Barrel. Just as you’d expect for a place in this country’s mid section, the politics are centrist, the economy is doing moderately well, thank you, and the people are patriotic to a fault. If that doesn’t sound so bad to you, well, it isn’t.
The trouble is, I didn’t move to one of the “big cities”. I’m in the exact center of nowhere, an enigma that Map Quest helpfully places somewhere between Mexico and Canada. Uh, thanks. To find my home, you have to look for the house with the religious message on the front lawn and turn right just past the 12 boulders lining the yard onto a steep dirt road that leads to a split just past the three mail boxes, that leads to…oh, never mind. Just call me and I’ll meet you at the “Pig” (our favorite supermarket) and lead you in.
My county is the poorest in the state, famous for having the most meth labs and stolen vehicles per capita in the country. So if you’re looking for uppers and a pimped-out Cadillac, you’ve come to the right place. There are few jobs, at least of the legal variety, collecting aluminum is a respected profession, and trash disposal is a self service affair. So up here, where the air is thinner, the people talk slower, and fishing is more a religion than a sport, it really is backward.
How backward is it? It’s so backward that the manager at the Pig will hand deliver an item to your house that they forgot to bag at the store. Can you imagine? What a rube! And their kids? They employ a strange language that includes “yes, sir” and “no ma’am” when they talk to their elders, and they haven’t figured out that their lips, bellies, eyebrows, and privates should be skewered with costume jewelry. They’re so slow that they actually suspend their pants from their waists! Nerds! The parents aren’t much better. When a tradesman tells you he’s going to be on the job by 8AM, he’s there by 7:45, and generally glad to see you. Even the cable guy is punctual, and he’ll give you his home number! They just don’t get it, do they? And another thing: I’ve never received the one-finger salute from any of the dumb hicks on the road here. That doesn’t happen too often when you know you’ll be seeing someone again. Familiarity breeds courtesy. My neighbor (named Junior, in spite of his advanced years) provided a textbook example of hospitality recently. When I told him I was looking for a way to control pests, he produced a bluebird house from some hidden inventory because they eat insects (who knew?). then handed me a slab of bacon and a dozen fresh eggs when the conversation turned to food. Everyone’s got good neighbors, you say? This was my first visit to his house! When our giant load of detritus needed to be moved into the new home, there were my two able-bodied senior neighbors, people I’d known only casually until then, humping like soldiers to finish the job. These same people held up Thanksgiving dinner until Friday because we couldn’t be there in time for the traditional Turkey day feast. Don’t these guys even know how to read a calendar? You’ll be politely asked to leave the local movie theater (popcorn: $1) if your cell phone creates a distraction, the cops issued a total of eleven traffic citations last year, and the annual Cornbread Festival provides a cultural highlight. The grocer’s never heard of feta cheese, the Family Dollar’s still thinking about accepting credit cards, and the stranger in line will lend you a quarter for a newspaper if you need it. If all this sounds backward to you, please stay in the city…I’m still new here and don’t want to go into relapse. Like an acquaintance up here once told me, “Things are different up here on the mountain”…and that’s not so bad after all.