When I was in high school, I moved with my family from Memphis to West Covina, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. Almost from the start, I loved California. In subsequent years, I finished high school, went to college and ended-up working for a large energy utility in the corporate offices in downtown L.A. As a young single guy, I became a big booster of everything California - the beach, the desert, the mountains, Hollywood - even the ever-frustrating freeway system. Here I was , a southern transplant from Tennessee in the land of milk and honey and glitz, with a good job and a decent lifestyle, feeling smug and superior to the land of my roots. I believed I had arrived.
As I grew older, married, acquired children and a house and a mortgage, I grew more settled and less smug. Now don't get me wrong. I was as happy as any family man can be. I loved being a husband and father, going to school activities, soccer, T-ball, swim meets - all of it. But at the same time, on my way up the corporate ladder (a journey which leveled-off well below the top), I also became one of the faceless millions on a daily one-hour commute into the city. It started off in a car, fighting for space on congested freeways, scrambling for parking in over-crowded lots. Then it progressed to a commuter bus, leaving the driving to somebody else, locking me into a rigid schedule of pickup and delivery. Finally, the MetroLink train system was created, and I became an avid rail-rider. Travel stress was greatly reduced, and the schedule far less rigid. Nevertheless, even with these transportation improvements, my life was still structured around a daily twelve-hour window of work and commutation, with all other activities crammed into weekends. But it was just the way it was. I knew we weren't going to move closer to the office. And for the most part, I didn't mind, and neither did my family. We adjusted to the routine like thousands of other families in our suburban community. We adapted our priorities. However...slowly, inexorably, my outlook was beginning to change. The allure of big city life was on the wane.
Eventually, a corporate merger came about, and the headquarters offices moved to San Diego. Ah! I thought. A welcome change. This would inject a whole new outlook on things: smaller city, easier commute, charming harbor and beaches, great zoo - everything less complicated and easy to reach. More relaxed. Life would be good. And it was - for awhile. Then after three years, I took the opportunity to retire early, and began working on my first novel. At about this same time, my wife and I began to take a good look around ourselves, and asked, Is this it? Is this where we want to live-out our lives? Yes, the city had its pluses compared to L.A. Yes, it had beauty and lots of recreation. Yes, we had friends and family and a nice house. But still...there was something missing. It was one of those unexpressed feelings a couple can sometimes communicate to each other. We knew we should be happy, and we were...sort of. But we felt there should be more.
The answer came unexpectedly. A good friend I had worked with over the years relocated to a small mountain community in western North Carolina. She too had been an L.A. urbanite, but decided to relocate to the same area her sister and brother-in-law did after retirement. On a visit to us, she described her new life in the Blue Ridge, and made us want to see this place for ourselves. So a few months later, we took an exploratory trip, drove across the state, and knew immediately we were seeing our future. Within a year, we sold our house and moved to our present home. And we have never regretted it.
I think lurking somewhere inside me there has always been a small-town guy. I love the feel of community here in North Carolina, the sense of belonging and contributing to things we can see and understand. There is something more personable, more friendly in our day-to-day lives now. My daughter moved with us, and with our help, started a small business right in town. Through her, we have gotten to know a lot of people, other business owners, local politicians, farmers, some whose families go back many generations, even as far back as the Civil War. As a writer, I've gotten to know the works of Robert Morgan, Ron Rash, Charles Frazier, writers who've delved deep into the history and character of these mountains. Reading them and others, and living here, I believe my own work has improved, and I'm sure it has to do with the local environment and culture. There is a spirit to the place that is palpable, something absent in my former life as a city dweller.
Oh sure, small town life isn't perfect. Our lives touch each other more. People gossip, and pettiness isn't unknown. But on balance, I think I'd rather put up with that than the frequent indifference of the big city. This is not to say community doesn't exist in the neighborhoods of New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. I know it does, and there are nice people everywhere. I've met a lot of them. But my wife and I wanted something more, a sense of place, a special connection that you don't often find within large populations. We wanted "small."
And we found it.