It’s been nearly seven years since I left California and created a series of blog posts of our trip east and what life was like in my new state. Seven years later, I have been transformed, but my long association with California remains. I only returned to California twice, both times just to the Bay Area: once in 2018 on a brief business trip, and in 2019 for my son’s graduation from UCLA and celebration thereof in the Bay Area.
Many of the people we used to travel to see are now here with us and we get to spend our time with them more. Peter’s sister found a job here in 2019 and now lives about 30 minutes away in Brentwood, Tennessee. My father-in-law in Pennsylvania passed away in 2021; the following year, my mother-in-law decided to move closer to her son and daughter and now has a house in Smyrna, Tennessee, 15 minutes away from her daughter and 40 minutes from us.
But Tennessee continues to be a far different place than the California I remember, and there are more stories to tell.
Redwoods and the Tennessee Treemageddon
I wouldn’t have thought that familiarity with redwood trees would be one of the more exotic aspects of having lived in California. Yet when we visited in 2019, my daughter wanted to accompany me to Henry Cowell Park and took pictures of the banana slugs, because her school friends could not believe her tales giant yellow slugs which she had seen and handled since her earliest memories. We have a nice deck at the back of our house, but we can’t get Sequoia wood here, so all I have is a deck I have to paint over and then still having to deal with wood-eating pests like carpenter bees. I was complaining about this to my one fellow Buddhist who lives close enough to come over and practice with me. All he’d ever seen in person was the trunk of a redwood and he had trouble comprehending stories of trees that big and eternal, then and now.
In comparison to redwoods (and palm trees, for that matter), the trees on my neighborhood are delicate and short-lived. Whenever a powerful storm blows through (as one does several times a year), the branches crack and fall down, giving us all the fuel we need and then some for our outdoor firepit. Last month, a particularly strong storm came through and broke two 70+-foot trees in my next door neighbor’s yard. They crashed onto the back of my yard, where they took out pretty much every tree that hadn’t already been broken by the storm. Three weeks and seven torqued-out chainsaw blades later, I now have a bare spot at the end of my property and a massive pile of firewood. And that didn’t include the two trees in the front that broke as well, for which we hired one of the very happy tree companies who make a good living cutting down and hauling away dead trees. My contrite neighbor gave me eggs from her chickens (though it was not her fault her trees cracked and collapsed into my backyard) and my Buddha buddy got a truck bed full of wood for his wood-burning stove, with the promise of more.
It’s Pretty Much All Small Towns
Central Nashville is increasingly being built up with skyscrapers to house businesses and people, but within a few miles, and within Nashville proper itself, you can still find farms and unused acres of land. You can easily get to all the larger towns in Tennessee (large meaning with a population of 20,000 or more) along the freeways. Everything else is a long, slow drive along narrow 2-lane roads, sometimes behind a tractor.
I recently did a 5K in Bell Buckle, Tennessee (population 409) with a friend. It is an hour away, all on back roads, and if you’re unlucky you have to wait for a train to finish passing by before you can continue. The 5K was the precursor to the town’s annual RC Cola and Moon Pie festival, and yes, you can still get those products in Tennessee. The festival concludes with the arrival of a largest Moon Pie in the world in the flavor of the year (for 2023, this is blueberry), which comes from Chattanooga, Tennessee on special truck, over Monteagle Mountain, escorted with much fanfare by state troopers. It is then eaten by the festival attendees, so the world’s largest Moon Pie ceases to exist until it is reincarnated in the next flavor for the festival the following year.
The 5K course took us through the campus of a boarding school and beyond the boundaries of the small town. During the race, two redneck yahoos (from Christiana, population 4701, and unincoporated Cannon County, population < 2711) decided it would be fun to roar through the runners with their motorcycles, but they had to stick to the streets, and the runners just moved over into the fields. The wannabe Dukles of Hazzardous Bell Buckle were quickly caught, and the whoopin’ they got from their respective communities is fiercer than anything Bedford County can sentence them with. I was unscathed, other than having a story to tell, and I left with my friend before the clog-dancing began because she had to take care of another friend’s dog.
Where Wine Snobbery Goes to Die
Being a wine snob was a part of my identity as a Northern Californian. I loved going to many of the small wineries where I could sip exclusive wines and talk about whether I preferred the 2010 Merlot over the 2012 one, and hang out with the winery owner as if he was a friend. That does not exist here.
There is exactly one winery in the area that makes wine I wouldn’t want to immediately spit out (and that’s only half of their wines.) It is called Arrington, after the area of Williamson County it is located in, and it consists of many bucolic acres (only some of which actually grows grapes) with room for picnics, parties and the hundreds of people who convene there every weekend to drink the wine and listen to free music. It is run by country-western musician Kix Brooks, who actually likes wine but more importantly outsourced the making of it and the running of the winery as a business to people who know what they are doing, even if they don’t have the charming quirks of the small California farmers. As for the other wineries in the South I’ve had to endure socially, all I will say is that muscadine is considered a wine grape and they look at me like I’m from Mars when I ask for the spit bucket.
Other country-western musicians kept it simpler and since 2018 have bought up bars on Broadway, at the center of Nashville’s entertainment area, where they can sell beer and whisky to tourists at exorbitant prices. Pick your star and he (or she) has a bar: Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, Justin Timberlake, Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan, Brian Kelly, Garth Brooks (coming soon), and the most notorious of them all, Kid Rock. His Big Ass Honky-Tonk is loud and obnoxious, and caters to tourists who think they are getting the “Bawitdaba” experience, but mostly its Franken-honk vibe makes me run to the other side of the street, and I like to think I’m pretty good at being cool about strange things. If you really want to get knifed on a toilet and/or rolled into an alley after having drunken too much cheap alcohol in a place with live music, there are much more authentic places I can direct you to around here, and you can thank me for all the money you save and the meeting of some, ahem, uniquely interesting folks.
Hat Tips and Politics
When I walk through my neighborhood, everyone who passes by in a car waves to me; and likewise, if I’m driving through my neighborhood, I wave at everyone who is walking by on the street. After this acknowledgement, sometimes the driver has to stop to tell me what a beautiful dog I have, or halt my car to tell me I rolled past the stop sign instead of stopping (some Californian habits don’t die). I had become so accustomed to this customary wave that when I started spending time in Florida, I waved at cars as I was walking my dog. In Florida, when you wave at someone in a car, they don’t wave back – they speed up.
Tennessee also mind-blowingly tax-payer friendly. As I write this, we have a state sales tax holiday, which means no taxes on clothes, software, or computer equipment for the next three days, which will be followed by another sales tax holiday on food so frugal preppers can load their freezers up without having to pay the 9.75% sales tax. There is no income tax, and last year, the Hall income tax, which taxes dividend and interest income over $2500 was repealed. Businesses love it, too. In-and-Out Burgers is finally making it east of the Mississippi – with its headquarters planned right in Franklin, and Buc-ees, the Texas gas station acid trip experience built the world’s biggest station in Sevierville (which just made Texans determined to make one even bigger than it.)
And believe me, you will never understand Tennessee politics as a Californian, nor can Tennesseans understand California politics. People do not register with party affiliations here, and the only way your affiliation can be affirmed is by how you vote in a primary, which is the only time there is a record of you choosing whether to vote as a Democrat or a Republican (or otherwise). If you don’t vote in at least two of the last three primaries, you have no affiliation. Don’t try to figure out Tennessee politics unless you are a Tennessean, you will just misunderstand and keep going around in incomprehension circles.
Conversely, Tennessee does not have popular propositions for the voters to decide, so people here cannot understand that the registered voters themselves supported much of California policy including the high-speed rail project in 2008 and Proposition 47 in 2014. I myself voted on these measures and my vote was not the decisive one, given the vast population of California. I had to explain how the effort to repeal Governor Newson went in the context of the 2000 gubernatorial repeal. Don’t try to figure out California politics unless you are a Californian, you will just misunderstand and keep going around in incomprehension circles.
I am far from alone as an ex-Californian here. A friend from the Bay Area moved here to a cabin on 8 acres in Columbia in 2019, but he is moving on to Connecticut for a new job. I befriended another former ex-Californian from Palo Alto who hosts us all (mother-in-law and sister-in-law included) for Thanksgiving. A model/actor from Los Angeles came to my gym in 2021 and recently got me and Peter onto a movie project that filmed here for a few days, at which point I met another actor from Knoxville who has a podcast and invited me to audition for true crime recreations where she found her most recent niche. The accountant we used who used to have an office in Campbell relocated here during the pandemic, and kept all his California accounts, because he can handle them remotely. I recently saw actor Dennis Quaid perform a song from his just-out gospel album with the band Sixwire a few weeks ago, and he lives here now, too. My neighbors with the big broken trees/chicken coop/hot top moved here from Redwood City, and I can hear them listening to 49er games via an internet channel when they are outside.
The pandemic changed the world, but I was also in a different place than I was when it happened. I am happy to be here, but I do miss the life I once had and my friends there as well.