Photo: Shannon Dell

TENNESSEE,

For 23 years, I mocked you as a wasteland cluttered with pro-life billboards, stiff pews, Civil War re-enactments, and See Rock City barns. You were where people got trapped in Nashville for the unrealistic hope of strutting across the Grand Ole Opry stage, Memphis for the booze of Beale Street, Knoxville for that atrocious color orange, and Chattanooga because some online poll told them and their Rock Creek gear that it was the greatest city in the whole damn country. You were where bored 20-somethings had to drive to the neighboring county just to get a buzz and where those who had never left pledged an unsettling allegiance to. But me? I couldn’t run away any faster.

I spent the next three years in sultry Savannah, seduced by Spanish moss and 18th-century cobblestones. Her river’s sulfuric stench was more manageable than your river’s. Her steamboat gothic porches were more beautiful than your historic homes of St. Elmo. Her tattered thrift stores had more character than your boutiques of North Shore. And her people didn’t give two shits about where I spent my Sunday mornings like yours did.

But 8-ounce plastic cups of Scorpion Teas got watered down with ice, greasy pizza slices from Sweet Melissa’s lost their steam, and the grass of Forsyth Park started to brown. Like with most passionate love affairs, Savannah eventually lost its appeal, and I found myself in another pocket of the South — Atlanta. I spent a year in Spaghetti Junction plagued by Peachtree signs and car horns before hopping on the Amtrak to explore the United States from the twists, turns, and tunnels of railroad tracks.

Three months later, with a burnt-up wallet and oversized backpack, I found myself home in you, Tennessee. And I really couldn’t have been more pissed.

But the enjoyment of a place comes from a person rather than the place itself. With this realization, I quit burning my disdain for you into ashtrays over cigarette porch talks gulped down with “I can’t believe I’m back here again” beer swigs. I quit hating you. Instead, I explored you. And over that year, all your blemishes and bruises became beautiful.

Your Autumn smelled like burnt firewood and damp leaves stuck to the soles of my shoes as I hiked your mountain trails. Roasts simmered and cooked in cast irons over fires as orange basements echoed with shouts and stomps on Game Days. Your weekends were carved out for cabin trips to the Blue Ridge Mountains, craft fairs at Ketner’s Mill, and mandolins plucking with the crackle of bonfires and the pouring of peach cobbler moonshine into mason jars. Your colorful mountains and hills — orange, brown, yellow, and red — pulled me in with their warm, familial fragrance of ashy fire pits, apple cider mugs, and tires on dirt roads churned with mud and fallen leaves.

Your Winter felt like the burn of Jack Daniel’s. Casserole dishes upon casserole dishes piled in the refrigerator to give out to neighbors; hands cramped and stung with the 17 thank-you notes for tins of white chocolate macadamia nut Christie Cookies, vanilla cupcake Yankee Candles, and Vols snow globes. Scoops of buttery nuts n’ bolts thawed hands from your 38-degree afternoons spent making slushy snowmen, muddy snow angels, and bowls of almond snow cream. Baptist choirs behind pulpit nativity scenes rang their voices in harmony in a way that moved the least religious of ears, and cars stuffed with pink-cheeked families drove 10 mph around neighborhoods for the glow of holiday lights.

Your Spring tasted like cold and spicy pimento cheese on slices of white bread washed down with glasses of sweet iced tea beaded with condensation. Spring Equinoxes were celebrated on the oldest still active intentional community in North America, and bohemian skirts flowed past craft booths at barbecue and folk festivals. Your creeks filled back up, and your mountains turned green and lush. Humidity thickened and chiggers crawled on my toes, but painted trilliums and purple phacelia covering you in a blanket of sweet wildflowers kept me in your outdoors. Fingers pruned from styrofoam cups of Cajun-boiled peanuts during evening drives, the windows rolled down to toss peanuts husks on your hot asphalt and to wave at every familiar stranger.

And your Summer sounded like thunder and rain clapping in rhythm with the creak of rocking chairs on screened-in porches. Morton Rock Salt poured into humming ice cream makers while salty peanuts soaked in sweet bottles of cold Coca-Cola and pop-tops broke the seals of fizzy Sun Drop cans. Your Chimney Tops, waterfalls, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park trails were explored, and my feet nervously broke away from boulders into chilly blue-holes and creeks. Standup paddleboards snaked around rivers as sunsets spilled onto mountains, inviting the glow of lightning bugs to illuminate nightfall.

At the end of the year, I left you again. Not out of disdain or resentment, but rather to explore outside your borders. And I have to admit, Tennessee, I’ve found myself missing pieces of you — the deep green backyards, baskets of messy barbecue, jugs of iced tea, and plates of “meat and three” cooked by those who say “bless your heart” and “fixin’ to.” I miss your walking bridges, damp caves, buggies, and biscuits. And, of course, I miss your people who find an excuse for all occasions to float through life at a pace of true Southern mobility.

Here’s the thing, Tennessee — I may never live with you again. And that’s okay. Because while for 23 years, I mocked you as a wasteland cluttered with pro-life billboards, stiff pews, Civil War reenactments, and See Rock City barns, for one year we got along. And as far as I’m concerned, that makes us friends.

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