Our meandering drives in Grainger and Union counties in search of land continued for a year or more before we branched out and ventured into the rural counties west and southwest of Knox County. The west part of Knoxville is an area of seemingly endless suburbs and strip malls that stretch their covetous grip over formerly pristine farmland. It’s a cityscape in which historical markers that record massacres of early Europeans and reprisal massacres of Native Americans hide in plain sight in front of Starbucks and gas stations, made effectively invisible by five lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Before our exodus, our home, community, and friends were in the north part of the old city. It was a district of neighborhoods with sidewalks, residents relaxing on front porches, and a short bicycle ride to Harold’s Kosher Deli on Saturday mornings. On summer evenings, we’d stroll a few blocks to the old Bill Meyer Stadium to catch a baseball game with friends. The Smokies’ stadium used the adjoining Standard Knitting Mill as the left-field wall. During smoke breaks, the workers would hang out the windows and catch an inning before heading back to the looms.
On our forays into Roane County, we discovered a landscape of small farms and modest homes. Where a hundred grand would buy five acres and a barn in parts of Grainger, the same amount in rural Roane would purchase 70 acres, with a barn, a well, and a garage.
Nonetheless, stumbling blocks abounded before we found just what we were looking for: We looked at and decided to pass on a small farm in North Roane County. There was a reason the lane it was on was called Seed Tick Road. Next, we put a deposit on 50 acres. Between the road and the rest of the property lay 10 acres of rich bottomland. Bottomland that lay in a hundred-year floodplain. Land that had, unfortunately, flooded from road to hill the next time we visited. The neighbors down the road said, “Hundred years? Nah, it happens every three.” We forfeited the deposit and continued our search.
A couple of months more and we stopped one day to look at a parcel on Paint Rock Road. Cindy insisted on knocking on a neighbor’s door to inquire about the price. (I must digress and point out a significant personality difference between Cindy and myself. Knocking uninvited on a door is, in my book, akin to staring at someone with a disability: an invasion of privacy. Cindy sees it through different eyes. She is practical, never met a stranger. If there is information to be gained, she goes to the source. Which is why one night she spent a pleasant while chatting with Wendell Berry on the phone about Red Poll cattle. But that is a story for another day.)
She went up to the door. I stayed in the truck and tried to look apologetic. Cindy stood at the door chatting with the owners; they laughed and invited her in. She disappeared inside, presumably for a Sunday lunch, before coming back out and climbing into the truck. She waved, they waved, and we drove off.
The acreage for sale next to their house was too expensive. But the neighbors steered us down the road, past the Paint Rock Fire Station and Galyon’s General Store, to a 70-acre farm that was in our price range. It had a long drive up a sloping hill to a level area of about five acres, beyond which was a large pasture rising up to the top of the ridge to the east. We got out of the truck and walked the property. It had a barn, a well, and a three-car garage. The former owner had never gotten around to building a house.
The next few weeks moved fast, and by the end of the month we owned a farm with broken-down perimeter fencing, a mortgage, and no farming tools or equipment, and we were living in a garage on concrete floors. And we owned one very pregnant horse for our troubles.
Now it has been close to 17 years, and Cindy still jumps out of the truck to knock on doors, gets invited inside, while I still urge restraint. But we’ve built a house, barns, and numerous other outbuildings. We’ve put up and repaired more fencing than any sensible person would in a lifetime, acquired enough equipment and tools to keep an estate auction hopping for days, and long since paid off the mortgage.
We still go for Sunday drives and still drive past the farm that might have been. And after heavy rains, it still floods road to ridge on that hundred-year floodplain.
Reading this weekend: Landskipping: painters, ploughmen and places by Anna Pavord