I’m here in my kitchen baking gluten-free goodies for this week’s farmers’ market.
I use homegrown garden squash, eggs from our neighbors, and raw milk from a goat we co-own with the market manager — a sweet little Nigerian named Molasses (the goat, not the manager. The manager is a sweet little Floridian named Donica.) WRSI keeps me company while I cook. Joan Holliday flirts with Storm Team Meteorologist Brian Lapis. It’s just another day.
Based on these activities, one might assume that I am in southern Vermont; but actually, I am in a place called Elizabethton — a small town located in northeastern Tennessee. My husband Mark and I moved here from our beloved Brattleboro last year.
“Betsytown” and “Bratt” are similar. Both are tri-state border towns residing within the Appalachian Mountain range. With respective populations of around 12,000, both are the largest municipalities in their counties. Both are river towns with covered bridges dotting the landscape.
Other similarities exist. Each culture is founded on a “mountain philosophy” of self-reliance and making do. Both areas strongly support local farmers and crafters. The Betsy band and football team excel and are a source of pride, much like those at Brattleboro Union High School.
There are differences, as well.
Let’s start with the weather. Eastern Tennessee’s four seasons are distinct, and they are spectacular. Springtime persists for almost five months — unheard of, by Vermont standards. Fall lasts an impressive four months, leaving two months for summer and the rest for winter.
Talk about climate change! You know that feeling you get, right around mid-August, when the leaves start to change color due to those dipping evening temperatures? You know that dread you have right now, reading this, knowing that you have seven months of it around the corner?
Around here, there is no dread (not for former Vermonters, anyway). From a climatic standpoint, I feel like I’ve ended a bad relationship.
But there is more to life than the weather, as our friends and family love to remind us. They can’t believe we traded in our integrity to sniff a few flowers in the Bible Belt. So let’s skip the small talk, shall we? Commons readers want to get down to the business of politics. You think you’ve got me there, but things are not always as they seem.
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Take taxes. Tennessee enjoys no state income tax. Property taxes are absurdly low compared to Vermont’s rates. (Or are Vermont’s absurdly high?)
Red states tend to have less red tape. Cars are not inspected; dogs are not licensed. Fewer government programs run, such as curbside recycling, but they do have services such as bimonthly curb pickup of special-waste materials. The local community center is huge — more campus than building, sporting three swimming pools.
Where the Volunteer State gets you is at the cash register. Sales tax is almost 10 percent, but this high rate discourages excessive consumerism.
On to a sticky subject: health care. You might assume Tennessee deprives its low-income citizens in this regard, but the reality is a different story. What they do is deny the privilege of health care to capable people who earn no income.
Please note the difference. By not expanding Medicaid coverage, Tennessee incentivizes people to work in order to receive benefits. Once households hit a nominal mark, there are many health-care packages available. (People who are on disability, single mothers, and other marginalized groups can receive Medicaid with low or no income.)
During my Vermont years, I worked part-time, by choice, and received fully subsidized Green Mountain Medicaid — nice for me, but not so nice for taxpayers footing my bill. Vermont has long held such “reward” avenues for its citizens.
Maybe that’s changing, but when I was a single mother raising two boys in the 1990s, I couldn’t afford to work full-time; doing so would increase my income to where I would lose valuable benefits. Adding up my WIC, food stamps, health insurance, daycare, SEVCA, Lifeline utility assistance, and Pell Grants, I would’ve sacrificed over $60,000 in state aid if I had taken the noble route.
Some of you readers share my demographic: Hey, if Vermont’s giving... why not take?
The overprotective nature of the Green Mountain State can encourage an enabling behavior. Down here, you get free health care if you earn it.
That was a harsh wake-up call, but we got jobs and got over it. Furthermore, while we earn the same annual income as we did in Vermont, our Tennessee health care is better. We have legitimate plans versus Medicaid, and our premium is fully subsidized.
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Yes, Tennessee is generally “Red” and Christian. There are more churches per square block than fire hydrants.
While my hippie talents are a dime-a-dozen in Bratt, down here I am something of a pioneer. Still, life is what you make it. There are plenty of progressive folks around here, and my husband and I have found a thriving kindred community. (Both Washington and Carter counties voted for Bernie Sanders in the primaries last year.)
As to the “Red Christians,” they are generally decent people who value the same things we all do: family, friends, and a healthy lifestyle. It may translate a bit differently — a store clerk might wish me a blessed day, for instance — but between you and me, I don’t mind. If you smudge Christianity up against New-Age-ism, they blend pretty well on the canvas. I take the sentiment and leave the paradigm.
Betsytown is a modern day Mayberry. The old-car show runs every Saturday night, and the old drive-in theater runs all summer. What else? Lyme disease is barely known, and affordable skiing thrives: think Hogback and Maple Valley.
Finally, there are the adorable idioms. People say “you’re fine,” instead of “no problem.” This is subtle but telling. The focus seems to be on the positive. You may call this denial; I see it as feeding the white wolf from the parable.
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I’m not trying to sell you on this place. Lord knows, the last thing this area needs is more Yankees like me coming in and buying up all the real estate.
But it’s already too late. Asheville, N.C. — an hour away — is bursting at the seams. Picture Northampton, Mass. with a dollop of Portland, Ore., nestled in the Smoky Mountains, and you have Asheville.
Now that it is saturated, the boom is pushing toward our quieter Tennessee environs. Johnson City — next to Elizabethton — is exploding with gentrification. East Tennessee State University brought in a football team and, next, a Performing Arts Center.
J.C. is now a full-fledged college town, complete with free yoga in the park, weekly drum circles, and chicken wings. Plus, it’s mentioned in the song, Wagon Wheel.
This area is officially cool.
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Five years ago, my husband and I began our search for the “three C’s”: climate, culture, and cost of living. Between winter and taxes, we couldn’t cut it in Vermont anymore.
We researched Panama, Nicaragua, and Ecuador, and we visited Ecuador for a month. During that visit, we discovered a quaint town in the foothills of the Andes named Baños, a friendly region surrounded by rivers and mountains and inhabited by modest Christians. It caught our hearts, and we considered moving there, but wanted to see if we could find a similar place in the states.
Our search finally ended in Betsytown.
Baños is a Spanish word with ambiguous translation, meaning both “healing mineral springs” and “bathroom.” So is our new home in northeastern Tennessee the Fountain of Youth ... or a toilet?
The answer lies in one’s interpretation.
Diehard friends and family roll their eyes at our decision. From our perspective, we’ve found the water to be quite potable.
If you’re fixing to visit, holler at us. And if you happen to just show up unannounced, you’re fine.