Feature

Leaving Home

Thoughts on pulling up deep roots.

by DEBBIE GILBERT

ell, this is it.

I honestly thought I would spend the rest of my life in Memphis. My family moved to this city two years after I was born in Alabama, and though I've traveled a lot, I've never lived anywhere else. Even went to college and graduate school here in town. Saw no reason to leave. Figured I'd be around Memphis until I shuffled off this mortal coil at some point in the mid-21st century, and then maybe I'd get buried in Elmwood alongside all those old rich guys we named streets after.

PHOTO BY DEBBIE GILBERT
Debbie and Sunny, the Wonder Dog
I used to take a rather dim view of anyone who would pack up and run off to a faraway city just for the sake of a job. Sure, you've got a salary, but what good is it if your family and friends aren't there?

Now, however, I realize I may have judged such people too harshly; ruthless ambition is not always the reason for seeking a career move. In my case, it was about finding a convergence between the work you do and the person you are. There are basically only two things I've ever wanted out of life: to be a writer, and to spend as much time outdoors as I could possibly get away with.

So when The Times, a daily newspaper in Gainesville, Georgia -- 50 miles northeast of Atlanta -- offered me a job as an environmental reporter, I said yes.

My primary beat will be covering Lake Lanier, a 38,000-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake that gets 7 million recreational visitors a year, but which also happens to be the source of drinking water for the entire Atlanta metro area, so water quality is a crucial concern. I'll also be reporting on the Chattahoochee National Forest and the Blue Ridge Mountains north of town.

Some have questioned why I would choose to work for a corporate-owned daily, where the atmosphere is admittedly not nearly as laid-back and fun as it is at the Flyer. The answer is that, from a journalism standpoint, The Times offers several opportunities that were not available to me in Memphis, including: the chance to be a full-time writer, rather than being involved mostly with editing and production; the chance to report breaking news, which is almost impossible at a weekly; and the chance to concentrate on the environment, which I believe will eventually become the most important issue facing human society (though most people won't understand this until some sort of crisis develops).

The biggest factor in my decision, however, was not the job itself but where it's located -- in an area that could never be described as "urban." As cities go, Memphis isn't a terrible one; I just don't care much for cities, period. I'm not impressed with man-made things, and too much concrete and asphalt makes me restless. I feel truly alive only when I'm in the mountains, and the rest of the time I'm just going through the motions, waiting to get back up there.

For the last 15 years, I have sought out the best hiking spots in North America -- a very costly and time-consuming quest. Let's face it: Memphis is not exactly hiker heaven. It's a three-hour drive to the Ozarks, eight hours to the Smokies, a long plane flight to the Rockies or Cascades. And when you return, there's always a let-down; the Mississippi Delta, for all its charms, is just so flat. For me, it makes more sense to eliminate all the back-and-forth and just stay in the mountains.

So, while I will be working in Gainesville (population of Hall County, about 120,000), I'll actually be living in the tiny mountain town of Cleveland, Georgia (population, 2,000; population of White County, less than 19,000). One hour west of my home is Amicalola Falls State Park, the starting point of the Appalachian Trail. Fifteen miles to the north of me is Unicoi State Park and Anna Ruby Falls, and a little beyond that is Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia (4,784 feet).

Let me put this another way: When I look out the window of my new home in Georgia, I see peaceful green mountains. When I look out the window of my home in Memphis, I see the Paris Adult Theatre.

Which would you choose?

Now, I'm not dismissing the many amenities and attractions Memphis has to offer. This is a great place for tourists, who come in search of legends and usually seem to enjoy themselves. But the truth is that Memphis' most famous assets are things I'm just not interested in.

Barbecue? Give me a break. I'm a vegetarian.

Elvis? Don't make me laugh. I grew up near Graceland, and I could never figure out why everyone made such a big deal about a somewhat dull-witted, emotionally infantile man who never actually wrote a song in his entire life.

The blues? Hey, here's a news flash for you: It's the same tune. All blues musicians play the same tune, over and over.

Real Memphians know that the best entertainment in town can be found not on Beale Street but in local politics; we should charge admission to the upcoming mayoral election.

All of that said, there are a number of things I know I will feel nostalgic for after I leave. Among them:

· Overton Park, where I have walked in "my" forest virtually every day for more than a decade. Despite all of its problems, the park is still a miracle. When shafts of sunlight stream through the tree branches early in the morning, it makes you want to drop to your knees and pray.

· The big old oak trees that line the streets in Midtown -- particularly the way they form a canopy over North Parkway.

· The V&E Greenline trail, a community project that perfectly demonstrates the power of grass-roots activism.

· Memphis water, the best I've ever tasted in the continental United States. Only Alaska and western Canada have us beat.

· And, oddly enough, The Commercial Appeal. Regardless of what anyone says about the relative merits of the paper, it has been a fixture in my morning routine since I learned to read 33 years ago.

But cities are, for the most part, interchangeable; it's people who are unique. What I'll miss most about Memphis is my father, brother, sisters, and their families, all of whom still live in the area. I especially regret leaving my little red-headed nephew Elijah, who's now 11 months old and attempting to take his first steps. I wanted so much to be able to watch him grow up.

I'll also miss all of my hiking friends in the Tennessee Trails Association, with whom I've taken so many wonderful trips. They've trudged hundreds of miles through the woods with me and never even complained when I've gotten them lost.

And finally, I'll miss the editorial staff of The Memphis Flyer, with whom I've worked since the very first issue in 1989 (and before that, I worked at our sister publication, Memphis magazine). They are some of the smartest, funniest people in this city, and we have such a great time hanging around the "happy table" after our work is done (and sometimes before). The people in this company treat each other like family; when one person has a crisis, the others rally around in support. It has been a privilege to work with them.

Unfortunately, I can't stay in Memphis just to be near the people I love; I wish that, instead, I could somehow take all of them with me.

But leaving doesn't mean I'm giving up on Memphis -- I will always consider this my hometown. It's a city with enormous potential waiting to be tapped; all it needs is some competent people to step in, take charge, and get things done. Right now, our putative leaders spend most of their time bickering among themselves and protecting their own egos. But this can be changed, and one of the tools for doing so can be found right in your wallet. It's called a voter registration card.

To all of those who are trying, often without compensation or recognition, to make Memphis a better place to live: I salute you. Keep up the good work.

And to all of those who commit crimes and trash things and make our city a bad place to live: May you rot in hell.

I want to come back to Memphis as a tourist in a few years and see the finished results of projects currently in the works: the new Central Library, AutoZone Park and all the other downtown development, the Pacific Northwest exhibit at the zoo. (I do not, however, have any desire to see what the Wolfchase area will look like five years from now. That's an ugly image to contemplate.)

I'm asking each of you reading this to watch over the city for me while I'm gone. It deserves better treatment than it's getting. Take care of the environment and all the people who live within it. It's not Memphis' fault, after all, that it doesn't have mountains.

If it were just a little more vertical, perhaps I could have stayed.


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