Picture driving between the mountains of Vermont, through the Massachusetts Berkshires, cutting across the Constitution state and crossing the great Hudson River as you spy New York City before entering into New Jersey — and that is only the first five-and-a-half out of the 13-hour drive.
The destination: Shady Valley, Tennessee— a small town of 1,018 southern hospitality residents nestled in the center of the Cherokee National Forest Park.
Meeting up at 6:00 a.m. in the Hoot ‘N’ Scoot parking lot at Keene State College on Saturday March 15, the Alternative Spring Break (ASB) Tennessee group shivered in the Keene morning air, struggling to fit seven bulging suitcases into a Ford Fusion and Dodge Charger.
“We will make it work,” senior Kelsey Bumsted said.
Taking turns behind the wheel, members of ‘Team Dodge’ started talking about anything that any of them could think of.
Are millennials the next generation of hippies? How could two of them not have seen each other once since they were both living in Portsmouth during the summer of 2013? Is Bill O’Reilly an idiot?
Cascading between conversations were the smooth licks and melodies of a road trip playlist that would put most Hollywood Motion Pictures montage scenes to shame.
By 1 p.m., ASB Tennessee was pulling into a small Pennsylvania town to fill up on gas and grab a few snacks from Redneck’s Warehouse — where a local child proceeded to point at a few in the group and asked his mother, “Mom… Are those dogs?” Without hesitation the mother agreed, causing much life reflection to occur.
The car rentals crossed the state line into the densely wooded area that was our destination: Tennessee. Around 8:30 p.m., the sun just barely hid behind the Appalachian mountains of Cherokee National Forest.
Twist and turns ensued as the shadows grew deeper and darker, crossing the road as the sounds of a rushing river could be heard to our right.
Making it to the “Fire Hall,” what we call a fire station in the north, we met our contact and his wife: Charles and Helen McQueen. What they say about southern hospitality must have formed over these two.
Upon getting out of our cars, we were immediately greeted with handshakes, ‘how do you do’s’ and a glorious amount of welcomes.
You could quickly tell these people were happy with life and loved to draw quick smiles.
When seeing that I was the only male in the group, McQueen was observant to quickly proclaim, “You are a lucky boy to be with six beautiful women for a week. How did you get so lucky?”
We quickly got into our work the next day, meeting Charles at the shop, a tractor selling business that he owns. Walking behind his business, he pointed to a pile of wood poles about seven feet tall.
“We have to cut those for the fence. Do you know how to use a chainsaw, Zak?” Luckily I did. McQueen and I quickly began cutting the bottom of the poles into points to make them easier to be hammered into the ground. Whenever we were done, two of the girls would come over, grab them and haul them to the truck; laughing their entire way over as they struggled at times to lift the wood.
Occasionally, I would pick up one on my own, causing my group members to refer to me as Paul Bunyan for the rest of the day. Being 6’6’’ obviously helps a bit with both the task and the nickname.
When having enough, he would tell one car to follow and that two of us could go in the truck with him. I chose to go with him this first time, eager to get to know more about him.
We began driving through this “community,” a word that describes Shady Valley by Tennessee law as there weren’t enough people that lived here to legally call it a town.
Being a fifth generation Shady Valley resident, the amount of history and stories he was able to tell on just a 300-foot piece of road was stunning. McQueen narrated how there was a battle fought in the Civil War right across the mountains and how in 2002, Shady Valley became primarily beef cattle farming area after Tennessee stopped subsidizing tobacco farming.
Charles was an encyclopedia of knowledge.
After lunch, he mentioned how he would love to take us to see his son at the Aquaculture facility that the Mountain City High School had.
“Let’s meet tomorrow at ten a.m. again at the shop. We will go up there,” McQueen said.
“Are we continuing the fence today?” we wondered.
“Nah. Go explore the area. I am sure you would love to do that.”
The aquaculture facility was absolutely amazing and run by McQueen’s son, Kenneth. Run completely on thermal heat that is captured from the ground, this green facility teaches students to grow, sustain, and sell koi and tilapia fish.
The tilapia, to our astonishment, could be sold to local restaurants at a price that was on par with what you could get at grocery store chains.
To see full story go to keene-equinox.com
Zak Koehler can be contacted at email@example.com