Wondering what "Atlanta to Appalachia" is all about? It's part of an occasional series about life in the wilds of West Virginia through the eyes of a couple who never dreamed they'd love it there. Read previous installments here.
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At the moment, I'm performing a magic show for a duck-hunting doctor, an expert in underground drilling and four home-schooled children. They're not the only ones watching me make a bottle of Diet Pepsi disappear and re-appear with the snap of my fingers. There's also a nurse, an artist and a couple dozen others. And, of course, an 89-year-old dairy farmer.
My wife Elizabeth and I were invited to a holiday block party for everyone who lives on our road, a proudly eclectic group of people to say the least. As a writer who works from home in his pajamas, I fit right in.
I was a teenage magician back in the 1980s, watching in amazement as David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear live on national television. Ever the entrepreneur, I made business cards with the name of my company "All Occasion Magic" on them, clearly unaware of the intricacies of opening a corporation under U.S. law. I also dubbed myself a "kosher magician," perhaps thinking there was some sort of rabbinic supervision that would grant me an edge on the bar mitzvah party circuit.
Our neighbor Marie, who was organizing the block party, knew of my previous career as Atlanta's second most famous Jewish kid magician. (I never could quite catch up to the popularity of Brian Grossblatt, a few years my senior, whose tricks were always more advanced than mine.) She asked if I'd come out of retirement to put on a show for the Hoard Road crew. I told her it would be my pleasure, and promptly headed to my garage to dust off an old suitcase full of tricks. I didn't mind at all; I was just happy to be invited to the party.
You see, I've lived my entire life in typical American suburbia and was never once invited to a block party. But a few years ago, Elizabeth and I moved into the woods in the Appalachian Mountains — where each neighbor lives about a quarter mile apart — and all of a sudden we're being invited to potlucks and asked to perform magic.
The truth is, living in such a remote area, the importance of neighbors takes on a whole new meaning. I remember last year, when a tree fell, blocking the road, a few neighbors with pickup trucks hauled it away within an hour. When we first moved out here, we heard how the city doesn't come out this far to clear the road of snow, but not to worry: the farmer does it himself using his tractor.
The party today is taking place at the local chapter of the Isaak Walton League, of which Marie is a member. It's named after the famous 17th century father of fly fishing and author of "The Compleat Angler." Hundreds of local chapters like this one can be found across America. This particular one-story building, like many structures in Appalachia, looks like it was frozen sometime during the Nixon administration and defrosted just to host this Thanksgiving feast.
Because we recently became backyard chicken keepers, and because we have more eggs than we know what to do with, Elizabeth brought deviled eggs. She dressed them up to look like our flock, which we lovingly nicknamed the "Co-Hens."
One dish that would be noticeably absent from this year's affair was "Broken Glass" pie, a retro recipe from the 1960s featuring a graham cracker crust, Cool Whip and "shards" of Jell-O of varying colors. The dessert was from the kitchen of Mary Jane, the matriarch of Hoard Road and the wife of our beloved dairy farmer. She passed away a few weeks ago at the age of 90, after 66 years of marriage to Chuck. They met in high school and went square-dancing on their first date.
This block party was the first big communal gathering since her funeral earlier this month. Despite her age, Mary Jane knew how to light up a room with her broad smile and sly wit. At last year's New Year's Eve party, she cracked jokes as she beat us all at board games.
The conversation at the gathering revolves around the usual topic of choice for those living the country life: animals. We talked about our pets and, together, hatched a plan to catch our neighbor's renegade chicken who keeps escaping from her yard. We talked about another neighbor's basset hound who keeps walking over to the cafe with the slot machines down the road. "He's got a gambling problem," someone joked.
In his seminal book, "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community," sociologist Robert D. Putnam surveys the decline of shared social and civic activities. He notes the loss of membership in fraternal organizations like the Rotary and Kiwanis. The book, written nearly 20 years ago, was published before the era of smartphones when people are tuning out those around them even more. So living the life that we currently do – being invited to block parties and helping milk our neighbor's cows – is a welcome change.
We are a random collective of people who, by dint of luck and geography, have created a neighborhood family. Most communal groups nowadays — whether online or off — coalesce themselves around a cause (the installation of speed bumps on a street) or an event (a kid's soccer match). Over on Hoard Road, we simply celebrate the fact that we all live near each other.
And I'm beginning to realize that that's an important aspect of rural life: Even though you can't see your neighbor's house, we're more reliant on each other than those who live in an urban environment. Who else are you going to call to borrow a chainsaw or when you need help pulling your truck out of a ditch?
Living in rural America, where all of our mailboxes are grouped together at the top of our street, encourages us to see each other on a daily basis. We check in with each other. We ask about the animals. And we invite each other over to our homes. We've already received an invite to the New Year's Eve block party. And I already know what I'll be bringing.
Before Mary Jane passed away, she left me an envelope in my mailbox. It was the recipe to her famous Broken Glass Jell-O pie.