Before coming home to "go farming" full time the first of June of this year, I spent several years as the Tennessee state rep for an animal health company of note headquartered not too far away from here.
My primary motivation for taking the position was not financial, although I made a pretty handsome living doing what I did. Instead, what I was most interested in doing was getting to know every key person involved in agriculture in TN and the surrounding states, as well as getting to know every back road, short cut and good place to eat ! I pretty well did it, too, and in so doing I accumulated a lifetime's stories about the colourful people and places in the hills and hollers across this state.
I think one of the strangest (and potentially scariest) stories involved a trip to some of the mountain counties north and east of Knoxville early on in my career. I'm talking here about the OTHER mountain counties; the ones that might as well be on a different planet than the ticky-tacky tourist parade in Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg. Anyway, I got a call from a fellow who was interested in one of our products, and he asked me to come out to his farm to see whether or not I thought the product might help him out. My very first clue that all wasn't right ought to have been that none of the local agricultural sales reps wanted to ride over there with me that day, but I was new to the job at the time and didn't know any better !
I turned off the paved road about 50 miles northeast of Knoxville, and I proceeded for what seemed like forever down an ever grimmer selection of side roads; first gravel, then dirt, and finally two muddy tire tracks with grass growing in the middle and junk littering the verges. The last several miles took me up and over a mountain, and in addition to the junk the road was lined on both sides with tar paper shacks and old trailers that ought to have been abandoned but clearly weren't. Worse yet, the mostly toothless and very scary inhabitants ALL came outside to watch the stranger pass. It was a scene straight out of my worst Appalachian nightmare. I was really wondering whether or not I'd have to squeal like a pig before the day was over.
Much to my surprise and wonderment, I came down off the mountain into an open valley and onto a truly pretty farm; everything brand new and all well done. It's never wise to get out of the car in those parts without hailing the house first, and that's what I did. After awhile, the "farmer" came out and we had a nice visit about our products, although I was never invited to leave the confines of my car; again, very odd in a place still known for it's hospitality. Some while later, I asked the "farmer" about my drive over the mountain. I was assured by the "farmer" that my safety was never in question as he was related to every one of the occupants of the dwellings and that he had known my whereabouts from the time I turned off the paved road quite a few miles back. I don't know what he did to make his money, or who's safety he was concerned about...his or mine....but I know his comment made the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up and I made some haste getting the hell off his mountain.
After I got back on the paved road, got something to eat, and got my nerves calmed down, I proceeded on toward my motel, located in another little mountain town some ways away. It was well on into the fall and dark by the time I left my supper, so when I saw a big set of floodlights off the highway a little ways I immediately thought "high school football game". What better way to relax and calm down after such a fretful day ? As I turned off the highway, I first realized I might be somewhat mistaken when I noticed all the razor wire and guards at the entrance...not normal precautions at most rural high school games in my limited experience. Of course, there was nowhere and no way to turn around, so I proceeded up toward the guard shacks. When I got there I tried to explain my predicament to them but they cut me off with a very curt, "Ain't no football bein' played up here tonight." For the second time that day, I made some haste in taking my leave. After all that excitement, I pretty much went straight to my motel and went to bed ! A couple of weeks later I read about the arrest of thousands of people at the state's largest outdoor cock fighting arena.....at the same address where my "football game" was being played !
Moral of the story ? When one is poking around in deeply unfamiliar mountainous territory, it's often wise to have some local knowledge in the passenger seat with you, especially if your name is Jason Webb ! :)
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