By Steven Reynolds

This afternoon I noticed new flowers around the entrance sign. They’re nice, all bright and colorful, vibrant, happy yellows and pinks and purples. Almost too nice, really; if I didn’t know better I’d suspect them artificial. I figure they must have been planted by one of the neighborhood’s army of energetic retirees, the ubiquitous golf-cart jockeys who, when they’re not busy gussying up the entrance, patrol the place in search of insubordinate homeowners to obliquely shame in the next community newsletter. Which reminds me… I need to cut my grass.

. . .

Oak Mountain Estates. The first third of the name rather fits, as the place lies under an almost solid canopy of big hardwoods. I’m even okay with “Mountain”; the neighborhood is indeed draped over one of Appalachia’s southernmost wrinkles, even if the terrain does top out at an unimpressive twelve hundred feet. But ask me where I live, and I will always leave off the “Estates.” It seems so pretentious, that word, so out of place in this blue-collar bit of Georgia. Worse than that though, it just screams “SUBDIVISION.”

. . .

I don’t mind being an undesirable, especially since I’m not the only person in the neighborhood not fully embraced by the community mainstream. About a dozen houses dot Oak Mountain’s two-mile-long ridge, mine being the fourth from the west end. None of us “ridge rats” (as I imagine we’re called by the rest of the neighborhood) keeps a particularly spiffy yard or dedicates his life to home improvement. None of us regularly attends the bimonthly community meetings. Everyone up here works for a living, and I, for one, like to come home and enjoy the peace and privacy the mountain should offer. Let the optometrist and the tax attorney and the anal-retentive retirees have their perfect lake lots, their meticulously manicured lawns, their spotless houses. And may their electric golf carts die on the long, steep hill that leads to Mountain Ridge Drive.

. . .

In one of my all-time favorite photographs, an unpaved road winds into an autumn-kissed hardwood forest, the gray gravel resting peacefully beneath a blanket of earthy orange and red. Mature oaks and hickories join limbs above, creating a charming tunnel effect, filtering out sun and sky and anything unwholesome. It’s Kinkade-esque simplicity, an inviting tease, a window into a world too perfect for human intrusion.

I snapped that shot with my iPhone last October, a half mile from my driveway.

. . .

Just down the hill, a stone’s throw from the road, lies an artesian well. Decades ago someone tapped the mountain’s perched aquifer, and ever since, out of that naked spout has continuously flowed the purest water in Georgia. Okay, perhaps the ancient (hopefully not lead) piping slightly compromises its purity, but it’s still some superb-tasting water. It’s my favorite neighborhood amenity, that well, above the tennis courts, the swimming pool, and even the five stocked lakes. The Oak Mountaineer, our monthly newsletter, regularly encourages residents to take advantage of the free drinking water. I happily comply.

. . .

Through the trees I see only one neighboring house, a quaint, two-story log cabin with a brown metal roof and wrap-around gravel driveway. Its occupant, Will, recently adopted a beagle, which he’s been keeping in his kitchen and consequently proving a level of patience that’s utterly beyond me. Last Tuesday, knowing his new family member needs more space than his kitchen can offer, Will spent a grand on fence posts and wire and gates and such, which I’d reluctantly agreed to help him assemble this weekend. I want to be a good neighbor, I do; but it’s the middle of a record-hot August and the ground here is almost exclusively rock. I’ll confess, yesterday when he told me Oak Mountain’s “aesthetic preservation” committee had caught wind of his plans and immediately rejected them, my outrage wasn’t wholly genuine.

. . .

Almost directly across from my house stands a water tower. It’s huge, naturally, as it supplies overly chlorinated H2O to the entire northern half of the county. A subtle blue, it tries (and fails miserably) to blend in with the sky. TALBOT COUNTY spans the top, straightforward and plain, as if warning travelers and potential tourists to find their good times elsewhere.

More than once I’ve contemplated climbing that massive steel cylinder, a thought derived from my grandfather’s well-worn stories of his scaling Woodbury’s tower back when he was “a barefoot boy.” Heroic, he made it seem, a feat to quite literally tell the grandkids about. It would be simple enough I think; once I made it over the chain-link fence, I could toss my trusty knotted rope over the slick, stainless-steel, climb-discouraging plate that covers the ladder’s first five rungs, and up I’d go.

I’m not sure what the summit would hold for me. Some sort of emotional reward I’d hope, perhaps even an altitude-induced epiphany. At the very least, I’d gain a story to tell my future grandkids. That is, of course, if the eagle-eyed retirees wouldn’t shoot me down.

. . .

“Springtime is among us, and ALL residents are expected to clean up their lots and homes. Please: spruce up your front porch and yard to boost curb appeal; clear all clutter; clean gutters and downspouts and wash siding and soffits; clean garage and surrounding areas; maintain wood decks and fences. And if you have a neighbor who is elderly or disabled, you should help him or her clean up as well.” –The Oak Mountaineer, April 2016

. . .

My house doesn’t sit square in its lot. Instead of facing the street like houses here tend to do, mine is turned slightly left, sort of showing its corner to the world. No, it’s not architectural anarchy, at least not entirely; the house’s posture is actually quite strategic. When I look out my living-room window, I see huge trunks of oak and hickory, dogwoods and buckeyes scattered in between. Were the house positioned properly, my front window would be full of water tower.

. . .

I hate running. Especially through this neighborhood, where I swear some of the inclines are nearly vertical. But because I’ve yet to discover a more efficient cardio workout, at least once a week I suck it up and hit the streets.

My usual 5K route is a succession of ups and downs, some of the hills gentle and short, some agonizingly steep and long. When it’s over, to cool down and to celebrate my having outrun the Reaper up that last killer hill, I like to slow to a stroll and, high on endorphins, take in the incredible scene that God and the Talbot County Road Department have created for me.

Down the road a bit, the aged asphalt parallels an old creek bed, now fed only by runoff from an ever-flowing artesian well. It’s just enough water for an audible trickle, which this time of year, after sunset, blends into the resounding symphony of cicadas and crickets and treefrogs. It’s not a bad noise. Last Saturday, late dusk, body spent but mind ablaze, I sauntered into that stretch and was greeted by lightning bugs—thousands of them, maybe tens of thousands—flashing and floating ethereally over the road and through the trees, a dazzling sea of gold, lighting my way and brightening my soul.

. . .

I grew up in a singlewide trailer—Rural Route 1, Box 39A—surrounded only by countryside and rusted hogwire. That brand of freedom seeped into my young bones, and will never abandon me. Nor I it.

. . .

I own a Yugo. It’s one of the last of the species I suspect, as most of the communist-built econoboxes fed a crusher long before they reached old age. I don’t drive it (naturally); it just ornaments my side yard. I’ve read Oak Mountain’s covenants, and I know what section 7, subpart A says about inoperative, unregistered vehicles. Yet there it sits, my subtle symbol of rebellion, collecting sap from the prettiest hardwoods in the county. I’m sure eventually, perhaps after the aesthetic preservation committee have run out of fence plans to reject, or when the retirees finally discover gas-powered golf carts, I’ll become the unspecified target of a classic Oak Mountaineer scolding.

A small price to pay, I think.

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