THOMASVILLE—This small Georgia town is painted with late afternoon shadows and it looks like an illustration fit for the cover of “The Saturday Evening Post.”
An old man in a fedora is walking his dog. A few kids ride bikes. A lady waters her plants. You’d swear the year was 1952.
I want to move here.
My wife claims I say this whenever we enter a pretty town. “I wanna move here,” I’ll insist. Then she’ll roll her eyes so hard she gives herself a migraine.
We’ve been on the road for weeks, traveling through the southeast, so I’ve said those words a lot. Whenever we pass through an attractive city my wife sets a timer to see how long it takes me to suggest moving there.
My current record is one minute and 18 seconds.
Our first stop today is an enormous oak tree, perched near a residential intersection. It has a fat base and titanic limbs covered in resurrection ferns, which blanket the bark like green fur. The branches stretch outward like colossal spider legs, sweeping to the ground.
Big Oak is one of America’s oldest live oak trees. The ancient hardwood has been here since 1680, back when Jamestown was still the capital, and the colonists had not yet discovered Starbucks.
“This tree’s been hit by lots of cars,” says one Thomasville resident. “Trucks ram right into it, or crash into the limbs.”
But somehow it’s still here after 330-some-odd years of ironic catastrophes. And it’s still just as lovely.
When you stand beneath it you get the uncontrollable urge to touch it. But be careful. Because every yahoo tourist like me has been touching it, and COVID-19 is currently one of America’s leading causes of death.
Even so, I rest a bare hand upon the gnarled bark. The tree is warm.
It’s taken real effort to keep Big Oak alive. The tree has steel support cables, an underground watering system, and its own on-call arboriculturist doctor. That’s how much Thomasville people care about this tree.
Which only proves that Thomasvillians are good folks.
Broad Street is picturesque today. West Jackson Street is serene. The houses couldn’t be any cuter. There are flowers in every yard, and plants on every porch. It’s no wonder they call this place the City of Roses.
Not that it matters, but the first book I ever wrote made it to Thomasville first. Years ago, a gal who owns a local bookstore was the first to carry my literary effort. She contacted me one day and asked if I’d come to town and sign some of her “inventory.”
“Inventory?” I said. What the heck is inventory?
I’ve never had much confidence as a writer. When it comes to writing, I consider myself a guy who tries real hard, but that’s about it. I have no illusions, I know I have a limited vocabulary. My grammar ain’t so good, an my spellin’s even wurse.
So I thought this inventory business was a prank, probably orchestrated by my cousin Ed Lee. I thought he was getting back at me for the eggnog I spilled in his truck heater vent one Christmas, years ago.
But this was no joke. The store on 126 South Broad Street was carrying my book. I called the store anonymously just because I couldn’t believe it. I asked if they carried a book by a guy named Sean Dietrich.
“Never heard of him,” said the employee. “Spell his last name.”
So I did. My last name has long been a subject of ridicule. The words forming my name are “diet” and “rich.” I was a chubby kid, too. You can just imagine.
“Yep,” she said. “We carry that book.”
My eyes filled with saline. I thanked her, hung up the phone, and I felt taller. You never forget something like that.
After lunch, I take a walk through the residential section to admire the old clapboards and Queen Anne rooflines. I pass a young man wearing a surgical mask with an Atlanta Braves logo printed on the front.
I point to his facemask and compliment him on his impeccable fashion sense.
Then I see a man working in his front yard. He is also wearing a mask. I wave to him. He waves back.
These could all be scenes from Mayberry if it weren’t for the sci-fi face gear we’re all wearing.
In the past weeks of travel, I’ve seen masks in five different states. And I’ve been fascinated at the behavior that accompanies them. If you ask me, people today are more considerate than ever before in history.
Last week in South Carolina, for instance, I watched a young boy meandering on a sidewalk, wearing a respirator. He thoughtfully stepped aside by about five feet to let a group of elderly women pass him. That would have never happened last year.
In Birmingham, I saw a man open the door for an elderly lady. Which doesn’t sound like a big deal, except he did it in a cool way. He tugged the door open, removed his sandal, and used it as a doorstop. Then he stepped backward ten feet to let her inside.
You definitely wouldn’t have seen that before COVID.
So if you ask me, something good is happening in the midst of a nightmare. People are being nicer. Six months indoors has changed us, and it has made us courteous. Then again, maybe I’m just delirious. After all, I am in the City of Roses.
And in case I haven’t mentioned it, I want to move here.