Picture this, if you will:
A young hillbilly — a real hillbilly, complete with bare feet and a moonshine background — hardly two years out of the mountains of East Tennessee. Still wet behind the ears. Still green as a pine bough. Still as naïve as anyone else who’d never seen the world over the tops of those mountains.
Take that poor, clueless kid — and drop him in the middle of downtown Los Angeles.
I was that poor hillbilly. I’d grown up reading and hearing all about big-city life and how the “City of Angels” was the stuff of dreams.
So when the Marine Corps sent me to nearby Anaheim, I took the first available weekend to make my maiden voyage into L.A.
Let’s just say I, uh, wasn’t quite prepared.
I headed straight to Hollywood Boulevard. I’d bought a tourist map, and I was told I might see some real stars there. I saw the ones etched on the sidewalk, but I was too busy trying to take in what I was seeing to recognize anyone famous.
Talk about your basic culture shock. This happened in the early ’80s, and let’s just say the fashion at the time was a little more advanced than my hillbilly attire (jeans and a T-shirt). I saw guys with shaved heads and dyed Mohawks, feathered earrings dangling from their lobes. One looked as if some poor guy had hooked up with a parrot and their offspring was strutting down the boulevard.
Saw some other guys wearing tight leather pants; others were wearing big, baggy, silk britches. Some of them wore more jewelry than my granny owned. I grew up wearing either tennis shoes or work boots. That was it. Those guys? I had no idea there were so many expensive options for a man’s feet.
The women wore ... well, not much of anything, to be honest. As a 20-year-old, I was OK with it.
I forgot to do any touring. I probably would have tripped over my jaw after having it drop to the ground so many times.
I rented a little convertible sports car so I could drive up the coast. I’ve always liked a leisurely drive when checking out scenery.
Californians don’t do leisurely drives. I’m a pickup truck kind of guy, and in that low-riding car, I thought for sure I was gonna get squished. I don’t know why they bother having speed limits, because everyone was flying around me like bats straight out of Hades.
Know what they call a leisurely driver in California?
I managed to earn invitations to parties at some real palaces. I still don’t know what I was doing there. It ain’t like I fit in even a little bit. One mansion boasted something like 30 rooms. Why? How many rooms can a guy/gal be in at one time? One place had a big statue made of solid gold. Holy crap. How many bass boats could I have bought with what the owner paid for that statue of a nekked woman? I sat in chairs that cost more than several years’ worth of my salary. One guy’s home featured a fireplace that took up an entire wall and practically needed whole trees to fill. Dude. You trying to grill us or warm us? And who burns a fireplace in California weather?
Not even a year later, the same hillbilly managed to land in New York City. Holy fuh-gedda-boudit. Yet another culture shock awaited me. Buildings taller than my Tennessee mountains and people crammed on top of one another like toothpicks in a box. I don’t know where everyone was going, but they all sure were in a hurry. Not many people drive in NYC, but they walk everywhere — fast.
Know what they call a slow walker in New York?
Got to visit lots of other big cities over those next few years. Took a shuttle in Tokyo, and although I often was the biggest guy on the sidewalks, I got trucked by fast-moving people in a hurry to do whatever they were gonna do. Know what they call big, slow-moving guys in Tokyo? “Supīdobanpu.”
Spent a few weekends in Las Vegas, and I still haven’t caught up on the sleep I lost. Went to a fancy steakhouse on payday (before I could lose it all in a casino) just because I could. I asked for the best steak they offered, and nearly spit the whole thing back up when I saw the bill.
A hundred bucks for a piece of dead cow? I had no idea any meal for one could be so expensive. Otherwise, I would have stuck to something closer to my meager budget. Chips and salsa, maybe.
I really wanted to meet that cow and shake its hoof. To think I’ve been grilling cheap cows all my life.
Once I settled back in Texas for good, I hit all the big cities in our great state. Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio. Yes, Houston, where every driver thinks he’s auditioning for NASCAR, and what should be a five-minute drive takes an hour and a half. Dallas, with all those crazy overpass designs, where if you miss your exit you gotta drive to El Paso to turn around.
Big, big cities.
Y’all can have ’em.
You can take the hillbilly out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountain guy and plop him in the middle of all that bustle. It’s weird to think my youthful dreams consisted of living where life was fast, the lights were bright and the entertainment was endless. My dad, from whom I inherited my hillbilly gene, tried telling me about “KISS” — “Keep it Simple, Stupid.” He knew me better than I knew myself.
Boy, was I ever dumb.
I’m glad I had those experiences. They were great teachers. From them, I learned all about what really was important for me. Turns out it had nothing to do with living and moving fast.
I learned I’d never be in much of a hurry to get anywhere, so I need to live somewhere with a slower pace, and with people like me who won’t use me for a speed bump. I need more trees than buildings.
I learned just how complicated life in a big city could get, with all the places to see and things to do. I learned I happen to like needing just five minutes to drive — well, five minutes. I learned the Fridays I spent planning big nights out don’t compare to the Fridays I get to pup-sit my grand-dog Hallie.
I learned that the cheap cows I throw on my grill taste even better than those Vegas cows, and how having a grill right here on my back porch is extremely convenient and satisfying. I learned that a leisurely drive through the woods in my truck is way, way more relaxing than dodging dummies on a major freeway.
In fact, my best entertainment doesn’t move much at all. I see everything I want from my back porch, and from a basic wooden chair I wouldn’t trade for a throne. My fireplace in my living room is just big enough to make my sweet wife happy, which is the point of nearly everything I have or do. I learned how looking at all those California women didn’t compare to seeing one pretty Texas woman every day and night.
Had anyone tried telling the young hillbilly all those years ago that yes, he’d see some big, fast places and come away yearning for the same simple life he tried to escape, the dumb young man would have dismissed every word. (Actually, I did). To think those very same feet pounding pavements in search of “excitement” would now prefer to stroll around in boots or tennis shoes with the primary destination a back porch — man, it wouldn’t have made one bit of sense to the poor kid with big, misguided dreams.
Nowadays, I’d never discourage any youngsters who wanted to see the same things for themselves. I’d tell ’em, “Go. Spend some time getting trampled, some money on expensive cows and some nights under bright lights.”
But I’d remind ’em, “Hang onto your boots. You’re gonna need ’em again one day.”