Between birth and death in the Model City

J. H. Osborne • Jan 26, 2020 at 1:30 PM

I’ve lost two family members in the last 10 days. Neither was that much older than me, relatively speaking. We are of the same generation.

It was cold yesterday afternoon at Oak Hill Cemetery. According to my Nissan Rogue’s dashboard it was 41° when I got out of the car and 43° when I got back in about 30 minutes later. I wasn’t there for a service for either of my recently deceased cousins. I was there trying to improve my own health.

You see the results of blood work from my annual physical last month weren’t all good. They weren’t all bad either. Most alarming to my doctor was a spike in my sugar. He prescribed elimination of sodas and other sugary foods, a reduction in carbohydrates, and perhaps most importantly that I get back in the habit of walking or hiking regularly. At least 30 minutes to an hour at a time. I’m to go back for follow up blood work in March. If I’ve made progress on weight loss and sugar levels, I might avoid an official diagnosis of type 2 diabetes.

Walking, and especially hiking, have been my favorite go-to forms of exercise for 30 years or so. Over the last year or more I’ve not made time to keep it up regularly. My favorite places to hike locally are Kingsport’s Bays Mountain Park (which I wrote about recently) and Buffalo Mountain Park in Johnson City. Buffalo is great in the summer. Not so much in the winter. I did consider driving there yesterday morning, but knew I really didn’t have time. As it turns out, I probably wouldn’t have dressed appropriately had a gone: a friend who did go posted pictures on Facebook of his walk at Buffalo, among snow-covered trees and in a mist of light fog. I’d have enjoyed both those things, especially the fog (Buffalo Mountain Park’s trails are easy to follow and few that I traverse take you perilously close to a sharp drop off). I also enjoy hiking in a gentle rain — in the summer, and without thunder or lightning.

After a few hours work and lunch with a co-worker, I realized it was about 4 p.m. Not much daylight left. If I was going for a daily walk it was then or never. So I drove to the backside of Oak Hill to my usual spot. Looking at the temperature, I reached for the wool cap I’ve been wearing lately. But it wasn’t there. It wasn’t in the car at all. I almost let that bluff me out of a brisk walk. “You’ll catch your death of cold,” I heard my grandmother’s voice proclaim in my mind. And that made me laugh a bit, considering where I was.

A similar thought had crossed my mind a week or so ago when I was walking my roughly two-mile loop through Oak Hill near twilight: “No one else is here. What if I have a heart attack?”

I wondered if anyone else would see the irony that I’ve chosen a place full of those whose lives have ended to try and extend my own.

On Friday, I was talking to Sullivan County’s top finance officer, Larry Bailey, and told him I was trying to get my work done to go walk in the cemetery. He chuckled and noted that exact point — me walking among the dead, for my health.

I’ve always enjoyed walking in Oak Hill. It is full of history. As I make my current circuit, I pass nearby the gravestones of many prominent names from Kingsport’s past. I don’t walk through the gardens, but stick to the the narrow paved roadways. But through past explorations I recognize the locations of many notable folks. Mr. & Mrs. John B. Dennis have, perhaps, the most distinctive and imposing resting spot: a private mausoleum with ornate bronze doors. I, however, am most envious of the gravesite of Harvey C. Brooks, pioneer Kingsport businessman, nationally known cattle breeder, and builder of Allandale Mansion. Brooks’ grave is encircled by a marble balustrade — surrounded by what to me appear to be relatively old-growth boxwood (much like those found in Allandale’s gardens).

I also pass near the graves of many friends and family members — as well as my own plot. Yes, I’ll end up at Oak Hill someday, barring some exotic death far away from home (a few years ago I extracted a promise from my best friend that if I die far away he will make sure my body gets back to Kingsport if at all possible). I’ve had a spot among the family plot since I was a toddler. My father planned ahead.

As make my loop around Oak Hill, back to front and back again, I get glimpses of the Model City. This includes my place of birth, although it has evolved and morphed and grown in size. It makes me feel very ... Kingsporty: born at Holston Valley; going to be buried at Oak Hill. I’ve traveled as far west as Honolulu, as far east as what was then Yugoslavia, as far south as Key West, and as far north as Sweden. And lots of places in between.

Today I am here, like everyone, somewhere between birth and death — and able to see my starting and finish lines as I try to slow the ticking on life’s stopwatch.