Atlanta to Appalachia: My unlikely journey from urban gridlock to serene country living

At the moment, I’m driving my pickup truck through the Appalachian Mountains to the home of an Amish farmer who’s building me a chicken coop with built-in WiFi.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Seven years ago, I was living in the bustling metropolis of Atlanta, commuting downtown to work each day on the city’s infamously traffic-clogged 14-lane highway.

The route to downtown Atlanta that I took to work was usually snarled, causing me to spend about an hour commuting each day.
The route to downtown Atlanta that I took to work was usually snarled, causing me to spend about an hour commuting each day. (Photo: Barry Williams/Getty Images)

Today, I work from a home that sits on five acres in the middle of the woods. My neighbor is a dairy farmer with 200 acres. The only traffic on our street — which is actually just a dirt road — is the cows.

After a long day, the only traffic you'll see on the author's street are the 30 cows returning from a long day of roaming the neighborhood.
After a long day, the only traffic you’ll see on our street are the 30 cows returning from a long day of roaming the neighborhood. (Photo: Benyamin Cohen)

I’ve spent the past seven years living in the mountains of West Virginia. Seven years in a town so small the major thoroughfare is named after Don Knotts of Mayberry fame. The comedic actor was born here in 1924. Our town’s most famous export nowadays? Hota Kotb. To get to the closest major airport, I have to drive 75 miles north of the Mason-Dixon line into Pennsylvania.

A statue of Don Knotts was recently installed in front of the Metropolitan Theater on High Street, and it's the perfect spot for selfies.
A statue of Don Knotts was recently installed in front of the Metropolitan Theater on High Street. It’s the perfect spot for selfies. (Photo: Benyamin Cohen)

Atlanta, that warm blanket of a city where I spent most of my life, is home to many things. Millions of people, multiple universities, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — what most people call the CDC. Corporate home to Delta, Home Depot, UPS. It’s the birthplace of Coca-Cola. The Olympics were there. And now I’m in West Virginia, the state with the world’s largest tea kettle.

The world's largest teapot was brought to Chester, W. Va. in 1938 and is 14 feet tall.
The world’s largest teapot was brought to Chester in 1938 and is 14 feet tall. It’s just one of many odd roadside attractions you can spot in the state. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Don’t get me wrong. Of all the places to move to in West Virginia, we chose a college town. We have a Best Buy and a Target and a Barnes & Noble and a Regal Hollywood Cinemas with 12 movie theaters and stadium seating. We have multiple Starbucks. Although, I should point out, the closest store to our home is the gun and ice cream shop. It sells exactly what you think it does: rifles on one side, Rocky Road on the other.

Anytime we have family visit from out of town, like my parents, the gun and ice cream shop is always a must-see.
Anytime we have family visit from out of town, the gun and ice cream shop is always a must-see. As you can see, my parents enjoyed it. (Photo: Courtesy of Benyamin Cohen)

Morgantown’s population is an interesting mix: There are about 30,000 of us “townies” who live here full-time. There are another 30,000 students who spend the school year here at West Virginia University. And in the fall, on football game days, another 30,000 bus in for the big event, swelling the town to 90,000. (Don’t even think about running errands before kickoff.)

The town triples in size on game days to watch the WVU football team, which is part of the Big 12 conference.
The town triples in size on game days to watch the beloved WVU football team. (Photo: Benyamin Cohen)

My wife’s job as a professor brought us here. A twist of fate, and life plans got altered. What was once unimaginable has somehow, inexplicably, become the status quo. One life packed up and another started. There was a fork in the road and I, well, I somehow chose the one less traveled.

To West Virginia.

A proverbial gefilte fish out of water.

Seven years in, I can safely say that the move has been great. I quickly found things to like. The sheer majesty of the nature here is a sight to behold. When family and friends come to visit, which they often do now, we have the usual spots we take them. Coopers Rock State Forest has grand views, and a boat ride on Cheat Lake is a relaxing way to spend the day with my sister and her family, as you can see in this video:

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There are mountains everywhere you look, and four distinct seasons, each with its own charm.

The forest in our backyard becomes harder to navigate when it's all covered in snow.
The forest in our backyard becomes harder to navigate when it’s covered in snow. (Photo: Benyamin Cohen)

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In Atlanta, where the heat and humidity was stifling, I rarely spent time outdoors. Here, I go on peaceful walks on a regular basis. About 80% of the state is covered in woods. West Virginia has 1 million acres of national forest land — 12,000 of which are right near my house. My blood pressure has dropped so much that my doctor took me off medication.

The author's backyard oasis has helped his blood pressure go down.
My backyard oasis has helped my blood pressure go down. (Photo: Benyamin Cohen)

And the front of the house is pretty relaxing, too.
And the front of the house is pretty relaxing, too. (Photo: Benyamin Cohen)

And working from home certainly has its perks. No commute, a panoply of pajamas being upgraded into work clothes. I sometimes realize I haven’t left the house in days. And being a homebody, I’m perfectly fine with that.

While my wife is at work, the most interaction I have throughout the day is with the dogs, Fergus and Spike.
While my wife is at work, the most interaction I have throughout the day is with the dogs, Fergus and Spike. (Photo: Benyamin Cohen)

Sure, there’s not much human interaction. Each day, usually around 1 p.m., I can count on Rick the Mailman coming down our driveway and dropping off boxes at our front door. (Yes, thank God for Amazon deliveries.) I try to position myself nearby, in the living room, when this happens. On days I’m lucky, I open the door and catch Rick before he walks away.

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

Something silly about the weather. Yada, yada, yada. And before I know it, Rick’s gone, delivering a Tractor Supply Company catalog to the farmer next door.

The author at the chainsaw repair shop getting a lesson in how to use it.
I brought the chainsaw to a repair shop – not because it was broken, but because I didn’t know how to turn the thing on. (Photo: Courtesy of Benyamin Cohen)

The property where we live came with a pickup truck, a riding lawnmower and a chainsaw. Saying I didn’t know how to use any of these things is an understatement. I didn’t know how to shift gears in the truck. I got the lawnmower stuck on more than one occasion. As for the chainsaw, I had to find a local to teach me how to use it, as you can see in this video below:

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And now, our grass is never tall because I can ride my Cub Cadet zero-turn radius lawnmower like a pro.

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In his famous song “Country Roads,” an anthem here in Appalachia, John Denver proclaims West Virginia “almost heaven.” To me, it rings true. The people are friendly, the weather is gorgeous, the endless mountain ranges, the lakes, the rivers, are all indeed spectacular. The endless emptiness provides peace and quiet.

And now, my wife informs me, we’re getting chickens. Stay tuned…

The fall colors at the top of my street in Morgantown, W. Va.
The fall colors at the top of my street in Morgantown, West Virginia. (Photo: Benyamin Cohen)

“Atlanta to Appalachia” is part of an occasional series about life in the wilds of West Virginia through the eyes of a man who never dreamed he’d love it there.

Atlanta to Appalachia: My unlikely journey from urban gridlock to serene country living

How embracing a serene, rural lifestyle has taught me to use a chainsaw, ride a pickup and get off my blood pressure medication.

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