This week I visited two counties, Johnson County, Tennessee and Dickenson County, Virginia. Much of the drive to the center in Johnson County is on Highway 421 and goes through Cherokee National Forest. I’ve been going to school about an hour away, and yet somehow I am just now visiting this beautiful area.  

This section of 421 has the curviest switchbacks I’ve ever driven. In fact, it’s so curvy that it’s called “The Snake.” As you snake through the beautiful landscapes, you’ll see the “Country Store” in Shady Valley. Jake, a staffer in Johnson County, took me there, and it was affordable and delicious. You should definitely stop and get a grilled cheese or BLT… they’re both top notch.

After a lovely drive on The Snake I arrived at the center. There I met up with the staff, who are doing great work in the county. They’ve also faced some difficult circumstances (or, as my mom calls them, “snafus”). This week there were a few snafus that the staffs handled like champs.  

One had to do with a house in Johnson County that needed some handrails. The couple is elderly, and rails will help them enter their house. The difficulty was that the bottom steps are concrete, which they couldn’t fasten rail supports to. Katy and Angie, the Center Director and Construction Consultant, brainstormed and came up with a solution: A block of 2x4s would replace the concrete, that way the rail could be fastened to it.  

In Johnson County a work crew ran into a snafu with a window. It needed replaced, but the new window and the original frame didn’t quite get along. By the slightest of margins, the window was too small.  

By the time the staff got to the worksite that day, a Group Leader had troubleshooted to figure out how to reframe the window. They would reframe it that day, cover the window with tarp overnight, and install the window the next day.   

Now the volunteers at this site jumped right in because they have many years of experience. The two group leaders there have been going on ASP trips for nearly fifteen years. Their kids have volunteered. And their church has been volunteering for nearly thirty years.  

It just so happens that the Center Director at Dickenson County, Ben, comes from the same church. I mentioned the two Group Leaders from that worksite, Jay and Nick, and he said “Oh yeah, those guys are great!” 

“Our church has been going for a long time,” Ben said. “So it was really a rite of passage for me when I volunteered.” 

So these two veteran volunteers had a plan. The only problem, though, was that the homeowner knew that bears lived nearby, and she didn’t want the window only covered with tarp overnight. So the volunteers adapted. 

“We’ll just have to finish it today,” Nick said. “We might have to stay late.” 

The staffer I was with, Jake, appreciated their chutzpah, but also knew they needed to rest. Fortunately, we had made a trip to the hardware store, Big John’s Closeouts, earlier that day to buy plywood that would be needed at another site the next day. Jake had the idea to use that to keep the bear out overnight.  

A Hardware Store’s History

Big John’s is near the center, farther down 421 in Mountain City. We walked in and the smell of lumber joined with the aisles of drill bits and screwdrivers to convince me that the building had always been and always would be a hardware store.

But as we were looking for trim nails Jake said, “This used to be a tobacco warehouse.”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah, my grandfather used to come here,” he said. “He was a tobacco farmer in North Carolina, and he’d bring his tobacco to sell.”

How cool that Jake is now visiting this building on a daily basis, talking with homeowners and saying “Have a good day” to fellow customers. It was great to hear him talk about this family connection.

“But that market crashed. Now the only way you can make money from tobacco is if you’re farming a thousand acres.”

Since then, Big John’s has become a hardware store, providing lumber and supplies to the area. A difficult situation led to a creative solution. And ASP has been getting supplies in the area for many years.

The Dickenson County staff also faced a snafu with a roof installation. Tatum, the staffer I went on runs with, told me about a house they were working on that had an addition. Because of the addition, the roofing was not fitting like expected, and they needed more material.  

As they were thinking through the difficulty, another staffer remembered they had extra material from a former roofing project. They hadn’t wanted to waste it but also didn’t know what to do with it. Now they did!  

This week it was great to hear about people creatively figuring out snafus. Things pop up all the time. The staff have been doing a wonderful job of adapting to difficult circumstances, participating in a long-held tradition in Johnson County and across the region. 

Isaac Wood
Story Gathering Intern