Chuck Thompson has chiggers, local folks say.
Five nights ago, I called Thompson, the Portland, Ore.-based author of Outside magazine's recent article naming Chattanooga as the best city to live.
He answered the phone after two rings, which surprised me: I figured he'd be busy greasing his bike chain or memorizing Nancy Pelosi speeches as a Kurt Cobain album played loudly in the background and a fresh café-latte-mocha-frappe-decaf brewed in the pot.
That's, like, what all dudes on the West Coast do, right?
I wanted to talk to him about his experience here, and the loud reaction to his story -- which called out Chattanoogans for our "ubiquitous evangelical dogma and a reputation for red-state conservatism" -- from local readers.
"I hope he gets chiggers where the sun don't shine," one online reader commented.
This month's issue of Outside magazine -- which boasts a circulation of more than 600,000 -- proclaims, as its cover story, our city as the best city in the United States. Months ago, the editors dispatched Thompson here for a three-day visit. His host, local outdoor guide Trevor Childress, toured him through Chattanooga's greatest outdoor hits: hang gliding, mountain biking, swimming, paddling and bar-hopping.
"I had one of the best burgers of the year at a place called Tremont Tavern," Thompson said.
Thompson estimates he recorded nearly 50 hours of quotes from Childress, which, again, was surprising. I didn't think West Coast slackers worked so hard.
Out of those 50 some-odd hours, Thompson chose one Childress quote in particular to start the column: "Chiggers, poison ivy, rednecks, humid summers, cold winters. If you don't like those things, you shouldn't come here."
It's safe to say hundreds of thousands of people have read this. They obviously weren't amused.
"Fire them both!" another reader commented.
Thompson, who cusses like he's on fire, regrets only one thing about this story.
"Trevor is absolutely one of the best [expletive] human beings I've ever met in my life," Thompson said, loudly, into his cell phone. "That guy is the greatest ambassador you could ever hope to have.
"You'd have to be brain dead not to understand that the intent [of that quote] was to convey the sense that this guy knows he's sitting on a tourist gold mine. Like most intelligent people, he is worrying about what will happen to Chattanooga once the secret gets out."
I wonder if the 7,434 people who voted for Chattanooga to win thought about that.
Thompson went on to talk about his friend Roderick, who lives in Selma, Ala., a city not on the list for best places to live. Roderick, an Auburn fan, started trash-talking Thompson and his Oregon Ducks after last year's national championship [Auburn 22, Oregon 19].
"He told me if we [Auburn] had run the ball 10 or 15 more times, we could have beat you by two more touchdowns," remembered Thompson, who then exploded on Roderick with language I'll cull down to a PG-rated paraphrase:
Quit complaining! Auburn just won the national championship! And you're sitting here moaning and groaning! Give me a break!
"That's how I feel about these complainers [in Chattanooga]," Thompson said. "Yes, you have chiggers in your woods and religious conservatism. But your city just got voted the best city in America!"
You know, he's right. Nobody is having this conversation in Dallas, Atlanta or Miami, and perhaps instead of vilifying Childress, we should thank him, and also recognize that if someone were to record you for the next three days -- taking down everything you said -- there might be some less-than-stellar comments, too.
When I hung up the phone, saying goodbye to Thompson, I did so liking him. Sure, he probably puts sugar on his grits, and thinks Methodists is the name of a new grunge band, but he's got one thing down: Stereotypes suck.
Of course, he put it in a much more colorful way.
"I thought the article was a handy way of saying that Chattanooga doesn't always follow the script. Stereotypes don't turn out to be true," Thompson said. "To me, all I did was set up the stereotype and knock it down with real-world examples of how it works out."
And he left me with one more message for you.
"I've had chiggers," he said, "where the sun don't shine."
A few weeks ago, I was asked to write a second column each week. That's good news to me. I hope it is for you as well.
Beginning today, this column will appear on Mondays and Thursdays. As they say in the South: Don't be a stranger. It's always good to hear from readers.
And, as they say in West Coast half-pipes, Thursday's column is going to be killer.
David Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...