Well, this past week I was looking down into the holler toward Webb’s Creek thinking about a young man from Bulgaria who shifts into neutral whenever he drives downhill. I struck up a conversation with Victor when I stopped by a campground store near Rocky Flats on the other side of the hill. His accent was more challenging than a fourth generation Cocke County moonshiner. Victor was a skinny 18 year old chain-smoking Bulgarian; outgoing, confident and funny but with way too many stories about drinking vodka back in Eastern Europe. He had a big heart and a zest for life. My wife and I befriended Victor for the summer and I think we learned much more from him than he did from us.
Victor had somehow hooked up with an international work agency. His family paid the company some money and in return they did the paperwork so their only child could travel 5,000 miles to clean fire rings and pick up trash at a campground in Tennessee. He earned as much in an hour or so as he might have made for a full day of labor in Bulgaria. With no way of getting around his entire American experience might have been limited to that invisible fence surrounding the campground property…except that we took him hiking, shopping and eating. I also loaned him my Jeep.
The same year Victor was born in Bulgaria (1989) his country became free from communist rule. I’m guessing that may have been the inspiration for his name. “Victor” has been a rarely used word in his country’s history books because the beautiful little place has been invaded, conquered and plundered by a long list of groups over thousands of years. Bulgaria also fought for the losing sides in both World Wars and has experienced difficult challenges for generations. After World War II the communist party took over and built cities full of bleak concrete hi-rise buildings. Victor lives in one of those ugly communist towers where the family living room becomes his bedroom each evening.
We helped Victor experience many occasions of extreme culture shock beginning with dinner at the Hard Rock Café. He loved rock music and was absolutely overwhelmed with literally everything in that restaurant. He was like a kid in a candy store checking out the Hard Rock eye candy hanging on the walls. He accidentally caught a glimpse of the check after dinner and nearly fell off his chair. We learned later that he had called up his friend in Bulgaria just to tell him how much the meal cost.
The average monthly income in Bulgaria is $340, a large improvement over the last few years. Victor once commented that he never dreamed he would know someone so rich they could have a pool table inside their house. Victor did an outstanding job of putting a lot of things in perspective for me.
Before loaning my Jeep I took him out for a test drive and during the somewhat stressful driver’s education portion of the program I couldn’t help but notice how he shifted to neutral as we headed down each hill. He was surprised when I asked him about that. Victor said everyone in Bulgaria shifts to neutral on downhill slopes to save gas. I will never forget that grin when I tossed him the keys. The Jeep came back in one piece… sparkling clean and with a full tank of gas.
Our young friend disappeared at the end of the summer back to a life in Bulgaria. His e-mails now come back as “unknown recipient” and our trails will likely never cross again. I hope things are going well for Victor and that somewhere right now he is happily driving down a hill and “shifting to neutral.” I learned from Victor’s fresh viewpoint that I need to “shift to neutral” with many material things in my life, appreciate my cabin for the luxury it really is and remember there are so many people on this planet who cannot afford a pool table or even one appetizer at the Hard Rock. Have a great life, Victor. Thank you for the excellent lessons from Bulgaria. That is just how it looks from my log cabin.
John LaFevre is a local speaker and co-author of the interactive national park hiking book series, Scavenger Hike Adventures, Falcon Guides, Globe Pequot Press. Contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org. Artist G. Webb lives in Pittman Center, Tennessee. Gwebbgallery.com.