Johnson City, Tennessee, isn’t exactly a hot destination for Williams alums. The town of 65,000 is tucked in the Northeast corner of the state—a two-hour drive from Knoxville and more than four hours from Nashville. A National Forest lies to the east, and to the south, the gentle summits of the Great Smoky Mountains grace the horizon. Drive a few minutes outside of town, and the fast food restaurants give way to fields. It’s here that Anna Swisher and Trey Wright share a home.
Understanding the couple’s life here goes well beyond their professional titles. Swisher is a track coach, but she is also a PhD fellow and a professor. Wright is a freelance corporate writer and editor, but, along with Swisher, he’s also a children’s book author and the president of the publishing company the couple launched for their book. Both are also homesteaders with much of their food coming from a swath of land behind their rented home.
I traveled to Wright and Swisher’s East Tennessee farm to hear about their journey and learn about the good life in Johnson City.
What has your journey since Williams looked like?
TW: I went to Williams because I wanted to go to a small school where I wouldn’t feel overwhelmed. I was an English major, and after graduation, I got a job in corporate writing, working on proposals. Then I moved into marketing. A few years ago, the company shut down my division, and I became a freelance writer and editor.
AS: My brother went to Williams before me. I was sure I was going to be a psychology major, but my brother said I had to take a history class from Professor Dalzell. I ended up taking all five of his classes and became a double major solely because of him.
From age 18 on, I was sure I wanted to be a track coach. There was one class on exercise and nutrition at Williams. I took that and became really interested in exercise science. After graduation, I worked as a track coach for a few years. Then I got a job as a graduate assistant under some well-known exercise scientists. That got me really interested in the science behind performance.
I got a graduate assistant job in East Tennessee and moved here. As part of the job, I taught a few classes. I found that I loved teaching, and I decided that teaching and coaching would be a lot of fun. So I looked for a full-time job as a coach and professor. I ended up at Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado.
Then I got offered a fellowship back at East Tennessee State where they would pay for my PhD in sports physiology.
What drove you to grow your own food?
AS: I got into the idea when I realized how inadequate the supply chain is at providing good food. I can’t solve world peace. I don’t have the capacity to change the entire food system, but here in Tennessee, we are fortunate to have free land, free water, a neighbor with the tiller, and free expertise if you make friends with the farmers.
How have you found living in East Tennessee?
TW: I don’t enjoy being around a ton of people all the time. Moving to Colorado was fantastic—small town, very safe feel, very outdoorsy. I got to work from home for a while, but when that job ended, there was the question of what I would do. If you want to be in a niche like corporate writing, it helps to be in a place with lots of corporations. Now being freelance, I still work from home, but it’s more word of mouth. It’s a tradeoff, but I enjoy this area.
AS: People here are really sweet. You have to be neighborly because there’s no other way to survive. If the tractor breaks down while you’re haying and it’s going to rain, you’re going to borrow someone’s tractor and people are going to come help you.
We live in a 900 square-foot house. We grow our own food and can shoot our own deer. It doesn’t cost very much to live if you live like that.
You recently wrote a children’s book. How did that come about?
TW: We learned that Anna’s brother’s wife was pregnant. He’s done very well for himself, and so we were thinking, “He can afford to get anything for his kid. What should we get as a gift?” Anna had an epiphany that we could write a children’s book. We decided to write a book to teach the baby what she will need to know to understand the elite world she was being born into.
We were planning on a small run for our families, but we got feedback that the book was good and that we should start selling it. We launched a company and got our business bank accounts and set up a website.
We’re in the middle of the next children’s book—“M is for Moonshine,” drawing on my experience growing up in a southern family.
How have you come to define success?
TW: For me, it’s having enough money to do the things I enjoy—traveling, seeing friends, visiting family.
AS: Having enough money to have a roof over your head is important, but ultimately I think success is happiness. Once you have enough income to meet your needs, fulfillment is going to come from doing what you want to do. For me that’s spending time with Trey, spending time on the farm, spending time making food.
What advice would you pass on to Williams students?
AS: I encourage people to go do things they’re interested in early on so you get to see whether you’re actually interested in that.
TW: I would tell Williams students what my academic advisor told me: “Take a variety of classes.” You may find out—like Anna did with her history classes—that you have interests that you weren’t aware of. You may change the course of your major and ultimately the course of your life just by taking a class you thought you didn’t have any interest in.
AS: Take classes that you enjoy from professors who inspire you. It’s liberal arts. Go do what you want—like live on a farm.
You can learn more about Swisher and Wright and order their children’s book at windypigpress.wix.com/windypigpress