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Al Fonzi is an independent opinion columnist for The Atascadero News and Paso Robles Press; you can email him at

Writing a story on “Being Thankful” on Memorial Day weekend may seem to be an odd topic but actually is quite relevant for the Day. Roberta and I recently took a trip east, exploring several rural communities where “the grass appeared to be greener.” Green it was, literally, so much so that you have to cut it twice a week as it rains frequently, creating spectacular vistas of mountains and fields, a sight normally seen on the Central Coast only a month or so each year.

The people were friendly enough but understanding their speech with my aging hearing ability was at times a challenge. Those conveniences you take for granted here sometimes just didn’t exist at all. Not in short supply was ‘history’ as historical edifices and personalities were in abundance. Hiking trails, spectacular waterfalls, and geological formations were hidden in every glen, so it seemed.

The hard life locals endured was evident in their lined faces and lack of dental care or, for that matter, medical care of almost any kind. It was kind of shocking to be told that the local doctors weren’t taking on any new patients. You would have to drive an hour west to the next county to be accepted in the medical cooperative attached to the State University.

Prices were cheaper until you added in the extra sales taxes: it is cheaper to live in that area (gas was over a dollar a gallon cheaper; home prices half as much here) but not as cheap as some might believe. Overall monthly expenditures would be lower by a few hundred dollars, but you also give up a lot to live there.


In Atascadero, Roberta and I live within five minutes to any number of local stores, three grocery stores, a dry cleaner, a bank, two pharmacies, auto mechanics, parks, the post office, UPS, and FedEx stores, not to mention multiple mom and pop restaurants and other local conveniences.

The fire and police departments are within five-minute response times, with paramedic support provided. Twin-Cities hospital is ten minutes out, and two other major hospitals are within a 20-minute drive from Atascadero.

At the locale we visited, everyone tells you to take out the local air ambulance insurance as, without it, you need to have your affairs in order in the event of a life-threatening emergency. The same held true for our pets, with the nearest full-time vet a good 45-minute drive away, and that’s during summer with clear roads. About the only service that seemed to be in abundance was a church on every corner. Given the long transport times for medical emergencies having a church so close might be a very good trade-off!

Another item not in short supply was patriotism, the old-fashioned kind; people are not afraid of offending someone by flying the American flag or placing a patriotic-themed bumper sticker on their pick-up truck, the most popular type of vehicle in the area. It wasn’t just feigned patriotism either; entire families were military veterans, including sisters and nieces, many belonging to National Guard units or had served at some length on active duty with the military. The cemeteries are full of family names, usually with an Infantry designation on the headstone along with their service in war and peace.

These aren’t the families that find a way to avoid military service in crisis or war; you’re just expected to go and serve as a matter of duty to God, family, and country. They do so quietly and without much fanfare. I have to admit that when I served in the Army, my best soldiers came from this region and disproportionately serve in our special operations forces with great distinction.

It’s a choice for someone like us to leave a place like California where so much is taken for granted by so many to consider living in an area where life is a great deal less complicated, and most people focus on faith, family, service to their community and country with not much emphasis upon self.

Quality of life issues stands out in contrast: no bars, not even one; no movie theaters within 40 miles, very little in the way of convenience. Mom and pop restaurants stop serving breakfast at 10:30 a.m., and none of them are open on Sundays, some not even on Saturdays. That was a bit hard to take.

Yet I’m grateful and more appreciative for what we have here but also for having the opportunity to know that some parts of the old America still exist, especially the values of helping out a neighbor or a newcomer or just a visitor. It’s nice to know that flying an American flag isn’t offensive and if offense is taken, it’s because it was flown incorrectly, not because it’s there.

Finally, we’re grateful for the friends we have here and a community where we still have a place that we call home.