Two cities where I have lived in previous years have shown up on Forbes Magazine list of top places to retire in this nation. Alton, Illinois, on the banks of the Mississippi just south of where the Missouri River flows into it, topped the list of places in the Land of Lincoln. I arrived there in 1969, after four year of reporting for The Roanoke Times, the “Star City” that ranked first in the Old Dominion.
Forbes ranked both cities with a lower than normal cost of living, a high availability of medical services, low tax rates — including no taxes on Social Security.
I spent 12 years in Alton, the longest time I would spend in one locality at that point in my life, arriving at age 21 and left shortly after turning 33. Wasn’t thinking much about retirement back then. Arrived with one wife and left with another. After our marriage in 1979, Amy and I lived in a historic town house on one of the city’s many hills. Our back deck overlooked the Mississippi, where we watched the Fourth of July fireworks.
The move to Roanoke came in 1965 right after graduation from Floyd County High School. Lived much of the four years there in the Jefferson Towers, a Victorian apartment complex where I had a view of Elmwood Park.
In Roanoke or Alton, I was far too young to think of either city as a place for retirement. The Roanoke I came back to in 2004 was a far cry from the city dominated by the Norfolk & Western Railway when I left in 1969. Alton was a city in transformation during the 12 years there, a once booming industrial town facing the loss of factories and jobs to become a haven for antique shops and one of the first gambling boats on the river. The population has shrunk, and the median house cost is $60,000.
Here’s what William P. Barrett of Forbes said about Alton:
Charming Mississippi River city near St. Louis. Cost of living 22% below national average. PROS: High rank on Milken Institute list of best places for successful aging, physicians per capita mirrors national average. No state income tax on Social Security earnings, state income tax breaks on pension income. CONS: Poor air quality, serious crime rate above national average.
Of Roanoke, he said:
Roanoke’s status as the largest city in a mountainous area led to the nickname Capital of the Blue Ridge, while the Roanoke River also flows through the city. Roanoke’s festivals and cultural events include the Chili Cook-Off, Festival in the Park, Local Colors Festival, Henry Street Festival, Big Lick Blues Festival and Strawberry Festival. Roanoke and surrounding communities also host the annual Commonwealth Games of Virginia, an Olympic-style amateur sports festival.
Roanoke is now a mecca for health care, controlled mostly by Carilion. The famed Hotel Roanoke is now a teaching hotel owned by Virginia Tech. The railway heritage is now confined to Museums, with the massive railroad shops of N&W now closed by new owner Norfolk Southern and most of the jobs are at the Eastern Shore.
The Crooked Road Music Trail starts in Rocky Mount, heads East to Floyd and winds its way through the Southwest to Bristol. FloydFest is the dominant summer music festival, currently playing Patrick County with the Galax Fiddlers’ Convention staged were Carroll and Grayson counties meet. The internationally-acclaimed Friday Night Jamboree displays music and old time music dancing at the Floyd Country Store.
When Amy and I began thinking about places to retire as our 23 years in the National Capital Region of Washington, we were thinking about Albuquerque, New Mexico, an area we fell in love with while I worked for Congressman Manual Lujan Jr. in the 1980s. Amy was born in the Metro East area of St. Louis, where Alton is located, and neither she nor I considered that an area to spend our final years. Floyd became a potential stop on the way to New Mexico when my mother needed help in her declining years. We sold our condo in Arlington and bought a nice New England house five miles from Floyd’s stop light.
When mom died in 2012, we had to make a decision on whether to stay in Floyd or move on to spend the rest of our lives in New Mexico.
A serious motorcycle accident later that year put me in a coma with little chance to survive, and the six months of recovery and rehab delayed a final decision. We’ve made new friends here in the area, and I have renewed relationships with many I knew during my high school days.
On Nov. 9, 2013, a year after an encounter with a black steer on a dark stretch of U.S. 221 sent my Harley crashing down onto the pavement, breaking bones in my right leg and ankle, ripping off part of my face and inflicting MBT (Massive Brain Trauma), Amy took me to a steakhouse in Roanoke, so I could eat a large rib eye steak and wish it came from that wayward bovine.
Over dessert, I asked what she thought we should do: Move to New Mexico and retire or sty in Floyd.
“This is home,” she said.