On a fine December day in 2015, Ann Curry hiked up House Mountain to do some thinking.
She was a few minutes ahead of Bill Gurley, who had the same plan in mind.
She was contemplating the view from the top of the mountain when Gurley came strolling up with his dog, Samantha. Curry wasn’t thrilled.
“It was a gorgeous day and I had the mountain to myself. I’m sitting on that rock and I’m looking at the view – but then up walks this guy and I’m pissed,” Curry said. “He says hello and I say hello (in a kind of frosty way) and then I see his big fluffy dog. Nobody dangerous has a dog like that. And then he says something that totally turns me around.
“He said, ‘It’s such a pretty day that I decided I’d kick myself if I didn’t come out – I just retired…’ “
That resonated with Curry because on the previous New Year’s Day she had taken early retirement from her longtime job as a state probation officer and manager. She was burned out and sick of dealing with people. First, she took a bucket list trip to Australia and she then completed a 7,000-mile training program to become a long-distance trucker with the aim of launching a writing career as an on-the-road blogger. But by the time she was done with her apprenticeship, she realized that solitude wasn’t really what she craved.
So, when the nice guy with the friendly dog told her he’d taken early retirement and had time on his hands, it struck a nerve.
What Gurley didn’t say right then was that he’d retired from his job as technical director of UT’s chemistry lab to care for his wife, Marianne, to whom he’d been married for 45 years, and with whom he had a son and a daughter. In 2014, Marianne had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. They fought it together, but it was a battle they couldn’t win. And when she died, Gurley was awash in grief.
He and Marianne both loved music (they’d had a band called Goldust in the early ’80s), and after her death, Gurley would get out his guitar and stand in the kitchen playing songs they’d played together, tears streaming down his face.
But eventually, a fine, sunny December day in the middle of the week lured him out of the house, and he and Sammy climbed House Mountain.
“It was my first time ever to go there, and there were hardly any people around,” Gurley said. “When we got to the overlook looking north toward Powell Valley, there’s Ann, sitting on a rock. She wasn’t real friendly.
“I’m real sensitive to situations where I’m alone with a woman, and wanted to reassure her I was not a threat. We talked a minute and then Ann went on to the east overlook. After awhile, Sammy and I headed over that way, too, and we talked some more. I found out that she had a degree in human services from UT, and I said, ‘Oh, do you know Bob Kronick?’ I told her that my wife had worked there.”
Curry, who does in fact know Professor Kronick, asked his wife’s name, thinking she might know her. Gurley said she had passed away.
“Then it hit me,” Curry said. “‘Oh, my God, this poor guy. I think I’ve got all these problems and he’s going to cry all the way down this mountain,’ so I let him leave first and gave him some time. Never did we look at each other and think about a date.”
Curry, a self-described “determined” hiker, considers House Mountain her go-to destination because it’s close to home.
Gurley, a first-time House Mountain hiker, admits to being something of a meanderer, so Curry overtook him on the way back down, despite her intention to respect his privacy.
“Truth be told, I was probably stalling,” Gurley said.
As they walked toward the parking area, he told her he lives in Fountain City – another coincidence because she lives in Fountain City, too – when he said he lives on Briercliff Road she was gob-smacked.
“I was stunned. I lived on Briercliff, too! Two blocks away. He’s recently retired, knows Dr. Kronick, his wife was in human services and he lives on Briercliff! He asked if he could friend me on Facebook.”
So that’s how they started doing things that friends do together, particularly when they are retirees with time on their hands.
Ann, who had been divorced since 2004 after 16 years of marriage, had pretty much given up on dating, but felt herself being won over.
“I enjoyed this conversation so much and thought he was so different – when I told my girlfriends about him, and half of them thought this was meant to be. The others thought he was a serial killer. I told them serial killers don’t stalk 52-year-old women who just got out of truck-driving school. Pretty soon, I was trying to give the poor guy tips – telling him he needed to join a hiking club, start dating – but thinking I hoped the women he dated would be really awful. I was thinking this guy is really special.”
“I’d say, there’s somebody out there for me, but the SOB’s hiding … I was going to be a writer/truck driver, but after I tried it, I told my dad, ‘I really do like people.’ My dad would laugh…”
Bill worried that he’d scare her off by talking about Marianne.
“When we first started dating, I caught myself saying things to Ann about Marianne and apologized. But she said, ‘No! I want to know more.’”
Things have changed over the two years since they met: Curry has moved into Gurley’s house – hers is now a rental – and they’ve gotten involved in local politics and community activities. They volunteer at Fountain City Elementary School with Sammy, who has become a HABIT (Human Animal Bond In Tennessee) dog. Ann has gone back to work on a project for the state Department of Paroles and Pardons and this is their third Valentine’s Day together.
“We’re different,” said Gurley, “But we’re adult enough to be accepting of our differences.”
“And I’ve found a partner in crime who’s a great human being,” said Curry.