By Richard Rourk
For one local couple, Valentine’s Day may elicit many feelings, but foremost is a pride in simple perseverance. Tara and Michael Baker, like many sweethearts, first met in middle school. The stars, and one historic storm, lined up to bring the couple together.
Tara was a native of Unicoi County, but Michael’s family had relocated here due to Hurricane Katrina. According to the Data Center, a New Orleans-based research organization, the storm and subsequent repercussions displaced more than a million people in the Gulf Coast region of the United States.
“I grew up in Flag Pond but moved to Erwin when I was in middle school,” Tara said.
“These mountains have always been home and will always be home,” Tara added. “I met Michael when I was in middle school because we rode the same school bus after he relocated to Flag Pond due to Hurricane Katrina. At that point, I didn’t think much about Michael other than just feeling sorry for him because living in the middle of nowhere deep in the mountains was challenging due to not having much around and little to no neighbors.”
Upheaval is never easy, particularly for teenagers. Michael and his family described leaving his old life and everything he knew behind him to move to a place where he knew no one.
“My family relocated to Flag Pond in 2006 after we lost everything during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 in Long Beach, Mississippi,” he said. “Tara and I met on the back of the school bus in Flag Pond.”
It proved a pivotal meeting.
“She was 11 and I was 13,” Michael said.
Michael grew up on Upper Higgins Creek while Tara grew up on Sam’s Creek.
“That bus ride was 30 plus minutes each way,” Michael said. “So we had a lot of time to get to know each other.”
For Michael, Unicoi County began to feel like home once he became a student at Unicoi County High School.
“I believe Erwin felt like home for me during high school,” Michael said. “The community was so welcoming and friendly that I immediately found friends and community members that took me in as one of their own.”
It was in high school that Michael and Tara, who admit to being overachievers, started to form a lifelong bond.
“Once in high school, we became closer because of working together on the yearbook,” Tara said. “It was during this time, that I realized that Michael was destined to make a difference because he quickly became one of the most influential students in his grade and constantly was embarking on different tasks within student council and the other clubs/groups he participated in.”
Although their bond was strong, Tara said that she and her husband were strong-willed individuals and would sometimes clash.
“I will be honest,” she said. “At times, I found him to be somewhat arrogant and bossy, especially when we were working to meet deadlines for the yearbook,” Tara said.
She added that, upon reflection, those were not bad qualities.
“Looking back on it now, I realize that, at that time, I almost needed someone in my life to push my boundaries and to challenge my way of thinking,” Tara said.
For Michael, having someone who could push him and that was as driven as Tara, helped motivate him to accomplish more in life.
“We had a lot of the same interests,” Micheal said. “I was a staff writer at The Erwin Record during high school and Tara would do some freelance work.”
At school, he served as the yearbook editor and she worked as the photo editor for the yearbook.
“I think our same interests drew me to her,” Michael said. “I had feelings for Tara throughout high school, but it was after high school when I moved to Johnson City while I was attending ETSU that I knew she was the one I was going to marry.”
Today, Michael added that he is glad that he listened to his gut and got married a few years out of high school.
Tara said their feelings for each other were always reciprocal.
“As time went by, we became great friends in high school and I heavily relied on him in a lot of different ways because my home life was nothing short of complicated,” Tara said.
But the path to marriage was also complicated.
“Instead of seeing what was in front of me, even after Michael made multiple attempts to express his feelings for me, I friend-zoned him for close to two years,” Tara said.
“I distinctly remember having a moment where I felt jealousy and knew that meant that I cared for Michael in ways more than just a friend,” she recalled. “From there, we have pretty much been inseparable. However, the exact moment where I knew Michael was the one that occurred in a moment of least expectation.”
She explained that mere moments before starting the birthing process for Liam, their son, that she recognized the truth.
“And in feeling that fear of the unknown and the anxiety that comes from becoming a parent plus the overwhelming vulnerability of the experience in itself, we just looked at each other and I knew,” she said.
The Bakers have been together since 2011 and were married in 2017.
“We got married in 2017 in Paris, France, by UCHS drama teacher Lori Ann Wright,” Michael said.
Becoming parents to Liam brought the already inseparable couple closer together.
“Initially, my thoughts were consumed by fear, shock and worry,” Tara said.
“I was only 19 when I found out that I was expecting Liam,” Tara said. “Like most at that age, I was in the middle of my college career and trying to figure out how to navigate the world of adulthood. Michael, being the go-getter that he is, showed no worry in the world. He was excited from the start, but also willing to support me in whatever decisions I had to make for us. Looking back at it now, Liam happened right when he was supposed to.
“My life has only propelled forward at high speed in so many ways,” she continued. “So I am thankful that when I was 19 and 20, life was slower and I was able to focus on being a mom and had the perfect opportunity to stay home with my child for his entire first year of life — a luxury that some mothers never experience regardless of age.”
Michael said that Liam proved a gift from God.
“I was very nervous, but excited when I found out about Liam,” he said.
“I have always been a strong believer that everything happens for a reason,” Michael said. “While most people don’t start raising a family at 21, I looked forward to it. Liam has been the biggest blessing to me, and I am so thankful that Tara and I were blessed with him. God has a plan and I can’t wait to see what else he has in store for Liam.”
Living in a community like Erwin has helped the Bakers settle into their parenthood.
“I’ll start by saying that I loathe the word perfect, even though I am a perfectionist at fault,” Tara said. “However, I am learning that being perfect, having the perfect family, working at the perfect job, etc. is all overrated.
Tara noted that “perfect” is subjective to a person’s viewing and understanding.
“That being said, Erwin is the perfect place for us to raise a family because of several reasons,” she said.
Location is part of the equation.
“We love these Appalachian Mountains and all of the outdoor recreation that comes from that,” she said.
The town itself is also part of her reasoning. “Erwin is quaint, unique and picturesque while also offering opportunities for growth in many ways,” she said.
In addition, Tara said she is impressed by the sense of true community in Erwin.
She said that Erwin is a community that cares for one another and that she has been lucky enough to have grown up surrounded by such individuals.
She recalled a job that she had at age 16 when she served tables at the local restaurant Hawg N Dawg. She never dreamed that the guests at those tables would be the very people to watch her family blossom, to cheer her kid at basketball games, to call the family each time their dog gets out of the fence.
She added that Erwin people are always quick to “offer assistance in times of need. Locals have also proven enthusiastic in their support of the couple’s small businesses, which include Union Street Taproom, Ginseng Mobile Bar and Greater Impact Realty.
“We are blessed beyond measure and thankful that Erwin is perfect for us,” Tara said.
Tara, who is a mother, wife, educator and co-owner of two small businesses, is still looking for the next adventure in life.
“Michael and I are both dreamers, risk-takers and planners,” she said. “The latter, I believe, is one important piece to finding the balance between motherhood and large workloads.”
Others have helped her achieve that balance.
“I have learned that it truly does take a village to raise a child, so having a strong support system like that of Michael’s family has been so important for us.” she said. “Aside from that, I have learned that giving myself grace, even though it might be one of the most challenging aspects for me, has kept me going because mother guilt is real.
“Lastly, we have always allowed and/or found ways for Liam to be a part of our work lives,” Tara continued. “He has helped in my classroom, in the businesses and even in Michael’s real estate career.”
For Michael, who has carved out a career for himself as a real estate agent and co-owner of a small business, finding balance is also key. He is also a long-serving member of the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen.
“I live by the motto work hard, play hard,” Michael said. “I am passionate about real estate and economic development in Unicoi County, but for me my family comes first.”
Michael said that he strives to make every ball game, practice and other activities his son undertakes.
“Oftentimes I come straight from work or a meeting,” he said. “I think it is important to not only show your children that you work hard, but to include them.”
Michael added that his son Liam has helped him put signs in yards, bust down walls, clean a home before a showing and so much more.
“I am blessed that I can bring him to work with me and include him on things like that,” he said. “Not only have we created memories that neither of us will forget, he’s learning the value of a dollar and hard work.
Adhering to that work hard, play hard motto, father and son can often be found enjoying Watauga Lake after work time.
The Bakers offered some advice about what has gotten them through tough times.
“If there’s a will, there’s a way,” Tara said.
“As mentioned previously, my biggest pieces of advice to anyone that wants to have a successful work life and family is to give each other grace in trying times, to find patience even when you are without, to schedule/make time for each other, to be present in the moment even when it seems impossible, and lastly, to revel in all of the moments spent together,” she said.