Being snowbirds from Upstate New York, my folks pass through Haywood County a few times a year going back and forth between the sunshine of Northern Florida and the frigid cold of the North Country. For my sister and almost 3-year-old niece, it was their first time seeing where I live, work and play in Southern Appalachia.
For the first 18 years of my life I lived with them in a small town on the Canadian Border. I know them, better than anyone else, and yet, here I am at 32, and though their core traits are the same, I’m still peeling back new layers of their being in conversation. Nothing has changed, which is mostly good, in terms of laughter and shenanigans. But, everyone is getting older, a tad greyer in their hair, a few more well-earned wrinkles on the faces filled with the same blood that runs vigorously through my veins.
I took off after high school. I wanted to get as far away from anything I knew those first 18 years. It wasn’t to escape my family. I love my family, quirks and all. And I find, the more I meet other peoples’ families, I realize just how quirky and weird and wild we all actually are, a common denominator that crosses all races, religious backgrounds and economic statuses.
I hit the road, with eyes aimed ahead. And I always knew when I did come full circle in my endless miles, winding up back at the starting line of my hometown and down home folks from my youth, that they’d all still be there, still joking around, sometimes yelling, sometimes delving into odd details of their personal lives, but always “still there,” for me at least — the true sign of a family in times of need amid the trials and tribulations of everyday life in the unknown cosmos.
Seeing my toddler niece run around Waynesville has been completely surreal for me. Living here for the better part of the last five years, she was born right around the time I celebrated my second anniversary in Haywood County. And here she is — in the here and now — shrieking in pure joy as I chase her around the hotel room patio, only to stop and turn to me and say, with a genuine smile, “I love you, Garret.”
When did I become such a family man? Seems to have snuck up on me in my older years. How wild, eh? I’ve been wandering and pondering since I graduated high school, some 14 years ago, with a lifelong mission to never cease to be curious or chasing that elusive horizon, as Tom Petty sings, “Well I don’t know what I’ve been told/You never slow down, you never grow old/I’m tired of screwing up, I’m tired of goin’ down/I’m tired of myself, I’m tired of this town/Oh my my, oh hell yes/Honey put on that party dress/Buy me a drink, sing me a song/Take me as I come ‘cause I can’t stay long …”
Part of me wonders if my ongoing (journalistic?) odyssey is to keep one step ahead of the one thing myself and none of you (not even you, ladies and gents) can control — getting old. The further I am from my immediate family and extended hometown, the less I’m aware of my starting point decaying with businesses closed and streets empty, the less I’m aware of my parents becoming senior citizens, the less I’m aware my sister being a mother of a child rapidly growing up and coming into her own, all while I’m over a thousand miles away.
The more you avoid the inevitable of time and your place within it, I suppose, the harder it is to come to grips with the world moving onward, with or without you present for the moment(s). I’m finding truth in that as my stride gets a tad slower these days, my eyes and ears drifting upward and around, aimed at sights and sounds of whatever beauty I’m lucky to witness and interact with on a daily basis.
I often wonder if, ultimately, I’ll ever try to revive the roots of my native North Country. It’s a long-held dream to get back there someday. Though, in a perfect world, maybe I could inhabit both Upstate New York and Western North Carolina. In a simple twist of fate, these Great Smoky and Blue Ridge mountain ranges have become a refuge for my restless soul, quite possibly the only place I’ve actually ever felt truly at home. And yet, there I am, happily chasing my niece around, swinging her up and down, smiles in every direction, realizing that happiness is wherever family is — no matter the distance, physically or emotionally.
Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.
1 Virtuoso Celtic fiddler Jamie Laval will perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8, at The Strand at 38 Main in Waynesville.
2 The Scottish Tartans Museum will host a “Clan Camp” and dance celebration on Saturday, April 8, in downtown Franklin.
3 A community benefit showcase for The Canary Coalition will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 5, at The Mad Batter Food & Film in Sylva.
4 Lees at the Depot (Dillsboro) will be hosting a “Tap Takeover” by Terrapin Brewing (of Athens, Georgia) from noon to 11 p.m. Saturday, April 15.
5 Local artist Susan Lingg’s “Sip & Paint” class will be from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday, April 7, at the Cullowhee Mountain Arts office in downtown Sylva.