This must be the place
$25.06. The total at the gas pump. Full tank. Waynesville to Tybee Island, Georgia. Around 350 miles. As an impending snowstorm crept over the Great Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina last Thursday, I jumped into my musty, rusty pickup truck and bolted down the highway, en route to sunny skies and crashing waves along the mighty Atlantic Ocean.
First stop? Tybee. Onward to see my folks in St. Augustine, Florida. In my early 20s, Tybee was a vacationland of cold drinks and hypnotic bikinis, a place where a young lad full of curiosity and adventure could exploit the endless possibilities of irresponsible enlightenment.
It had been six years almost to the day since I last found myself in Tybee. A lot has changed in that time. The face in the ocean side motel mirror looks and feels a lot different than the spry and stubborn reciprocated face of a post-graduate in the depths of his summer years.
2007. My parents, both recently retired, decided to become a pair of snowbirds and meander down to Tybee for the month of March. Well aware of how chaotic the St. Patrick’s Day celebration in nearby Savannah was, and also that the spring break of my senior year of college fell on the same week, my two best college buddies and I jumped into the car and blasted down Interstate 95 from Connecticut. This trio of booze-seeking wildabouts struck out with the femme fatales as much as we successfully snuck beer onto the public beach (which was plenty, on both accounts). We were 22 years old, just two months shy of graduation, ready and roaring to be let loose onto the “real world.”
2009. Following my first reporting gig in Idaho in 2008, and also after the subsequent economic collapse, I jumped into the musty, rusty pickup truck and headed below the Mason-Dixon Line from Upstate New York. A solo trek. At this point, my college buddies were both living and working in New York City. Me? I took off from Idaho in search of the next level of my “career” as a journalist. I remember staring way past my steering wheel, beyond my field of vision, as to what laid ahead, now that I was an unemployed writer in desperate need of somewhere to take a chance on my aspirations. Now 24, college seemed like some blurry dream that never really happened, as the future was just as foggy and full of unknowns. Crack open the beer can and stroll amongst the evening waves, all with queries of the cosmos being swept away with the tide.
2010. The year I thought I had it all figured out. I picked up my girlfriend in the Adirondack Mountains and shot down Interstate 87. We’d been dating about seven months, and I’d already been kicking around ideas in my head as to when to propose to her. I’d never considered the idea of marriage before (or since), but, with her, the notion magically appeared in my mind — a whirlwind of beauty that held a tight grip on the beating muscle in my chest. We walked the silent white sand beaches at dusk, holding hands and talking about the future. And when I dropped her off at the Savannah airport to head back to New York early, I felt justified in my new mission to get a ring on her finger. That was also one of the last times I saw her before our eventual demise.
2016. I’ve been a journalist for The Smoky Mountain News for ‘round four years. My folks still retired, still snowbirds, yet these days drop anchor in St. Augustine (“Tybee is too cold for us nowadays,” they say). So, as I made my way to Florida, I figured, what the hell, why not swing through Tybee for a night? Another solo rendezvous to where the clock is always on “Tybee Time.”
The air was crisp, hovering around downright cold, as the clouds readied themselves to dump a few hours of rain onto the beach bum island. Checking into the Atlantis Inn (got a discount due to current renovations on the building — oh, the little things in life, eh?), I walked across the street to Sting Ray’s, a well-known seafood shack. No familiar faces from years past behind the counter, nor was there at Quarter’s Sports Bar down the road, a spot where my signature still sits on the wall behind the pool table. In permanent marker, “Garret” next to the signatures of my two college buddies — one is married and in Seattle, the other engaged and ready to start a new chapter overseas.
And, there I sat, by myself, sipping on a Corona, thinking about them, about Idaho, about “her” and if I ever cross her mind these days, and about the here and now. A slight grin rolled across my face. Through hell or high water, I remain. The rollercoaster of life and love — of beloved friends and devastating breakups, of rolling pavement and endless sunsets — always brings me back to square one, that space where you are in front of a clean slate, eager and willing to give it another go, the ole “college try,” as they say.
A slight chuckle slides out from under my breath.
Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.
1 The “Songwriters in the Round” series will continue with a Wynn Varble, Kerry Kurt Phillips and Troy Jones at 6 p.m. Saturday, March 12, at the Balsam Mountain Inn.
2 The Folkmoot Music Showcase and Spring BBQ will be held from 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday, March 19, in the Folkmoot Friendship Center at the Historic Hazelwood School in Waynesville.
3 Western Carolina University (Cullowhee) will host a Guitar Ensemble Tribute to David Bowie at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 16, in the Coulter Building.
4 The “Trail Magic Ale #13” release party will be March 18-20 at Nantahala Brewing Company in Bryson City.
5 The live radio broadcast of “Blackbeard’s Ghost” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 17, in the John W. Bardo Arts Center at Western Carolina University.