This must be the place: Drifting back down to earth at the peak of beauty
It was right around 3 p.m. when I knew I had to escape.
Sitting in the Panacea Coffeehouse in the Frog Level District of Waynesville on Monday afternoon, I had finished my writing for the day. I had concluded all my emails, correspondences and text messages, too. I just wanted to get away, even if but for a moment, from my damn smart phone and laptop in an era of Wi-Fi and unlimited data plans.
Hopping into my pickup truck, I swung by my apartment. Grabbing my running clothes and shoes, I jumped back into the truck and proceeded to bolt down Russ Avenue, the nose of the vehicle aimed for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
By the time I hit the gas station on J. Creek just before the I-40 overpass, I was ready and roaring to fill up that tank and grab a tallboy of cold beer, one that would be joyous consumed amid a salute to another unknown adventure.
Heading into the national park via the Cataloochee entrance, I was pretty much alone, seeing as it was the beginning of the workweek, with all the leaf peepers and tourists back home in Knoxville, Charlotte and points south.
Hitting the invisible line that is the park boundary, I pulled the truck over and parked. Standing at the beginning of the Cataloochee Divide Trail, I laced up my running shoes and zipped up my jacket. What was initially a slow but efficient pace soon turned into “running stairs” as my leg muscles warmed up, pushing further and farther up the winding mountain ridge.
With the trail to myself, I kept observing all the bright yellow, orange and red leaves hovering overhead, some tumbling down upon me with the slightest wind from across the Cataloochee Valley. There was silence all around me, save for my rhythmic breathing and the crunching of my shoes over dead leaves, protruding tree roots and the occasional hidden rock my feet would try to avoid.
About a mile and a half up, the ridge flattens out and you come across a house on the ridge to the east. Just past that picturesque abode, there’s a small clearing to the west. That’s always been my spot to stop and take a moment to catch my breath, to wipe the sweat from my face, and to think of things swirling around my physical and emotional being.
Standing at that small opening, I looked out over Cataloochee Valley and other ridges far away from my position. I wondered how many people at that exact moment were somewhere up on some other peak looking in my direction and wondering the same about me (an unknown human also being immersed in Mother Nature, and in solidarity).
While I was fully aware of that moment and simply being part of “the now” of that small opening, I thought of so many people long gone from my life, either physically or emotionally. I thought of my late grandfather, who lived a long and just life, and how much I missed him.
And I thought of two friends who each separately took their own lives this summer, far too soon, and before I ever could properly say goodbye. I thought of former lovers, some thousands of miles away, and wondered if they were happy and loved in the all the ways they deserved to be, many in ways I wish I could have shown them in our time allotted.
Back onto the trail and back down the mountain to my truck awaiting my return. Instead of heading back into J. Creek, I decided to meander into Cataloochee Valley, onward down the desolate Old Cataloochee Turnpike, which leads back towards the Big Creek entrance to the park and the North Carolina/Tennessee border.
Moseying along the Old Cataloochee Turnpike, I decided to put on John Coltrane’s 1965 masterpiece album “A Love Supreme.” Windows rolled down. The stereo echoing into the forest where not a soul would be found for miles and miles.
The music conjured memories of autumn in New York City, me as a college student (some 12 years ago) walking around lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village, headphones on with “A Love Supreme,” soaking in a city, culture and people I’d always dreamed of and seen on TV or in the movies.
My mind then shifted back to the Great Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina, the timeless grandeur of the people and landscape here. Soon, I stopped at the one-lane bridge to just sit and listen to Cataloochee Creek drift by.
I grabbed my now lukewarm beer, walked down to the river and cracked open the hearty pilsner. Watching and listening to the rushing waters, I thought about nothing and everything, as per usual. I've cruised these dirt backroads in the park for seven years now, with each time a sought-after opportunity to clear my head, to cleanse my soul, too.
Silence. Solitude. All now once again achieved. I saluted the heavens above, the earth below, and sipped the pilsner with gusto. I had escaped society and, most importantly, mindless distraction, for now, with my next getaway plan already in motion.
Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.
1 In Your Ear Music Emporium will host its 25th anniversary party at 5 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8, at the store on Main Street in Sylva.
2 North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green will read selections from her works at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 30, in the conference room of Blue Ridge Hall at Western Carolina University.
3 The Galleries of Haywood County will present Art After Dark from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 1, in downtown Waynesville.
4 The comedy classic “Arsenic and Old Lace” will hit the stage at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 1-2 and at 2 p.m. Nov. 3 at the Haywood Arts Regional Theatre in Waynesville.
5 The 15th annual WNC Pottery Festival will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2, at 76 Railroad Avenue in Sylva.