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This must be the place: Olden times and ancient rhymes, of love and dreams to share

Asbury Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains. (photo: Garret K. Woodward) Asbury Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains. (photo: Garret K. Woodward)

Though the baseboard heat was on in the living room, my downtown Waynesville apartment was quite chilly come Tuesday morning. Under warm covers with the anticipation of a blanket of white over the mountainous landscape outside the front door. 

Head to the office to put out this week’s newspaper. Throw on the jeans, the thick plaid long sleeve, the boots and coat with fleece lining. Winter showed up on Dec. 1, a welcomed sight in a time where all things familiar and normal are seemingly at a premium. But, when all seems lost, Mother Nature will provide, am I right?

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot more trail running. By not being on the road for work and play now that the weather has turned cold, I find myself disappearing up into the Great Smoky Mountains often. This past weekend, I pulled the truck over at the national park entrance into Cataloochee Valley. 

Normally, I’d jump onto the Cataloochee Divide Trail and trot along the park boundary: the vastness of Cataloochee Valley to one side, Jonathan Creek and the rolling hills of Haywood County to the other. But, on Sunday, I was feeling frisky, walking across the dirt road from the CDT and heading up the mostly forgotten and abandoned Asbury Trail. 

The Smokies are filled with these endless trails that either aren’t put on maps anymore or simply haven’t been maintained in recent years and decades. I’d always notice the small wooden “Asbury Trail” marker, tucked behind the large park entry sign, but had never ventured up it.

Doing a little research, it turns out the meandering Asbury Trail rides the boundary between the national park and the Appalachian Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest. It’s named after Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury, an early 19th century figure who traveled with his ministry into these mountains.

The route is also known to be an old native trail, called the Cattalucha Indian Track. 

Hopping onto the Asbury Trail, it was following along the very narrow track, all covered with leaves and mud, the only way to keep note of the trail being the sporadic yellow paint marks on nearby trees. Within a few minutes, I was over the first ridge and away from any noise of passing traffic at the entryway.

By the half-hour point, I was way out in the middle of nowhere, passing by ancient property markers built by mountain folk now long gone, old horse trails to somewhere, anywhere. At the third ridge, I stopped near the top and gazed out towards Mount Sterling in the distance. 

Standing there, the crisp air swirled around me, the late afternoon clouds rolling in from East Tennessee. And, in that moment, I felt as alive as I had all year — alone amid joyous solitude, pondering of self in pure silence. Look up at the heavens in gratitude of being able to experience that moment of natural splendor, only to turn around and jog back to the truck. 

Last night, in another attempt at returning to normalcy, I went on my first real deal date since the “before times.” Dating (or any semblance of it) has been pretty nonexistent since the pandemic began last spring. The shutdown of restaurants and bars nixed any chance encounters with a femme fatale on an otherwise quiet night at your neighborhood watering hole. 

Social distancing and keeping your circles (and movements) small have hampered happenstance conversations, interactions and so on. But, it didn’t really bother me. Aside from consideration for public health and the greater good, I’ve always been under the mindset of “it is what it is,” especially when it comes to matters of the heart.

The lady I met yesterday evening? I’ve known her for a couple years now. We met through mutual friends and crossed paths often at concerts and breweries in Asheville. Right before the shutdown, we had attempted to go on date, or at least meet for a drink. But, we all know how everything unfolded in Western North Carolina after March 17. 

Skip ahead almost nine months and we finally had a rendezvous at Red Ginger Dimsum & Tapas on Patton Avenue in Asheville. Waiting outside for her to arrive, an older homeless man sauntered up to me from the park across the street. 

“Hey brother, yah got a really nice beard,” the old man pointed to my face, his long white beard hanging heavy from his solemn eyes. He was in search of a dollar. I handed him three bucks and wished him well. 

Being seated at our table, my date and I removed our masks and looked at the disposable menus as to what might strike our fancy. Our waiter stood six feet away from the table and took our order. Every other table was empty. Smiles and expressions covered up, at least for the time being, but the chance to engage in a hearty conversation never once being lost on us. 

By the end of dinner, it was a nightcap at the nearby Yacht Club. A casual date turned into three hours of laughter and memories rehashed. It felt good to feel normal again, you know? Even if it was under the current circumstances. We bid farewell with plans already in the works for another meet up this week. 

Back into the cold truck, back to Waynesville and my chilly apartment. The radio station was scratchy, but I could still hear the sounds of the beloved 88.7 FM (WNCW). It was the timeless and sentimental “Christmas Is Here” instrumental from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” 

With the first snowflakes of the season in my headlights, the highway was silent, my heart full thinking of past holidays back home in the North Country, of faces either six feet under or thousands of miles away. 

But, my spirits were high. The instrumental faded away, as did the radio signal, though I kept humming the tune to myself — a smile ear-to-ear, simply lost in thought. 

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all. 

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