This must be the place: It’s a wonderful world if you can put aside the sadness, and hang on to every ounce of beauty upon you
Although I had a press pass waiting for me at the box office of the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in Asheville for rock legends Chicago on Sunday evening, I found myself stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Interstate 24 East just outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee.
It was late afternoon and I still had an hour to jump ahead when I crossed back over into Eastern Standard Time not far out of Chattanooga. It would be after 5 p.m. by the time I actually entered the city limits, with another three hours or so to reach Asheville, meaning I’d already miss half of the Chicago show, even if I hurried back.
Reaching for my smart phone, I scrolled through recent text messages. Two of my near and dear old friends live in Chattanooga. And I hadn’t seen them in years. I had sent a message a few days prior mentioning that I’d be in the area come Sunday, and if they’re around we should meet for a quick drink.
By the time I was crawling along in traffic, I’d yet to hear back from them, which was odd. I went back to the message, which now indicated the text had failed to be sent. Damn. So, seeing as I was a half-hour from Chattanooga, I sent another message, saying my initial inquiry didn’t go through and “would y’all like to meet for a beer?”
Not even a minute or two later, to my surprise, the phone dinged with a response. It was my old buddy Jesse. He and his wife, Katie, were around and heading to a friend’s house to jump in their pool. “I’ll text you the address if you want to swing by,” Jesse messaged.
Forty-five minutes later, the ole Tacoma rolled up to a small apartment complex on a ridge tucked into the woods due north of Chattanooga. It was opening day for the pool as its residents were spraying off the patio, scrubbing down the grill and pulling cold beers out from the cooler near the blue waters where everyone was lounging about.
And there they were, Jesse and Katie, with their three-year-old daughter, Lucy, who I’d never met until that very moment. The couple hadn’t changed a bit, as is such with lifelong pals. It was a wild scene to behold. Seeing my old friends after many moons apart, and then being introduced to this wondrous little face. Right then and there, a sea of memories flashed across my mind.
I’d first met Jesse back in January 2008 in the depths of winter in rural Eastern Idaho. I was 22 years old and just started my first reporting gig at the tiny Teton Valley News, an outpost publication in the shadow of the Grand Teton Mountains.
Jesse was a year older than me. He was childhood friends and the roommate of my new co-worker at the paper, both of them relocating to the West from the Ozarks in Missouri. We were young kids back then, with the unknowns of our respective futures unfolding in real time in the vast landscape of the Rocky Mountains. We were thick as thieves right out of the gate, and remained so for that year I lived out there.
When the economy tanked in September 2008, I packed up my things and headed back to my native Upstate New York in hopes of new and better opportunities in the realm of the written word. Around that time, Jesse had become smitten with a girl we’d both been friends with in the Tetons, Katie, who was (and remains) a real deal firecracker of a human being, who also headed West after college from North Georgia.
Not long after I took off back East, Jesse and Katie pulled up stakes and moved to Chattanooga to be closer to family and pursue careers in education. With not much luck in New York, I found myself often cruising down to visit them. And it was during those road trips when I fell in love with Southern Appalachia.
At first, I tried to find a reporting job in Chattanooga. When that didn’t pan out, I zoomed out on the range of my search, ultimately coming across an opening for an arts and entertainment editor at The Smoky Mountain News in this town called Waynesville, North Carolina. It was somewhat close to Chattanooga and was also in the mountains (where I wanted to be, ultimately). I took the job and it’ll be 10 years at the helm here come this August.
Almost a decade below the Mason-Dixon Line and there we all were, the old Teton crew, sitting around some pool in Chattanooga rehashing stories from the good ole days. Gut-busting laughter and sincere smiles. I missed Jesse and Katie, these beloved souls who know me probably better than I know myself, the kind of people you just “know you’re supposed to know” in life, you know?
Saying goodbye to them, it was time to make my way back to Haywood County. Plans were already made to rendezvous at a bluegrass concert later this summer. Putting the Tacoma into drive, I waved goodbye to my friends and honked twice in solidarity. In the rearview mirror, I looked at the face in the reflection and shook my head in awe and in gratitude.
Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.