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This must be the place: Distance makes the heart grow stranger when the stars go out of view

Cataloochee Divide Trail. (photo: Garret K. Woodward) Cataloochee Divide Trail. (photo: Garret K. Woodward)

Tucked in the corner booth at a dive bar in Maggie Valley on Monday afternoon, I slid across the vinyl seating across from the young couple. They’d already ordered a couple drinks, mozzarella sticks and some fried grouper bites. Some Lynyrd Skynyrd song was blasting from the front bar. 

I ordered a Budweiser draft, soon pulling out a piece of blank paper and pen. The purpose of the rendezvous was to go through and finalize the order of events for the couple’s wedding just down the road from the bar this Saturday. Friends and loved one arriving from all corners of the country, descending upon Haywood County to celebrate the nuptials of this particular branch of their family tree.

My role in all of this? Wedding officiant. About a year ago, in the midst of the pandemic, we were all having some tailgate beers in the parking lot of the newspaper one Friday after work. Soon, the conversation hovered over the topic of their wedding. It was mentioned that they’d yet to find an officiant. 

“Well, if y’all ever need an officiant, I’m your dude. I’ve done a few weddings over the years” I suggested in a simple matter-of-fact tone, the subject of conversation eventually transitioning into another topic.

And it wasn’t much longer after that interaction when the bride-to-be (who works in our office) approached me and asked if I was serious about being an officiant. Of course, I replied. To which, she and her fiancé had talked it over and felt I’d be the ideal candidate for the gig. Sold. Count me in. What time and where? I’ll be there.

For someone like myself, a 37-year-old bachelor (never married, no kids), I still find myself fascinated and mesmerized by the power and allure of a wedding. The setting and the people. The vibrant nature of the swirling souls all milling about, those in attendance crossing paths with beloved familiar faces not seen in many moons. The memories made that will be forever cherished in the hearts of those who never forgot. 

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Thus, I’m an eternal hopeless romantic still chasing after that horizon of whatever femme fatale may be standing out there — somewhere, anywhere. It’s not that I’m constantly wandering and pondering the idea of marriage or even the notion of a lifelong companion. It’s just remained elusive, where, for many years now, I’ve been roaming the road of life at my own pace and in my own time, observing the beauty around me as the world flies by with a reckless abandon. 

And while sitting on the vinyl seating in that dive bar booth, I listened intently to the couple speak at length about how they met and how, well, everything led to the events of this upcoming weekend. Journalistic curiosity got the best of me as I asked questions about the who, what, where, when, why and how of their budding romance, onward to a life soon to be spent together. 

It was inspiring to hear their story and to first-hand see the admiration and solidarity each had for the other. Even my sometimes jaded, cynical heart softened a little bit, which is a feeling I’ve been experiencing again lately, this idea of maybe giving a partnership or relationship (or whatever it may be) another shot in the great unknowns of the cosmos.

For several years now, I have purposely avoided the dating scene in this area. Sure, if someone of interest would cross my path, then perhaps I’d make it a point to meet up and see where it goes. But, for the most part, I’ve been more focused on enjoying the life that I’m trying to create and build for myself, with whatever “companion” being a complement to that emerging existence (and vice versa).

But, during the shutdown and pandemic, like many of us out there reading this, I found myself having to sit still and be left alone with my thoughts. No distractions of people, places and things to derail my intent. Living by myself (and having a career that involves being pretty much alone most of the time), I took that downtime and really tried to come to some conclusions about the “Where to from here?” of my mid-30s onward.

Earlier on Monday, before I ventured to the dive bar in Maggie Valley, I went for a jog/hike up the Cataloochee Divide Trail. About a mile and a half in, there’s a clearing on the ridge that overlooks Cataloochee Valley. That’s where I usually stop and take a moment to breathe deeply and exhale any and all worry in my daily life.

I’ve run that section of trail dozens of times. Every single trek is as different and unique as the next, whether it’s what’s going on in my mind or the weather, the changing of the seasons/vegetation or just how my physical body feels when disappearing into the depths of Mother Nature like baseball players in Iowa cornfields.

This most recent excursion, I threw on running shoes and took off down the Cataloochee Divide, only to immediately be hit with heavy raindrops from above. An afternoon storm was rolling in fast over the valley, the edge of the front now high above my running route. No matter, push ahead and embrace the rollicking freedom of self, all while splashing through mud puddles — happy and carefree.

Hit the ridge, look out over the vast mountains to the west. Smile in gratitude, only to turn around and bound back down the trail to the truck. Muddy running shoes and wet clothes. And it is in these moments when the heart it light, optimistic and, most of all, open and vulnerable to whatever lies just around the corner.

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

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