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This must be the place: Stuck in Columbia with the North Country blues again

This must be the place: Stuck in Columbia with the North Country blues again

At 6 p.m. this past Friday, I was supposed to be walking into my 20th high school reunion at the Latitude 45 bar in the small Canadian Border town of Rouses Point, New York (population: 2,225). 

But, instead, I found myself checking into the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Columbia, South Carolina. I had just finished a hot and sweaty jog down a remote section of the Palmetto Trail along an old farm road just outside the town of Prosperity. Valet the old pickup truck. Grab the room keys and head for the eleventh floor. 

Plopping down on the big king bed, it was 6:15 p.m. Outside the hotel window was downtown. Hot and hazy. Temperature in the low 90s with oppressive humidity. I started thinking about the reunion, how familiar faces from my past many moons ago were slowly trickling into Latitude.

It would surely be cold Labatt Blue bottles along the bar counter, maybe even some shots of cheap Canadian whiskey, too. Belly laughter and rehashed memories. Remembering old sports victories, gymnasium dances, cafeteria shenanigans and classrooms full of teachers we’ll never forget. That, and backwoods bonfires and teenage transgressions. 

Sitting on the barstools at Latitude, there’s lots more grey hair atop the conversing heads (myself included if I’d been in attendance) and dyed hair since those days of senior portraits and yearbooks — of the early 2000s when the promise of tomorrow seemed great and true, within reach and ours for the taking.

And yet, there I stood. Age 38 and holdin’ steady. Not as fast as I used to be during those long-gone dusty memories sprinting down the track and setting school records. But, I’m still chugging along. Head held high. Screw the haters. Embrace the lovers. Never forget where you came from. Never be complacent in your lifelong dreams and your daily endeavors. Kindness breeds kindness. Work hard, but don’t forget play.

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Those thoughts in mind, I recall a recent Instagram post from juggernaut singer-songwriter and all-around-badass Margo Price, “This is your reminder to be yourself and fucking own it.” She also mentioned sometime not long ago about simply being kind, but also not taking shit from anyone. True that, my sister. True that.

The eleventh floor of the Columbia Sheraton. Exactly 1,025.1 miles from door to door to Latitude. Over 15 hours via car. Several hundreds of dollars via air. Lord knows the logistics via train. Hours and days and days and hours in a mad scramble to make it back home to the North Country.

No matter, grab a Budweiser from the mini-fridge and wait for your turn to take a shower as your girlfriend continues to get ready in the bathroom for dinner that we’re hoping to grab ‘round the corner within the next hour.

High-end tacos and $11 margaritas are awaiting us. Well worth it, in my opinion. House made sour mix with flavor and zest is just what the doctor ordered. But, for now, sit up on the big king bed. Take a big pull from the glass bottle. Swallow the cool liquid with a slight sigh. Not in anger or resentment, nor sadness or disappointment, either.

Hell, sometimes all you can do is sigh and reflect — at what’s in the rearview mirror of life, at what lies ahead through the unknowns of the windshield, but mostly turning to your right to take inventory of what beauty and possibility sits in the passenger’s seat of the here and now.

Following dinner, my girlfriend and I wandered around downtown Columbia. It was still pretty damn hot, especially in jeans and boots. But, I’d given up at that point on trying to remain cool, physically and aesthetically. Embrace the sweat. Deal with it. It’s part of life. We’ll laugh about this somewhere down the line. We always do, my dear.

Strolling down Main Street towards Gervais, the South Carolina State House loomed in the distance. Majestic and haunting. A location of much sadness and travesty, much hope and triumph. Meander the property and take in the architectural spectacle from numerous angles. Stand and observe the power and prestige that’s also walked these same stone steps over the countless decades of turmoil and progress.

Historical markers with etched words surrounding the Capitol. Reminders of dark moments in Columbia’s past. The Civil War and Sherman’s March in the 1860s. The Civil Rights Movement and peaceful protests gone awry exactly a century later. And here we are in 2023. Gazing ‘round the same spot. Gentrification and construction. Homeless people and expensive sports cars on the same corner. 

In that moment and setting, my girlfriend snapped me out of my trance of time and space, this existential mindset of humanity. Where we were, where we are, where we may go from here, for good or ill. She asked what I was thinking about, and if I was “still disappointed about missing the reunion.” 

No, I turned to her and replied with an honest grin, “It is what it is, and that’s all it is. Tomorrow is a new day. Onward.” Besides, by my logic, everyone had already closed their bar tabs and headed home from Latitude to ready themselves for the Fourth of July parade come Sunday.

Heading back to the Sheraton, we quietly walked across the lobby to the elevator bank. Hitting the button labeled “11,” it was a slow ride up. Down the silent hallway to Room 1109. Flick on the lights. Turn up the air-conditioning. Get into your PJs.

Grab a nightcap from the mini-fridge. Plop down onto the big king bed. Flick on the TV. Reruns of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” Smile in gratitude for the ideal late-night programming. Take a pull from the glass bottle of the cool liquid. Crack your knuckles. Stretch out. Cool off.

Adjust the pillow behind your back. By the first TV commercial, my girlfriend was fast asleep next to me. Off to dreamland until tomorrow morning. Take off her glasses for her and put them on the nightstand. Roll back over, grab for the remote and turn down the TV volume a tad.

Thoughts about articles due in the coming weeks. Thoughts of upcoming trips out west and up to the North Country at a later date. Thoughts of the reunion now over until the next one in five years. Thoughts of that starting line of life in Rouses Point and everything that’s unfolded since then. Be grateful. Be hungry. Be kind. Dammit, be kind. 

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

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