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This must be the place: I dreamt that you were Joan-of Arc and I was Don Quixote

Tsali Recreation Area. (photo: Garret K. Woodward) Tsali Recreation Area. (photo: Garret K. Woodward)

Right at the line of Graham and Swain counties, along a stretch of N.C. 28, is the entrance to the Tsali Recreation Area. It was late Monday afternoon and the sun was quickly falling toward the horizon.

Turning the truck into the entrance, the windy road went down and down towards the shoreline of Fontana Lake, where a vast recreation area of endless trails soon opens up, where outdoor freaks and the curious alike can disappear into the forest to wander and ponder. 

Just as I hit the first curve in the road, the sounds of John Hartford’s “First Girl I Loved” started radiating from the stereo. Another sacred melody from his seminal 1971 album “Aereo-Plain,” the song hit me deep, more so than with previous listening sessions. 

Like any Hartford number, the tone and feeling always seems to strike hard and honestly, where you find yourself discovering new levels of each song with each passing year of your life — you grow older with the words and string arrangements, more appreciative of the sentiments, as one does with any timeless music. 

Maybe it was the sunset and the way the shadows danced on the road and in the trees as I passed by. Maybe it was lingering thoughts and emotions from a rollercoaster trip back to the North Country for Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Maybe it’s the mere fact my 37th birthday is just a little over a week away. Shit, it’s most likely all of the above in the grand scheme of things. 

Pulling into the trailhead parking lot, what was left of the day’s mountain bikers were spraying the mud of their equipment and packing up their vehicles to head home. Even after I put the truck in park, I let “First Girl I Loved” play out. And I hit the repeat button. I really wanted to sit with the song, let it sink into my mind as to hopefully be my ongoing soundtrack while I was out there in the depths of Tsali, running in solitude with the sounds of Hartford echoing throughout my head. 

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And then, with one particular verse, I started to feel a little sad, a little nostalgic and also a bit lost in the existential space of processing just what time and place and you and me actually means, “I regret my life won’t be long enough, to make love to all the women that I’d like to, or least of all, to live with the ones I’ve loved.” 

Now, those words aren’t meant as some dumb, macho thing. Not even close. More so, it struck me with a flood of memories of past lovers, of once-beloved faces and cherished moments that now seem fuzzy and somewhat hard to clearly remember this many years later, sadly. I think back on those femme fatales and those women who shifted the trajectory of my life, and I can only shake my head in awe, and in gratitude, for good or ill. 

Lacing up my running shoes, I hit the four-mile Right Loop trail. The sun was now behind the mountain ridge, the trail covered in dead leaves, with the lake itself now pretty empty from the floodgates being released. Silence except for the running shoes crunching through the leaves, clockwork breathing pushing my body further and farther down the trail. 

Thirty-seven. Shit. Where does the damn time go, eh? Sure, I get that 37 isn’t “old” by any means. But, it’s wild to just think about how fast time flies, especially when you’re having fun. Thirty-seven means that 2022 is exactly 10 years since I moved to Western North Carolina to start my position at this newspaper. 

Twenty-seven? Good lord. Who was that person? I mean, I feel the same and the face looks somewhat the same in the mirror. More grey hair now, though. But, the road in the rearview mirror to where that 27-year-old stood a decade ago is long and windy, with peaks and valleys of unknown elevation and difficulty. And yet, stubborn determination and undying passion brings me to the here and now. 

The goal back then remains the same today. A full-time gig writing for a publication that provides me with creative freedom and a steady paycheck. Cross that off the list. Reside in a humble abode, one filled with books, vinyl records and guitars. Check. Drive a Toyota Tacoma covered in mud and scratches from continuous adventures. Also, check. A partner-in-crime badass member of the opposite sex to ride shotgun? Space still available, inquire within. So, three out of four, huh? Not bad, in all actuality, considering. 

Reaching the last ridge of the four-mile trail run, I stopped and stood still for a moment. My head turned towards the fire in the sky as the sun left us with the last traces of the day’s sunshine. Sweat dripping from my forehead. Shoes covered in well-earned mud. 

With a half-mile remaining back to the parking lot, I wiped my face with my sleeve, kicked a little mud off my shoes, and started up the engine within once again — for the truck and for home, wherever the heart is, as they say.

Turning on the truck, I rolled the windows down and threw “First Girl I Loved” back on the stereo, as so I could hear it while I stretched outside of the vehicle. I was the only person left in the parking lot, so I could play the tune as loud as I pleased. 

Leaning against the truck, the mesmerizing presence of John Hartford echoed out into the heavens, “Was in love with you, well-before I knew, it meant more than just wanting to be with you, I used to look for other girls that looked like you.” 

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

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