A&E Columns

This must be the place: ‘Goin’ places that I’ve never been, seein’ things that I may never see again’

This must be the place: ‘Goin’ places that I’ve never been, seein’ things that I may never see again’

There’s an old backpack in my apartment. I’ve had it since college. And since those academic days back in Connecticut and greater New England, it’s held my road journals. 

From fall 2006 through fall 2012, I wrote feverishly in numerous notebooks: in diners, at bars, along lonesome highways coast-to-coast, next to a roaring wood stove, amid the electric nature of a new romance, amid the eternal sadness of a breakup, and seemingly everything in-between. 

Anyhow, I haven’t unzipped the backpack in years. Today, I was fiddling around looking for something in my downtown Waynesville apartment, and came across the backpack. I unzipped it and took a plunge into my trials and tribulations from the winter of 2009. 

Back then, I was 24 and had just returned to my native North Country of Plattsburgh, New York, following the conclusion of the “Western Experiment,” where I spent the better part of a year (2008) as a rookie journalist at a small newspaper on the Idaho/Wyoming border in the Grand Teton Mountains. 

It’s wild to reread who I was, what I was doing, and what I wanted to do back then. The fire within remains, its glow and heat as bright and vibrant as ever these days, thankfully. At that time, I was a struggling freelance writer, making $45 per article in my hometown newspaper, the Press-Republican. 

I was also living for a period of time in an upstairs storage closet in my parents’ farmhouse. The quaint bedroom was isolated from the rest of the large house, a single window and bookshelves, the mattress taking up about half of the floor space. A record player and big stereo system. The single window just above my head, the old farmhouse glass shaking in the middle of the night from the high winds of an Arctic blast from north of the border in nearby Canada. 

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Anyhow, they say certain things find their way to you at just the right time: people, music, books, experiences, moments, etc. Well, rereading these notebooks, and serendipitously popping into me circa winter 2009 has been quite cathartic in this very moment. 

Yes, I’m still as much of a hopeless romantic as that young kid back then. Journal entries of former femme fatales, women I couldn’t ever imagine living without then, who I haven’t thought of in many years. And yet, the memories shared with them remain vivid upon dusting off the shoeboxes of moments placed carefully in the closet of my mind. 

But, it’s wild to see how much ambition and determination I had back then, where I was willing to suffer as long and as hard as it would come to pass, just to find stability in my dream as a writer. 

One of those 2009 entries spoke about having only $10 in my pocket, but there was enough gas left in my old GMC Sonoma to get to downtown Plattsburgh for cheap beer specials and good times with faces I haven’t seen or spoken to since I left Clinton County for Western North Carolina in July 2012. How I was barely scraping by to survive, and yet, I kept going. 

Keep that in mind, I say to myself, when I think of “this, that, and the other,” and not take for granted I’m at a point in my career when I can go into any restaurant and order whatever I want off the menu. Bring on the filet mignon (medium rare) and a glass of your finest Oregon Pinot Noir — a far cry from those early days of eating generic Walmart spaghetti-o’s from a can in a Nevada truck stop, all while sipping on a lukewarm Milwaukee’s Best. 

Oh, how the dream then was full-time salary employment in the realm of the written word, with the ultimate dream to someday write for Rolling Stone. Today, I remain a minimalist, and I live in a small apartment, a humble abode filled with shelves of books and vinyl records, a handful of guitars, and a porch view of the ancient Appalachian Mountains. Now? I’m entering my 11th year at the helm of the arts section for The Smoky Mountain News.

The bills are paid and I can do whatever I want to do, and also have been writing for Rolling Stone consistently since December 2018, a little more than a decade after I left the Grand Tetons, driving back east and trying to figure out how I could make this writing thing work out for me. The plunge into these journals continues, as rediscovered by this entry: 

“(Sept. 15, 2008 – Cheap hotel room. East Dubuque, Illinois.)

Headache. Hangover. Sunshine pierces through the morning haze. Glowing box in corner blaring breaking news. Bear Sterns goes bankrupt. Who’s next to collapse in the financial world? Panic in the air. Paranoid views of the near future and beyond. Another Great Depression? What a time to quit my job. What a time to be unemployed. No health benefits. No job. Fingers crossed. Must buckle down and write novel.

Met up with my old friend Spicoli and his girlfriend, Mary, at the Pines Lounge just outside of Gary, Indiana. I hadn’t seen him since he left Idaho those many months ago. He was a lonely face I last witnessed in a cold bus stop, his presence getting smaller and smaller as my truck pulled away. I was heading east (Plattsburgh, New York). They were heading west (Portland, Oregon). And here the paths cross in rundown Indiana. 

Happy hour Pabst Blue Ribbon. A few pool games in the lounge with the locals. Cigarette smoke swirled in the squeaky ceiling fans. Glass bottles clinked and clanked in celebration of the unknown night, unknown adventures, ready to surprise at any moment, around any corner. We were prying the oyster open. We were determined to exploit and dance in the possibilities of irresponsible enlightenment.

Camped out near the sand dunes. Feet in sand, drink in hand. Looking southwest, the Chicago skyline shone brightly. Millions milling about. This trio sits alone. Summersaults down the dunes. Laughter. Darkness save the glowing fire on the tip of my Camel unfiltered. He kisses her neck, holds her tight. I watch and recall happier times with women who’ve broken my heart, whose hearts I’ve broken.

The joint rotated amongst us. Frolicking in the woods, we strolled along empty paths. Blinking lights from nearby radio towers twinkled above the tree line. Reminiscing of foggy western memories. Imagining the future of our own current endeavors.”

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

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