A&E Columns

This must be the place: To rouse the spirit of the earth and move the rolling sky

Saltville, Virginia. (Garret K. Woodward photo) Saltville, Virginia. (Garret K. Woodward photo)

Hello from Room 827 at the Marriott Town Center in downtown Charleston, West Virginia. The outside temperature is dropping, all while soft snowflakes cascade by the hotel window onto the cold pavement below. 

There’s about a five hour or so drive ahead of me back to Haywood County, probably more so due to the winter weather rearing its head. But, no matter. There are good tunes being cranked in the trusty Tacoma, the heater working just fine amid the depths of a cold, wet January in Southern Appalachia.

Typing away at the desk, there’s a slew of receipts near my laptop. Some crumpled, others still fresh, all of which are mementos of a wild, whirlwind weekend in state capital of West-by-God-Virginia. Receipts from dive bars, sports lounges, restaurants, and gas stations. Oh, and a reminder to pay the toll fees for Interstate 64 after not knowing there were toll roads in these parts, no cash in the wallet, either.

Good ole “Wild Wonderful West Virginia.” I found myself up there covering the storied NPR radio program, “Mountain Stage,” for Rolling Stone. Celebrating its 40th year of existence in 2023, I wandered into the fold of host (and country star) Kathy Mattea & Co. as they welcomed an array of musical acts for a two-hour broadcast. 

Checking into the Marriott, I immediately ran into one of the stage acts, a couple familiar faces, of which I didn’t realize were on the bill until we crossed paths in the lobby of the hotel. The Canadian rock act (based in Richmond, Virginia) was part of another band that I had seen just before the shutdown in 2020, one of the last shows, too, that was ever held at the now-defunct Mothlight music venue in West Asheville.

The two days in Charleston was a raucous setting of live music, backstage interviews, NFL playoff football in sporadic doses, wintry weather, and a dive bar drag show for good measure. A slew of new faces to interact with, a bunch of new places to inhabit. Just a scruffy journalist on the road, and in their element — the universe hums and vibrates happily with possibility, eh?

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Next thing I know, the rollercoaster of life and happenstance slams to a halt, where it’s now Monday morning, a little after 9 a.m. The 5.5-hour drive ahead of me back to Waynesville from Charleston. Bleary-eyed and in need of water, definitely some of that breakfast buffet in the hotel lobby. Open the curtains to freezing rain on nearby Interstate 64. Pack up the bags. Warm up the truck. Back to Carolina, I go.

Merge onto I-64 towards I-77, en route to Southwestern Virginia, soon East Tennessee, and lastly Western North Carolina. But, not before a little side quest, all in the name of music journalism and also out of pure curiosity, down Route 612 towards Oak Hill, West Virginia. 

The final spot on “Hank Williams’ Last Ride” was Oak Hill. This small mountain town in the depths of Appalachia is where the country superstar was brought to the hospital and pronounced dead on New Year’s Day 1953. It’s a quiet community, a dot on the map to somewhere, anywhere. Fuel up and keep on truckin’. And yet, this place is immortalized in country music legend and lore. 

The only sign of Williams’ last day on earth is a small marker in front of the library. Standing in front of the marker, it was 30 degrees and snowing. I had to brush the snow off the marker to read what it had to say. Within earshot of the marker is the hospital where Williams was brought to, all before being shipped back to his native Alabama for the funeral. One wonders how similar this cold winter day was to that fateful morning 70 years ago.

Crank the truck back up and meander along Route 19, back to the interstate, down the mountain ridges towards Virginia, only to stop into Abingdon for a quick jog on the Virginia Creeper Trail. The parking lot on the outskirts of downtown was empty, a late afternoon train rolling by, its whistle echoing far and wide across the community. Throw on running shoes, strap on one’s gloves and warm toboggan hat. Jump onto the silent trail, only to quickly disappear into your restless thoughts.

I only wanted to do a little more than three miles, so I turned around at the 5K mark, the trail pushing between the physical dichotomy of a vast, empty farm field and new housing development area. On the way back, I passed by the local high school cross-country team, the boys and girls squad huffing and puffing down the trail, teenage laughter and wonderment in passing. 

And, it was in that moment, more so in moments “like that,” where on really taps into reality, of what time and place actually is, you know? I started having flashbacks of similar jogs with my team when I was high school those many years ago up on the Canadian Border, our afternoon workouts trotting down trails mowed into endless fields behind our school.

At 37, those adolescent moments in real time were over half a lifetime ago. Sheesh. Has it really been that long? Visions of the same laughter and wonderment, where your whole future was out there, somewhere, waiting for you to chase and capture it. Everything seemed so simple then, as cliché as that sounds. And yet, it was, even if it seemed like a crisis every day of the week as a teenager figuring out their path in life.

Finishing the run, I returned to the truck. On the short walk back across the road to the parking lot, I realized my 38th birthday is just around the corner. Once again, Feb. 5 has snuck up on me, where sometimes I forget what day it is, at least until beloved souls send wishes of good health, vibes, friendship, and love. The clock keeps ticking, thankfully. The adventure continues, and with gratitude.

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

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