A&E Columns

This must be the place: ‘Windswept stars blink and smile, another song, another mile’

The Princess Theatre in Decatur, Alabama opened in 1919. The Princess Theatre in Decatur, Alabama opened in 1919. Garret K. Woodward photo.

Hello from Room 209 at the Home2 Suites by Hilton on the outskirts of downtown Decatur, Alabama. It’s Monday morning. Cloudy skies and temperatures pushing 80 degrees by mid-morning.  

Through the window, I can see the mighty Tennessee River in all its legend and lore. I’ve been down in North Alabama since Saturday afternoon. On the road and on assignment for Rolling Stone in my free time, as per usual. 

This go-round it’s covering the upcoming album release for Kansas City blues guitar sensation Samantha Fish and Texas rocker Jesse Dayton, with the duo’s last show in the States before a European tour in Decatur. 

Crank up the truck in front of my humble abode in downtown Waynesville with the nose of the vehicle aimed to the southwest. Cruise down the Great Smoky Mountains Expressway. Sylva. Cherokee. Bryson City. Nantahala Gorge. Andrews. Murphy. Onward over the state line through Ducktown and Cleveland, Tennessee. 

There’s a lot of memories that flood my field-of-vision on this route that’ll pop out near Chattanooga, the city soon appearing through the windshield. Aside from family trips to spots along the coast of the Southeast, my first real taste of the interior of Southern Appalachia was visiting old friends from my days living and working out in the Rocky Mountains. 

Those friends relocated to Chattanooga to be near family, and to eventually get married and start a family. But, back in 2009, we were all in our mid-20s. The vast unknown future of our impending adulthood and big choices to be made — love, life, friends, careers, shenanigans, etc. — still lingered in front of us. 

I remember being so enamored with Chattanooga. “I could totally see myself living here,” my 24-year-old self would say from time-to-time on the handful of trips I made from my native Upstate New York to visit my Chatta-Choo-Choo cronies. 

When I finally did decide to tempt fate, and look into relocating to Chattanooga, I closest thing I found to a writing gig in or around the city was at The Smoky Mountain News. Works for me. To be able to wander and ponder in the Smokies is — and remains — a dream come true. I took the job at this fine publication, 11 years this coming August. 

Rolling through Chattanooga en route to Decatur, I found myself telling my co-pilot girlfriend the entire backstory of how I ended up in the South. Packing up my truck and bolting out of the North Country, the thoughts, hopes and fears for this new chapter of my existence. 

And how I slept under my desk in the newsroom for the first week or so of employment at SMN, at least until I got my first paycheck and was able to put down funds needed for the deposit. Those restless nights laying on the floor of the office, gazing out the window and wondering what was awaiting around the corner to surprise me along this road of life. 

Crossing into Alabama, the mountains of Appalachia now lowered themselves to the foothills of this rural, bucolic setting. Time seems to slow down in these parts, and happily for a roadrunner like myself. Memories of exact a year ago on assignment in Huntsville for the grand opening of the majestic Orion Amphitheater. It already feels like some faraway moment from long ago. 

Time ticks on. Nighttime soon blanketed North Alabama. Leaving Huntsville, the truck passed by the U.S. Space & Rocket Center buffering a bustling Interstate 565, the massive rocket standing tall and proud high in the sky — this ode to the innovation, imagination and inspiration that resides at the core of mankind. 

The next morning, I laced up the running shoes and headed for the Point Mallard Trail along the Tennessee River. It was already in the mid-80s. A hot sun high above. Beads of sweat immediately formed on my forehead when I emerged from the truck and began trotting down the dirt path along the ancient waterway. 

The beauty of running — at least in my heart and soul is the free-flowing sense of thought. Once you settle into an ideal rhythm of pace and purpose, your mind ricochets like a bouncing ball between memories, current situations and possible outcomes for whatever might be simmering in the depths of your psyche — consciously or subconsciously. 

In that moment on the PMT, I kept thinking about my hometown of Rouses Point, New York. In aesthetic, the trail and nearby river reminded me of where I grew up. The scents, noises and appearance of everything swirling around my position felt like I was immediately transported back to the shores of Lake Champlain. 

The rising temperature and scorching ball of fire in the sky also signaled to me that summer is just around the corner, showing up as it always does — cheerfully welcomed, but always catching us by surprise after the seemingly endless doldrums of late winter and spring. 

It also dawned on me that my 20th high school reunion is not far down the road. Fourth of July weekend at the Latitude 45 bar in Rouses Point. I know this because I’m in charge of putting together the gathering. Keep it simple. It’ll be cold suds and enough space for everything to mingle, the establishment overlooking the mighty Lake Champlain. 

Faces not seen in two decades since high school. Faces seen last summer. The sands of time. The fresh calendars on the wall each Jan. 1. No matter, keep moving down the road of your intent. And enjoy that jog along a dirt path on the Tennessee River in Alabama — for existence is nothing and everything, and all the wondrous things in-between. 

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

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