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This must be the place: ‘No, I’d rather go and journey where the diamond crescent’s glowing’

The Nolichucky River flows through  WNC and East Tennessee.  Garret K. Woodward photo The Nolichucky River flows through WNC and East Tennessee. Garret K. Woodward photo

Parking the truck at the intersection of the Appalachian Trail and the Nolichucky River on the outskirts of the small town of Erwin, Tennessee, early Monday afternoon, a hot sun kissed my forehead emerging from the vehicle all while lacing up the ole trail running shoes.


With my girlfriend, Sarah, just a few feet behind me, we headed up the trail and along the Cliff Ridge section overlooking the Nolichucky. An hour or so prior, we’d checked out of a rental chalet in the shadow of the Beech Mountain Ski Resort. Disappearing into the depths of Mother Nature is the only way to decompress and circle back to your true self, especially following a three-day music festival on the slopes of the resort, myself the stage emcee for the event.

About a half-mile into the trek, with a few beads of sweat dripping down my face, it dawned on me that the date on the calendar was July 31. Halfway through the summer already as it feels like we just acknowledged Memorial Day — the unofficial kickoff to our beloved months of warmth and outdoor frolicking. The end of July. Sheesh. Time sure flies by in the midst of summer shenanigans and adventures, as it always seems to do, eh?

I started thinking about all the plans that were initially made and didn’t come to fruition in June and July. There was my 20th high school reunion in Upstate New York at the end of June, a gathering I put together from afar in Haywood County but was unable to ultimately attend due to truck issues and not being able to “safely leave Western North Carolina” until the rack and pinion replaced, as well as an axle bearing and some work on the four-wheel drive components. Over $4,000 later, the truck was returned to me, but in late July.

I was also aiming to be back in the North Country to see my family, of which the act of has become fewer and farther between as the years have gone along. I didn’t go home for the holidays last year, so a summer trip usually has been in the cards around late June into early July to be in attendance for my young niece’s birthday and the annual Fourth of July parade in the small Canadian Border town of Rouses Point, New York. Again, due to the truck being sidelined, fingers crossed I can return home this month, if anything for a short visit.

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But, on the flip side, there was the recent trip out to the west. Denver, Colorado, to Whitefish, Montana, and back again. Although unexpected and not thought of just a few months ago, there Sarah and I were, in a rental car bopping along a 2,000-mile journey through the Rocky Mountains. She’d never been north of Denver, while I used to live, work and venture around those parts when I was a rookie reporter 15 years ago. Backwoods hiking. Glacial lake swimming. Century-old saloons. Roadside motels. Cruising the endless prairie.

Atop the Cliff Ridge with the Nolichucky River way down below, Sarah stopped to sit and write in her journal for a little bit. I continued up the AT to get more of a trail run under my belt beyond just the hike itself. Trotting along the trail, I approached another overlook. I noticed a hiker with full gear sitting nearby, taking a moment to stop and check his backpack. I said hello and continued on my way. Circling back to Sarah, we both jogged back down to the truck.

Popping down the tailgate, our sweat-drenched bodies cracked a cold, celebratory beer leftover from the music festival. A moment later, a figure waved to me from the nearby intersection. It was the hiker with the full gear that I’d encountered earlier. He walked over and introduced himself. His name was Jacob and his cell phone had died. He needed to message his father and tell him he was OK, but a day behind on the AT compared to the original, expected timeline. I handed him my phone to text his dad.

I also handed him a cold beer from our stash. He thanked us for the hospitality. As his phone was charging in my truck, we all gathered around the tailgate, sipping on the beer with gusto and pillaging whatever snacks remained from the festival. Potato chips. Crackers. Hummus. Fresh peaches. A smile of gratitude rolled across Jacob’s face. He was in the midst of a 75-mile solo hike and had only consumed dehydrated food up until that point.

What had started out as a quick bite to eat and charge of his phone led to a conversation between the three of us for the better part of the next hour and a half along the banks of the Nolichucky. One of those happenstance interactions that renews one’s faith in the good of humanity, where a stranger can simply cross paths with other strangers and find immediate common ground through genuine conversation and good will.

A recent graduate of Duke Law, Jacob was between jobs and looking to take a little time to hike and ponder along the AT. He had just landed a new gig as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., and was looking forward to this new, unknown chapter of his 30-year-old life. He was excited to “finally put some roots down” after years of wandering, most notably being an extended stint in China teaching English, which included a life-changing excursion to Tibet.

We traded tales of the road and our own respective journey to the here and now. We shared our current state of mind, of what was in our daily thoughts and what might be just beyond the horizon of the future ahead. We shared deep, personal traumas of our past and how those things helped shaped us into who we are today, for good or ill (but, thankfully, mostly good).

Eventually, we said goodbye to Jacob amid big bear hugs and plans to meet up down the line. With two-honks of solidarity, our truck pulled away and into the rest of summer. Onward. 

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

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