A&E Columns

This must be the place: ‘Plates slammed onto the counter, coffeepot burped, voices ask of a loved ones’ whereabouts’

St. Augustine, Florida. Garret K. Woodward photo St. Augustine, Florida. Garret K. Woodward photo

The title of this column is a sentence written in my old road journals. Back on Dec. 26, 2007. I was 22 years old and leaving my hometown of Plattsburgh, New York, heading west to start my first reporting gig post-college at the Teton Valley News in Driggs, Idaho. 

I found myself thinking of that entry, that moment in time while sipping coffee at the newly opened Main Street Diner in downtown Waynesville. Seated next to the front windows last Wednesday morning, I gazed onto the sidewalks, observing passerby faces and motorists. Coffee. Eggs. Bacon. Toast. The ole standby feast.

The mind drifts into faraway realms of one’s memory when sitting at a diner in Anywhere U.S.A. That’s the beauty of the diner itself. As far back as I can remember, the diner was (and remains) a place I’ve always cherished and admired. This refuge, this crossroads of humanity. The road weary. The in-a-hurry. And those with simply nowhere to be but in the here and now of breakfast, maybe even in the depths of conversation over coffee with an old friend.

There are several old road journals of mine gathering dust in the closet of my quaint Waynesville apartment. Almost every single word in those notebooks was scribbled down with a reckless abandon while in college in Connecticut, on the road somewhere or merely trying to figure out my next move in life. Nowadays, most of those thoughts land in this here column for your amusement.

Regardless, what mattered most was the time spent in diners and in thought. Fueled by coffee and eggs. Learning how to express myself within the written word. Exposing to the page with ink utensil in-hand my hopes and dreams, queries and conclusions, happenstance moments quickly fleeting in real time. Only to now be a time capsule of the good, bad and ugly on some yellowed page of a Moleskin in the back of a Haywood County closet, located between a couple shabby guitar cases and musty winter jackets.

That sentence (‘Plates slammed onto the counter, coffeepot burped, voices ask of a loved ones’ whereabouts’) took place at 7:32 a.m. at the Homestead Restaurant in West Plattsburgh, tucked away in an industrial complex as the city itself transitions into rolling farmland in the wintry depths of the North Country that is the Champlain Valley and Adirondacks.

Related Items

The night prior, I only slept a couple hours at my parents’ farmhouse, just outside of Plattsburgh, in anticipation of hitting the road for the long cross-country journey in the morning. “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country” as it was stated by newspaper editor Horace Greeley in 1854.

The rest of the journal entry: “Hey Jim, when’s that snowstorm ah-comin’?” the elderly veteran shouts down the line of stools to another consuming his biscuits-n-gravy. “Sometime tonight or tomorrow morning I think,” a voice replies. Each time the waitress did her rounds with the coffee, I accepted another cup. I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want this to be it. I didn’t want to know the next time I came in here for breakfast that the old man nearest to me “has been six-feet-under the last few months.” Idaho awaited me. I couldn’t be late.

Later that morning, I’d start my meander across the Midwest and high desert plains to Driggs, some 2,262 miles from Plattsburgh. Whatever didn’t fit in my small GMC Sonoma pickup truck didn’t come with me on the trek westward. All along the way, it was diners in Ohio, Kentucky, Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming. And it’s remains a focal point in my life — the American diner.

Heck, the same exact day I left the Teton Valley News (Sept. 15, 2008), Lehman Brothers collapsed. The American economy went into a freefall. Freshly unemployed, I found myself heading east for Plattsburgh. The last entry in that particular journal was at Walt’s Diner in Old Forge, New York. Sitting there at the counter. Coffee. Eggs. Bacon. Toast. Home fries (with onions). Back to the starting line of my youth, the North Country. Where to from here?

The entry is as follows:

The last stop before Clinton County. It had been years since I found myself in Old Forge, a well-known Adirondack community. Thoughts of a childhood camping in these parts conjured once-optimistic possibilities my family thought unbreakable. These days, those moments exist only on photographs gathering dust or carelessly tossed in attics and storage units.

I ordered breakfast and looked over my ruffled atlas.

“You must be a traveler,” the older woman said from down the counter.

“I am, but, I’m on my way home now.”

“Where were you?”

“Oh, I was a reporter out near Jackson, Wyoming,” I said sipping coffee. “I ran all over out there. Heading home to write a book about the madness, spend the holidays with my folks.”

Her name was Barbara Carmer. She had spent the better part of her life exploring the United States in her unassuming Toyota RV pickup. A guide in the Adirondacks for years, a true road scholar since. She traveled alone and seemingly has been alone for the duration of her life. But she was “happy and wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“I got something for you,” she said while rummaging through her vehicle.

It was a copy of “Hard Times” by Studs Terkel.

“I think you’d like this. It definitely has kept me going all these years. I’m driving down to Florida today. Hopefully this book will keep you company through the winter.”

We shook hands and parted ways. As I scuffed my sandals against the sidewalk, I turned around to wave goodbye, but she started the engine and was off on her next quest before I could even raise my arm.

All I could do now was go home. Within the next few hours I would be pulling into my old driveway, rummaging through my old fridge and sleeping in my old bed. I still didn’t know how I felt about the whole idea.

Sweat rolled down my filthy forehead. I wiped it off with my sleeve and smiled. I don’t know how and I don’t know why, but I knew I was somehow aiming in the right direction of my intent. It was an awkward feeling, one that I was eager to embrace even though it was rough on the edges and a little slippery to grasp.

Soon enough I’d get the hang of it. Soon enough it would be mine. 

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

Leave a comment

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.