This must be the place: ‘Lost man singing for his soul, I saw it on Rio Bravo’

Hello from Room 205 of the Dude Rancher Lodge on North 29th Street in the heart of Billings, Montana. It’s 10:29 a.m. Already 82 degrees with a hot sun. Expected to top out ‘round 100 degrees when all is said and done on this Wednesday. 

This must be the place: ‘I’m headed for the Bozeman Round and it’s goodbye to Old Missoula, sleepy town’

Hello from 26,982 feet above Southern Appalachia. Somewhere near southeastern Kentucky. En route to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Over an hour flight delay leaving the Asheville airport. Ground speed is 539 miles per hour. About 760 miles to our destination. One hour and 41 minutes left before touchdown in the Twin Cities. 

This must be the place: ‘In the woods from far away, from across the fields and pastures, in the cool misty morning air’

Hello from atop the roof of my parents’ 1840 brick farmhouse. Some 20 feet up on the back end of the structure. It’s hot as hell walking across the old roof in the midday sunshine and heat of early summer in the Champlain Valley of Upstate New York. 

This must be the place: ‘17 has turned 35, I’m surprised that we’re still livin’

Hello from the coast of Maine. About an hour northeast up along the shoreline from Portland. The small, quaint community of New Harbor. More specifically, Pemaquid Beach Village.

This must be the place: ‘Some get stoned, some get strange, but sooner or later, it all gets real’

Hello from Room 245 at the Best Western Mountain Lodge in Banner Elk. It’s Sunday morning. Overcast skies and temperatures hovering in the 50s, a far cry from the 75-degrees and sun felt yesterday. 

My girlfriend sleeping soundly next to me. One of my best buddies in the next bed. This trio slowly awakening into the unknown day after a wild-n-out Saturday in the depths of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I was asked to stage emcee at Beech Mountain Ski Resort as part of its summer concert series.

This past weekend jam-band stalwarts The String Cheese Incident and Americana icons The Wood Brothers hit the massive stage situated slope-side underneath chair lifts. It always means a lot to me to stand up there in front of thousands of faces and get them all riled up and excited to once again partake in the sacred, ancient ritual that is live music.

Awaken into Sunday morning. Stretch out the limbs and pull back the window curtains. Gaze out upon the somewhat empty hotel parking lot, most of the room renters long gone down that ole road to destinations unknown. Throw on your shoes and head for the breakfast buffet in the Best Western lobby before they shut and lock the dining room doors at 10 a.m.

Some lukewarm scrambled eggs, overcooked sausage, one glass of apple juice and two cups of coffee later, back to the room to pack up and motor to Haywood County via Spruce Pine and Burnsville by U.S. 19E, Interstate 26 East and I-40 West. Gratitude always in tow for a clean bed to sleep in, shower to use, food to eat and a working vehicle to meander around to somewhere, anywhere.

Heading back to Waynesville, my girlfriend was fast asleep in the backseat of the automobile by the time we crossed over the Banner Elk city limits. She and I are coming up on a year-and-a-half together. It’s been quite the wonderful, whirlwind ride, thankfully. I’ve waited a long time for her and we’re making up for lost time with each spur-of-the-moment road trip and dinner date night.

My friend was in the passenger’s seat rehashing old tales of his partying days within the previous chapters of his life in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and in the suburbs just outside of Chicago, Illinois. Tight s-curve roads like wine bottle openers through Avery, Mitchell and Madison counties. Myself happily indulging in the hearty conversation, all while letting the mind drift.

Thoughts of last Friday night, which was the 25th anniversary party of The Smoky Mountain News. And 12 years for myself at the helm of the arts/culture editor position. I’d estimate better than about a hundred or so folks wandered in and out when all was said and done by the end of the evening — the Boojum Brewing kegs finally tapped, the last of the cheese/fruit platter devoured with gusto, the final goodbyes (for now) between old friends and new ones.

As has now become (somewhat) of a tradition during the SMN birthday party, I corralled the rambunctious crowd, “come gather ‘round” as I’ve got a few words and sentiments to share with y’all. All y’all. Hand me the microphone and let the deep sense of gratitude spill out for all to see and hear — in real time and place, with sincerity to you and yours.

Feelings of what it means to be a community newspaper carefully navigating the often-choppy waters of modern day society, of a rapidly changing media landscape in the digital age, of an era of human existence where the lines of truth get blurred and confusing, only leading to more confusion, resentment and anger radiating in seemingly every direction.

As stated many times before, whether in this publication or standing atop a truck tailgate during the anniversary shindig, all of us here at The Smoky Mountain News live and work in your backyard. This is our home, too. And each of us is damn proud to put down genuine roots here. Whether we agree or disagree, respect is the name of the game for every single one of us who digs deep to kick this paper out the door on Tuesday evenings.

It’s a pretty special thing to experience first-hand in life, which is when one simply walks down Main Street in Waynesville and finds themselves in a constant motion of interaction and conversation with familiar and beloved faces. Small business owners. Local officials. Friends made over cold suds at the local watering hole. I’ve always said to new folks to town, “You won’t last long here if you don’t give people the time of day.” 

And I mean that will all of my heart and soul. Giving folks the time of day is quickly becoming a lost art in our world, but not here in Western North Carolina. People still care about others, whether they fall in line with your politics, religion, ideologies or not. Drop everything and help one another. No questions asked. What matters most is a sense of community and I’ll champion that eternally.

Come hell or high water, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more giving, jovial and welcoming group of humans than here in this place, carefully cradled by these mountains and the cosmic magic and grandeur conjured by the rocks, dirt, trees and water of this habitat, by the blood, sweat and tears of those who inhabit it. Handshakes and bear hugs. Apple pies and sweet tea. Old trucks and dirty boots. It’s about leaning in to life as its finest.

For me, personally, this “Damn Yankee” from Upstate New York, this community has embraced me and shown me true friendship and fellowship all through my 12 years wandering and pondering these beautiful mountains of ours. Friendships held tightly that I wouldn’t have otherwise encountered had I decided to take another gig somewhere else. It’s fate and passion as to how and why I ended up here. The gratitude remains.

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

This must be the place: ‘Running to lose the blues, to the innocence in here’

Hello from the writing desk in my humble abode apartment in downtown Waynesville. It’s warm and sunny outside on this Monday afternoon amid Memorial Day Weekend. I’ve just returned from a 2,678-mile out and back trip to the North Country.  

This must be the place: ‘Of freedom and of pleasure, nothing lasts forever’

It was nearing midnight when my mother finally beat my father, my girlfriend, Sarah, and I at cards, rummy being the game of choice and of tradition in my parents’ household. Most of the snacks had been consumed and I was halfway through a lukewarm Labatt Blue Light when she placed her last card on the pile to claim victory. 

This must be the place: ‘Little pink houses for you and me’

Bearing witness to a few fine folks chomping down on handfuls of raw ramps last Sunday afternoon at American Legion Post 47 in Waynesville, it dawned on me that I’ve lost touch with this region. 

This must be the place: ‘Cast upon a beach town, Winn Dixie cold cuts thieves highway hand me downs’

Right now, there are a handful of old cardboard boxes in the back of my girlfriend’s car. Inside the boxes are several dusty photo albums of Sarah’s past.

This must be the place: ‘I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all’

Is there a more exhilarating feeling within your heart than that of preparing for a road trip? I think not. The wandering, pondering rambler inside my soul vibrates wildly thinking about what routes to take, where to stop, who to stop and see and what kind of wondrous happenstance will occur throughout the journey. 

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