A&E Columns

This must be the place: Ode to this newspaper, ode to a quarter century

Lake Logan in Haywood County. Garret K. Woodward photo Lake Logan in Haywood County. Garret K. Woodward photo

It was just about 12 years ago when I first rolled into Waynesville. After a solo 18-hour, 1,000-mile trek from my native Upstate New York to Western North Carolina, I found myself sitting in an office chair awaiting an in-person interview with Smoky Mountain News publisher/founder Scott McLeod. 

I didn’t know if I would get the job as the arts/entertainment editor of this newspaper. Even though I’d already made it through three rounds of phone interviews, it was unclear if this journey, literally and figuratively, would somehow land me in Haywood County. I also didn’t know a single soul, just sitting there in the newsroom awaiting a decision on the next possible chapter of my life.

July 2012. After a weekend “trial session,” which found me covering the annual Folkmoot festival in town, I wrote and submitted a couple of on-the-ground articles about the cultural gathering. I was housed at an empty apartment between renters in Hazelwood, my laptop and my body laid over a sleeping bag and a pillow. I don’t even think the shower had a curtain. No matter, I was 27-years-old and desperate for full-time work.

Come Monday morning, I returned to the newsroom and sat in Scott’s office (which is now where the burger grill is located at the Church Street Depot). He offered me the gig in a very professional tone. I enthusiastically said yes. I also said I’d return in exactly one week. I just had to go home and get my stuff and start anew.

Onward to a 36-hour roundtrip jaunt back above the Mason-Dixon Line to pack my old pickup truck with the bare necessities of life: books, vinyl records, winter jackets, skis, mountain bike, etc. Said goodbye to my parents and hometown cronies. Looked into the rearview mirror as my mother waved farewell, for now at least.

I arrived a couple days later in Waynesville. I also didn’t have enough money to put down on an apartment. So, as I waited for my first paycheck, Scott allowed me to sleep under my desk for a week. I was able to shower at a co-worker’s house. My diet at that time reflected the state of affairs of my bank account: Subway $5-foot-long sandwiches and cheap Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

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By the time I paid my rent for the first/last month, got hooked up for electricity and bought enough groceries to put in the ancient apartment refrigerator to last me until the next paycheck, I was left with $33 in my bank account. You might balk and say bull. But, I vividly remember looking at that ATM receipt stating $33.

And yet, I didn’t care. I had set up a foundation for the next phase of my existence. Absolutely alone in my latest endeavors. But, the unlimited possibilities of people, places and things was what nourished my curious heart and restless soul. I was a full-time journalist again. After years of freelance work for peanuts, I now was fully employed with an endless sea of story ideas to pursue.

Skip ahead some 12 years to this past Saturday. Cloudy and not as warm as, perhaps, anticipated for the first day of June, two of my best friends (Patrick and Dustin) and my girlfriend, Sarah, decided to grill out and lounge about at Dustin’s parents’ dock on Lake Logan, all with the Cold Mountain Music Festival taking place on the south end of the tranquil body of water and cradling forest.

The four of us sat on the dock. It was too cold out for Sarah and Patrick to jump in the lake, but not for Dustin and I. My North Country blood lives for cold water, the soothing liquid refreshing my inner self. Emerge from the water and towel off. In that moment, visions appeared in my carefree and sentimental thoughts.

The first day on the job for the newspaper when I met Patrick through my co-worker during a post-work celebration beer. Dustin returning to Waynesville several years ago following a decade living and working in Los Angeles, our “brother-from-another” friendship sparked immediately from an initial encounter. And Sarah, who appeared in my life in early 2023 by chance and happenstance. These pillars of my existence, together in the here-and-now.

Visions of the life I’ve been given and have created amid 12 years at The Smoky Mountain News. Interactions with a slew of characters. Too many to count or even remember. Hundreds of articles written. Thousands of interviews conducted. Moonshiners. Bluegrass musicians. Farmers. Artists. Brewers. Chefs. Executive directors. Nonprofit figures. Athletes. Authors. Politicians. Teachers. Homeless folks. People worth millions. And every single person in-between.

Coverage of political rallies and rallies for justified causes at the heart of our national dialogue. Coverage of massive achievements by faces in our very backyard. Coverage of nothing and everything, but all of which matters in the grand scheme of things. Coverage of a devastating flood in real time, same for the closing of a paper mill. Coverage of things that matter most to you and me (and you, too).

A quarter-century of The Smoky Mountain News. What started out as a simple idea has grown into a solid brand of news and information for the general public. A single seed planted in 1999 is now a beacon of truth and accountability in an often-blurry and confused society we currently inhabit. The unknowns are seemingly greater these days. But, I will always hold out hope for a better tomorrow, a place of peaceful understanding and compromise.

I’ve always said there’s no such thing as a boring story topic, but there is such a thing as a boring journalist. The key to journalism is to find the essence, mission and passion of a particular subject and to bring that jewel of knowledge and content to the surface for our readers to immerse and, hopefully, appreciate for its merit and value. Our conversation and interaction continues, thankfully.

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

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