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This must be the place: Ain’t it funny how you feel when you’re findin’ out it’s real?

Cataloochee Creek. Garret K. Woodward Cataloochee Creek. Garret K. Woodward

After a long week and weekend grinding away, I had to bust out and disappear into the woods. And yet, I looked out my apartment window on Sunday afternoon and it was pouring rain. 

No matter, I figured. Who cares? I wanted to be in the woods. It’s just water and mud, two of my favorite things to frolic in, if but to feel alive while literally and figuratively immersed in the depths of Mother Nature. 

So, as I headed out of Waynesville and into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park via Jonathan Creek, I parked at the Cataloochee Divide Trail. With my usually loud truck stereo now silent, I emerged from the vehicle and into the silence of these ancient and mysterious mountains. 

Not a soul around. No recent tire tracks in the mud, either. The torrential rainstorms of the day had finally transitioned into a slight drizzle. Hitting the trail, a few breaks of blue sky appeared to the west, only to once again — in an instant — be swallowed up by dark clouds and howling winds.

As I jogged along the steep ridgeline, some 5,000 feet in elevation, I was straddling the storm itself. One side of the ridge looking toward Maggie Valley remained stormy and violently windy, the other side sloping into Cataloochee Valley slowly clearing up. 

Though the massive trees shielded me from the 40-50 mph winds, I could see the branches swaying way above my position.

Several recently fallen branches and trees littered the trail, with one massive branch sticking out of the ground in the middle of the trail like a well-thrown javelin. I tried to wiggle it loose, but to no avail. It was stuck at least a foot into the cold ground. 

By the time I reached the top of the ridge and stopped at an outlook, the sun serendipitously appeared, as if to wink at me before vanishing back into the storm clouds. I raised my head towards the sky in that fleeting sunshine and smiled. 

I thought of my kind and wise grandfather who died an old man. I thought of dearly missed friends who died young — some by suicide, others from drug overdoses. And I thought of those many loved ones of mine, who are far away on a map, but always close by in my soul. 

Jogging back down to my truck, the torrential rain had resumed, but soon dispersed again. Muddy and wet, I cruised down the Old Cataloochee Turnpike and looped around into Cataloochee Valley. With my truck windows rolled down, Neil Young’s greatest hits album, “Decade,” blared from the speakers. 

Completely alone in the solitude of the Smokies, “The Loner” radiated from the stereo, the freewheeling drums and searing electric guitar echoing into the tall trees, the only other sound being the truck tires crunching over the gravel and splashing through mud puddles. 

That tune gave way to the rollicking heaviness of “Cinnamon Girl,” a melody that shook the tree of life within my heart of all its fruits of hard-fought labors spent in search of love, finding love, losing love, and starting the search all over again, “A dreamer of pictures / I run in the night / You see us together / Chasing the moonlight / My cinnamon girl.” 

Circling back towards the bridge over Cataloochee Creek, “Sugar Mountain” soon swirled around the cab of the truck. A tune signaling the transition from childhood to adulthood, I couldn’t help but soak my current and lingering thoughts within its timeless message of a loss of innocence that can be found at any age, “Now you say you’re leavin’ home / ‘Cause you want to be alone / Ain’t it funny how you feel / When you’re findin’ out it’s real?” 

Emerging from Cataloochee Valley and back up along the Old Cataloochee Turnpike to the entrance of the park — the invisible line between civilization and all things beautiful and true — “Down by the River” became the cruising soundtrack. 

In Jack Kerouac’s seminal 1958 novel The Dharma Bums, he said, “There’s nothing better in the world than a roll-your-own [cigarette] deeply enjoyed without hurry.” Well, to that point, Jack, there’s nothing like listening to “Down by the River” in its entirety (nine minutes and 20 seconds) without hurry, “You take my hand / I’ll take your hand / Together we may get away / This much madness / Is too much sorrow / It’s impossible / To make it today.” 

The whole experience was surreal, poignant and magical. I emerged from the woods an hour or so later, my mind and cosmic being refreshed. Adjusting my rearview mirror, I reentered society, but not before noticing a few new strands of white in my beard and throughout my curly hair in the reflection. 

Oh, where has the time gone, eh? As well, where has “she” gone? And you, too, my friend? I shook my head in sheer awe of time itself — it’s all one moment, you know, right? — the nose of the truck aimed back down the mountain and back home to Waynesville. 

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

 

Hot picks

1 Boojum Brewing Company (Waynesville) will host PMA (reggae/rock) 9:30 p.m. Saturday, April 20.

2 The 31st annual Easter Hat Parade and festivities will take place at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, April 20, in downtown Dillsboro.

3 Grand Old Lady Hotel (Balsam) will host “Bluegrass on the Mountain” w/Bobby Maynard & Breakdown at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, April 20. 

4 The Catamount Singers and Electric Soul, a Western Carolina University student ensemble, will present “Made in America” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 25, at WCU’s John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center.

5 Folk duo Somebody’s Child will perform at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 25, in the Community Room of the Jackson County Public Library in Franklin.

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