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This must be the place: Staring out at nothing, listening to an old dog bark

Split Rock Falls in New York. (photo: Garret K. Woodward) Split Rock Falls in New York. (photo: Garret K. Woodward)

I’m currently sitting at the old kitchen table in my parents’ 1840 farmhouse in Upstate New York. Our family dog, Madison, is lying down a few feet away, always within a short distance of me whenever I’m walking around the house or wandering the backyard. The coffee in hand is fresh and strong. There’s a lot on my mind, too. 

Outside in the driveway is my pickup truck. I keep thinking about the Tacoma and how I’ll be able to pack everything behind the driver’s seat before I head back down to Western North Carolina in the next couple of days. 

Besides my clothes and camping gear, I’ve now got to figure out how to seamlessly store my musical instruments. When I left Haywood County in mid-May, I took off with my two ukuleles in tow. Now, I’ll be returning with four ukuleles, two acoustic guitars and a mandolin. 

I guess, on a more spiritual or meta level, this recent acquisition of the instruments is a way to fill up a lot of the new space I’ve made within my life in recent months, physically and emotionally. You see, as I prepare to hit the highways and backroads toward Southern Appalachia, I can’t help but reflect on the last two months situated here in the North Country. 

Initially, the plan was to head north of the Mason-Dixon Line for a couple weeks or so, in an effort to spend quality time with friends and family. With the shelter-in-place orders expiring, I figured it’d be the opportune time to drive to my hometown and hunker down when the weather is nice (not the normal 10 below zero that I experience when visiting during Christmas). 

Leaving Waynesville on May 19, I meandered my way through the mid-Atlantic states with a slight detour into New England to pick up my dream ukulele in Western Massachusetts. That first week in the farmhouse, I found myself in the presence of a wide-array of blood relatives and familiar faces I’ve called friends since elementary school. 

By the second week, I was already disappearing almost every day into the endless depths of the Adirondack Mountains, hiking and trail running along routes I’d known since I was kid, with several new spots happily discovered while wandering and pondering the dirt roads of Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties. Or that hot afternoon swimming and jumping off the cliffs at Split Rock, a place that continues to tug at the deepest corners of my being.

Just as the third week approached, I had visited most of my favorite places, like clockwork, as I do whenever I find myself in my hometown of Plattsburgh. There’s Campus Corner, the beloved 1950s greasy spoon diner. Then, you have Clare & Carl’s, an old-school hot dog shack and home of the “Michigan” (you’d have to eat one to understand the undying passion for this local favorite). 

And lastly, by sunset, it was drinks held high in The Monopole (established in 1887) and Fourth Ward Club (opened in 1907), two iconic watering holes where all who enter leave with new friends and memories for a lifetime. These two dive bars represent all that is good and just in our universe, a beehive of unique people and unforgettable moments quickly fleeting but never taken for granted.

Before I knew it, it was mid-June and I’d been away from my Waynesville apartment about a month. I called Smoky Mountain News publisher Scott McLeod and asked when he expected me back in the office. 

“You don’t really have to come back until the end of July,” he replied. With the pandemic and shutdown, most of our newsroom has been working from “home,” which has given myself and my colleagues this newfound freedom of the written word. Sure, some of us are actually working from home. Me? Heck, how about an actual return to my old North Country home, eh?

And now here I stand. The calendar states mid-July and my soul is starting to get antsy to makes some moves for Carolina. There are faces I miss dearly down yonder (all y’all). That, and I figured it was time to hit the road when my landlord messaged me the other day, stating: “Do you still rent from me? The other tenants say they haven’t seen you or your truck since May.” Don’t worry, good sir, the check is in the mail. 

These last two months in the North Country has sincerely brought a lot of things full circle in my existence. While the world lately seems like a rollercoaster ride we can’t get off of, I’ve focused on the good that is in our society and intently focused inward about what it is that I want to radiate outward: love, compassion, positivity, and being an open door to growth.

Though the trek from Plattsburgh to Waynesville is about 1,100 miles, I’ll have lots to think about, seeing I’ll be returning to Western North Carolina with a renewed sense of self. And I know already that the majority of that solo journey of 16 or so hours will consist of the memories made up here with my family.

It’s been those mornings in the farmhouse making breakfast for my mom, hitting up the a nearby wildlife refuge for a trail run with my dad, and those days spent with my niece, Lucy, reading her a book or running around the beach together. 

And it’s the several bonfires I sat around at with my little sister and her boyfriend (a childhood crony), rehashing old stories of shenanigans and tall tales, to which I recently found out I’m going to be an uncle again to a new addition with an expected arrival of early March. 

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

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