It’s been three years since I first auditioned to host this show. Over 36 episodes and close to 60,000 miles. Hundreds of hotel rooms, thousands of Red Bulls, and more trips to Chik Fil-A than I’d like to admit.
Still, after all that time, it never ceases to amaze me how many adventures can unfold from a single event.
I recently read that people took more photos last year alone than were taken in the entire history of film. And while it took me a few minutes to fully process that statement, I’ll admit, I didn’t find it difficult to believe. It’s amazing, the power of a forward-facing camera, and its ability to take us back to a moment in time grows ever more accurate with every passing day.
Still, it’s rare to be afforded the opportunity to go back and replay your choices and challenges quite like I have on this show. Now, I’m blessed, I won’t dispute that, but seeing that much of yourself isn’t always what I would describe as a “blessing”.
You see, it’s easy to miss things in life and it’s staggering all that you can find in hindsight. And, if you should ever be presented with the chance to rewind and review even a single day, I promise you’ll be surprised by what you find. There will be options that you missed and opportunities you overlooked, sure. But, even more fascinating is the series of events strung together by the meaning of your life. It’s easy to miss when you’re in the depths of it, but from above, it’s a captivating choreography. A few moments later and you would have missed that interview. A few minutes earlier and you would’ve hit that crossing deer. A few words less and you wouldn’t have met that person.
Today is one of those moments. I first met Bill Haley while filming for another episode at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga. He was a liaison helping the crew and I with an episode on Pollinators who, at lunch, offered up his daughter’s deli down the street. And as I chatted with my Producer over spring pea and chicken salad, Bill mentioned another connection he had to the outdoors-- an annual activity that he hailed as the Soddy Mountain Hawkwatch. Our ears piqued and thus began another adventure…
Soddy Mountain Hawkwatch:
As Bill mentioned, I caught sight of something pretty spectacular while up on Soddy Mountain… including the mountain itself. Once again, I took note of the fact that something extraordinary had been happening just outside the scope of my day to day. And as I flipped through through the pages of our field guide in between counts, I decided I wanted to know more.
So, I called up my friends at TWRA and told them to tell me all they knew about birds of prey. “There’s an easier way,” they said, “but you’ll have to go back to school…”
Clinch River Raptor Center:
When folks used to ask me what my least favorite subject was, my response was always simply, “school”. That one word seemed to sum it up for me. And, until now, I believed it was a sentiment that was fairly universal, but looking around the Clinch River Raptor Center, nested neatly behind Clinton Middle School, all I see are smiles rather than sullen expressions. But before I can settle in too much, Center Director Kathleen Cottrell rounds me up, setting a slotted spoon and spent coffee can in my hands, a mischievous smile spread across her face the whole time…
I’m not altogether sure what a falconer even is, but after an afternoon with these beautiful birds, I know I want to know more. In looking over those few hours I spent at the center, I’m back to appreciating that captivating choreography that I mentioned earlier. By the end of the day, I was about to set off on my third adventure, all spawned by one conversation and one morning up on a mountain spotting hawks.
What’s beautiful is that I wasn’t alone that afternoon, rather everyone around me was in the depths of a dance all their own. From one center blossomed a beautiful partnership-- two agencies collaborating to capitalize on their individual strengths. And, in the midst of it all, thousands of lives-- both those of the children volunteering and the birds they help rehabilitate-- have been touched. Set spinning and skipping down a path they may have otherwise missed…
So many roads to travel, goes the theme song, and I do want to run down every mile… But, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t aware of how much running was in store for me today… or how many thorns.
According to ancient evidence, the art of falconry dates back to approximately 2,000 B.C. and is officially defined as a practice in which wild quarry is hunted in its natural state and habitat by means of a trained bird. That last part can be a tad misleading however, as “trained bird” still encompasses being wild and willful. That degree of wild-- not to mention being taloned, having a predatory mindset, and the ability to fly-- mean that getting into the sport is no easy feat. Instead, it requires nothing short of serving as an apprentice under a licensed falconer for a minimum of two years, passing a written test, and acquiring a license. For most, however, that process develops into upwards of an eight-year journey and several licenses in order to possess multiple birds.
Furthermore, it’s a spectacle, full of loud noises and frantic pursuits, much different than any other sportsman specialty with which you might be familiar.
Today was a day I hadn’t expected. It was a day that I stumbled into, and arguably through as well, but it ultimately introduced me to incredible wildlife, a spectacular setting, and several fellows that share a love of running around the forest chasing things like we’re back to being young boys. It was a memory, made of so many magical moments that it’s difficult to fixate on any one in particular. It was also all the inspiration I needed to pick up the phone and make a reservation for one final adventure...
In the days before our falconry hunt, when friends and family asked me about what I would be hunting with and I replied, “a Harris Hawk,” I got quite a few curious stares and furrowed brows in return. Similarly, when renowned chef Tim Love purchased a deteriorating building in Knoxville’s Old City and proposed fine dining featuring everything from pheasant and rattlesnake to ribeyes and rabbit, the sound of the city holding their breath could be heard through the Smokies and beyond. It was a bold move, backed up with big flavors and a commitment to craft.
Chef Love’s success sits at the end of a pretty spectacular journey. A series of events peppered with passion, as well as close calls and chances, it wasn’t a story of guarantees as much as one of gumption. And while the selection ebbs and flows with the seasonality expected by chef so keen on stewardship, the mentality at the heart of it all is a masterpiece-- a man on a mission to craft memories over menus.
Several years back, I wrote a song called, “My Two Left Feet,” which details the particulars of passion and a budding romance through the lens of what may, from the surface, appear to be a less-than-perfect dance. “You look so good when you’re dancing,” it goes, “can I have this dance for the rest of my life.” It’s a sonnet, meant to summarize all the imperfections that weave my wife and I together.
It was a dizzying dance that brought Mandy and I together, much like the journey that brought us to our first home, our first child, and most all the “firsts” that have continued to follow. At times, I’ve been frustrated by the steps and critical of the choreography. I’ve asked life if I could sit the next one out and, occasionally, I haven’t been convinced that I wanted to dance at all.
But, as I mentioned at the beginning of our adventure, the ability to play, time and time again, more than 36 episodes from the past three years of my life has afforded me a perspective I’m not sure I would have otherwise prized. It’s helped me realize that, truth be told, we’re dancing in this life, no matter how much we of a fight we put up. We can kick and scream or we can shimmy and jive. We can follow a routine or we can kick our heels up and have a good time.
On this adventure, I managed to hear the music start up and rather than rush to hide behind the bleachers, I rushed to sweep up what life had to offer. Ultimately, it whisked me away into a world of wonders I would have otherwise missed. It’s true, folks, “you look so good when you’re dancing” and all I can hope is that keep dancing the rest of your life.