For weeks, I had been looking forward to Thursday’s barbecue lunch with Andrew.

Prior to my first mouthful of moist, shredded meat at Hole in the Wall, I had taken steps to begin my project —new promotional photos, Jack Straw gathering, Facebook page, redesigned website— but this was the first week that Hidden City Diaries felt like more than a conceptual dream.

Andrew’s warm drawl was the beginning of my introduction to Music City—Nashville, Tennessee—his birth place and home for 18 years, and my first scheduled stop. I couldn’t help being charmed right off the bat. When I asked, What places in Nashville feel like home?, he laughed shyly and said, “This is gonna sound funny, but one of the places that’s always felt like home to me is the Cracker Barrel. It’s the first place my parents take me after they pick me up from the airport.”

Perhaps snort-worthy in another context, when he put it like that, a comforting meal at Cracker Barrel didn’t sound ridiculous at all. (Yes, it’s on my list.)

“There are other places… my house, my high school. You should know that people in Nashville are very into sports—not just professional or college, but high school.” He took a swig of Diet Dr. Pepper and added, “Another spot that feels like home is church. I don’t go in Seattle, but I always go with my folks when I’m home. It’s not about religion, but community culture, if that makes sense.”

We spent the next hour and a half talking about the Cumberland River, the Tennessee flag, Music Row, Germantown, the Civil War, Ryman Auditorium, Vanderbilt campus, fried green tomatoes (…and fried catfish, fried okra…) and the full-scale concrete Parthenon where his parents, who I now call Ma and Pa Ellis, serve as docents.

“Nashville is known as the Athens of the South,” Andrew told me, due to its many colleges and universities. The townsfolk found such kinship in the symbol of the Parthenon that they tore down the temporary structure when it began to fail so that they could erect a permanent one in its place.

Walking back to the office, I agreed to take him up on his offer for his parents to give me a tour. “They’d love that. They’ll talk your ear off and probably offer to cook you dinner and pick you up from the airport, too.” I laughed, thinking that only people from the South would be so kind to strangers. (Preconceived notions, here we go!)

During my research this weekend, I reviewed the notes of our conversation several times, but the point of my meeting with Andrew felt elusive. Instead, my notebook held recommendations of where to eat and stay, and a bevy of historic details (“Battle of Nashville – capitol building with bullet holes” and “Civil War hospital/plantation house on Franklin-Hillsboro Road.”)

Standard fare, but not a grand idea or theme to be found.

Yet, I had walked away from lunch feeling emboldened about this leg of the journey, somehow sure of something. After several more readings, I found a clue in my loopy black scrawl between the phrases, “Germantown – farmer’s market, old town, near the projects” and “slow-moving Cumberland, working waterway, city turning back to the river.”

One word: warm.

That’s the thing about Andrew: he is one of the warmest people I’ve ever met. He stands just a bit taller than me, light blond hair cropped close to his head except at the top. His skin is equally as fair, fairer than mine with a tone that is light but… well, warmer.

His accent, his work ethic and sense of honor, his easy smile and good nature come together in a way that could only be described as all-American. Andrew is the kind of guy who plays sports, opens doors for women, appreciates good design, and speaks his mind respectfully and intelligently. He’s a modern gentleman.

Before our lunch, I had equated these traits with Andrew as an individual, but as I re-read that word—warm—I realized that I had hit upon the crux of my project without knowing it.

Lately, I’ve been haunted by questions: How will I make this experience unique from what I did in Civita? How will I figure out the next step for myself as a writer? Will it feel like the same thing in different locations? Will podcasts actually help me break new ground?

After leaving the coffee shop this weekend without a finished blog entry, I felt annoyed—not just at my broken concentration, but at not having an answer to those nagging questions. When I played back the beginning of this essay alongside the transcript of our conversation in my head—played back Andrew’s voice back, to be exact—that’s when something clicked.

From the beginning, I’ve said that I want to peer underneath, to delve into the hidden places of America—to explore the things that make us who we are as individuals and as a quilted nation of diverse peoples. This tapestry is not made of hotels or cafes—or art, sports, counter-culture, religion, accents, or food—at least, not on their own.

What I realized was that Andrew’s warmth speaks not only of his personality, but that of the community in which he was raised. He learned it in part from his family and those around them who all contributed to the creation of a warm culture—the kind found in his church, on his street where neighbors wave and in the grocery store where employees know all of their customers and stop to say hello.

My question that elicited his response—warm—was, What do you think will surprise me about Nashville?

That’s when he began to talk about his community and I wrote down: warm, easy-going. Enraptured by his honeyed accent, I set down my pen to listen as he described the kind of people I would encounter on my trip. He didn’t speak ill of Seattle (no all-American guy would talk shit about his new city, even to praise his old one), but he did compare and contrast it to the way he was raised.

While he admitted that I might find the fashion a bit behind the times, Andrew couldn’t say enough good things about the people I’m about to meet.

That’s when I got it. What I’m doing is different, and I won’t be able to foretell what I’ll learn until the journey unfolds and I start talking with people.

It’s one thing to have written this in my creative brief, but to feel certain in that knowledge will take a bit longer, and I can’t force my way there. That’s another reason I’m glad that it will take a year to make these trips—and to write about them. I’ll need that long for any conclusions of worth to percolate.

Like with Civita, one experience will build on another in ways that, thankfully, I can’t yet imagine. With podcasts, I’ll be able to capture aspects of the journey that have been lost during other explorations. Somewhere underneath it all, I will come to understand, if only a little better, what it means to be American in both a larger sense, and for myself.

How the journey ends is anyone’s guess, but beginning in the warmth of Nashville seems like the best way to start.

With that, I’m looking forward to the next twelve months even more than I had been. I’ll reconnect with a few old friends and make new ones along the way, city by city; they’ll introduce me to their friends, and the circle will grow. At the end, Hidden City Diaries will be characterized by slow, rhythmic segments—word by word, trip by trip, conversation by conversation. 

Normally, such a thing would be torture for someone as impatient for bliss as I am. However, if I’ve learned one thing from Civita, it’s that everything happens in its own right moment.

Two months in that tiny Eden taught me that savoring the slow unfolding of time brings a deliciousness that, while daunting in its arrival, is much more fulfilling when it lingers on your lips, usually because it involves sharing those moments with excellent company.

I can’t wait—or, shall I say, I look forward to—what’s ahead.