Back to the Beginning

“You told me to go back to the beginning, Vizzini.” – Inigo Montoya

With my first efforts to document our journey across this tangle of emotions and highways we call America lost to the winds, I’ve decided to take a fresh stab at attempting to portray some vestige of the thoughts, emotions, sights and sounds we careened through for the past 3 months and 12,000 miles.

As such, I’ll be posting one picture (and a short thought sketch) for each day we travelled. My hope is to help myself understand this whirlwind adventure, while shedding light on the lessons learned, and the new mysteries discovered, as we trapsed across a continent and back again.

But as the famous Spanish swordfighter drunkenly ranted, to fully comprehend where one has been, you must go back to the beginning sometimes.

So we start with the winter of our discontent–the best of times and worst of times. A surprise snowstorm blanketing the little town of Woodfin, North Carolina, where we found ourselves staring down a new year full of questions and uncertainty.

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For the better part of a decade, Asheville and its environs have been my home. From the scrawny, provincial teen who found himself plopped down in the unshaven slice heaven known as Warren Wilson College, I’d moved through many self-styled personas on my way to understanding my new habitat. I played raconteur and student, wrote terrible poetry and acted the consummate self-indulgent fool, won and lost loves, and faithfully enacted all the petty dramas of youth.

Upon graduating, I shacked up with a couple friends in a big old house on the edge of nearby Black Mountain and made a go at being a townie. I tried my best to follow my grandfather’s advice to be a sponge, absorbing the culture, history, and environment I found myself in. Simultaneously, I was shedding the painfully hardheaded, self-absorbed, and (at times) destructive skin of adolescence, with all its traps and romance, travesties and idealism.

Asheville and its kin-cities and towns were not the shiny tourist havens they have become–or are rapidly becoming–back then. One could see the glint of gentrification on the horizon–a revamped downtown, sterile subdivisions cropping up on hillsides amid ramshackle farm fields and country roads, rising housing costs and strange faces walking the streets–but the full-blown, hotel-driven crisis had not yet blossomed into its current conundrum.

Asheville back then still retained an echo of its former seediness, the bed from which slogans such as “keep Asheville weird” and “Cesspool of Sin” would sprout. For many of the outlying towns, few things had changed at all in the past half-century, and the people living there could often enumerate have the population among their trailing family trees.

That’s not to say Asheville was some lost crossroads of Appalachia: for as long as it has existed, the city has rode a rollercoaster of boom or bust through America’s cultural fabric, locked firmly in the seat of popular taste and monied vacationers. One need look no further than native son Thomas Wolfe and his fabled “Altamont” to get a sense of the cyclical, fickle nature of the place and its citizens, or take a stroll around downtown or the Biltmore Estate to see the affluence that ebbs and flows through the city.

As I labored to discover the heart that beat beneath and through these mountains–first as a landscaper working with the earth, then as a journalist, working with the people–the city itself was rediscovering its past prominence, or, more to the point, was being discovered again by the outside world.

While I formed connections and made friendships will all variety of the Western North Carolina species of human (the retiree, the snowbird, the hipster, the native hillbilly, reclusive back-to-earthers and preppers, the old moonshiner, the transplant seeking refuge or themselves–good people, all), the place I sought to discover was rapidly changing. The effect was that, just as I thought I was really digging my teeth into the meat and sinew, the carcass was morphing into something unfamiliar, set to fly away from its ashes.

A study of the history of the region reveals that this is indeed nothing new: the southern Appalachians are timeless, eons older than mankind. And for as long as humans have walked through its hollows and gathered its fruits, the complexion of their societies, homes, and tastes have shifted as restlessly as the raucous French Broad River that runs through the heart of the landscape.

The effect being, in the end, that as I finally established firm roots in the soil, and an identity I could live off of, I looked around to find that what I thought I was building had gone off and changed, or died, or moved on to its own pursuits. Friends came and went and came again, new and old; love died and was reborn, similar to as before; a series of memorable apartments across Buncombe and Madison County–the dramas of the land on whole played out in my little microcosm of existence within it.

This all culminated in a sort of existential dread, as the snows of last winter blanketed the hillsides above the river where we live. What, exactly, were we doing here? To what end?

Surely, I had learned more about this place, and myself, than I had ever thought imaginable. I had been changed, grown from the tender idealistic shoot of green to a seasoned reporter and dirt farmer. I delighted in those I knew, spending holidays and special occasions watching their families and professional lives take off. I had met and married the woman I’d been waiting to find all of my life. This place was home, in many senses, but in the deepest roots of my own being, I still felt alienated. A stranger in a strange land.

None of this is to criticize Asheville or its gifts to me, for which I am eternally grateful. I would not be who I am today without its influences, nor the nurturing love and companionship of all those I met along the way there. I am deeply honored to have grown with the place, in its latest incarnation, and to have made the lifelong friends I did there. It is humbling, even now, to think of the kindness and acceptance that Western North Carolina has always shown this Yankee boy.

But as we sat there, this past winter, watching the snows fall around us, in the midst of another surprise winter storm, neither Charise nor I could help but wonder: Is this all there is? We both worked pretty incessantly to afford a modest duplex apartment near the sewage treatment plant. While we were both respected in our chosen fields of work, and lucky to be employed by decent people we could call friends, our long-term desires arched for something more than the daily hustle that had become ubiquitous with Asheville.

In short, we’d found that, in the midst of hotels and expensive bars, unaffordable houses and no places to rent, our little Appalachian town had become another traffic-clogged city. And it was only getting harder each year to make it there.

Thus, after a fruitless, last-ditch attempt to purchase a house and thus stand the tide of sweeping change, we settled on a radically different plan: What if, instead of setting roots, we went completely to seed?

Plans were quickly made–places on the map picked, national park dreams dredged up from memory–I had never been out west, save for a trip to visit my grandfather’s best friend out in New Mexico years ago. The echoing calls of California, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and the Pacific Northwest–that vast expanse of America beckoning us to follow in the footsteps of our forebears–grew louder with each passing day.

That brought up a further idea: what if, on the course of our journey out west, I finally got around to working on the long-dreamed of book I wanted to write about my family? We could make strategic stops, interview those who knew my grandparents, and see the places our ancestors trod across in their journey westward, as they sought a new place to call their own.

We would enact the ancient right of passage, and set out on the road in search of our fortunes, somewhere down beyond the horizon. A place to make a go at a new chapter of life, maybe start a family, and lure friends to us with the promise of an easier way. A place that was there for us too, instead of somebody else’s time and dollar.

To call the trip ambitious would be an understatement–but what’s life for, unless to dream big? And if one is not too attached to the outcome of a particular journey–in his book Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck says that the Spanish have a word for this: a journey for its own purpose. While my Spanish has always been pretty shitty, one thing I’ve learned is that life often presents its opportunities when one is not expecting them, or looking too hard.

It happens, regardless of our intentions. But if one is able to go with the proverbial flow, the current might take you in some interesting directions. You just have to learn to swim with it (or at least float).

A thousand little plans and preparations would need to be attended to. Routes would need to be planned out; notices put in; supplies gathered, and family and friends contacted with dates of arrival and durations of stay. The hardest thing, as is usually the case, is letting go of the security one grows accustomed to. Even if it is stifling, one is loathe to abandon a good thing.

And so, as winter fell upon Mount Pisgah and Mitchell, as ice lay thickening across the roads, cancelling school and work, we trudged through our sleepy neighborhood with ambitions and anxiety swimming in our veins, unsure where we would go, what we would see, or what would come of all this. And though our spirits lifted at the thought of freedom and change, our hearts lay heavy with what would be left behind, and the uncertainty of it all.

John Steinbeck, in that same piece of literature mentioned above, wrote that humans have a basic need for a purpose in their destinations. That there must be some goal to it, or else we get uneasy. This snowy day, our wanderings were confined to going down to the Church of the Redeemer, a little Episcopal chapel at the end of the road, near the banks of the river, from an era before cars whirred by its front steps, and trains hissed at its eves through the night.

Amid the old, silent graves, and gothic revival architecture, a stone Christ sat, bejeweled and crowned in snow, arms outstretched in a welcoming embrace to the weary parishioner or passerby. With the world frozen in winter gestures around us, there seemed something particularly melancholy about this stone messiah.

I was reminded of Leonard Cohen’s meditation in “Suzanne” on the subject:

“And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
And you want to travel with him, and you want to travel blind
And you think you maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with her mind”

Thus, with this forlorn benediction of the granite savior, did we determine to set sail for the sea of America.

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Photo by J. Max Hunt

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