Monday, October 02, 2006

DRIVIN THRU DIXIE, CHAPTER II

Continuing coverage of our jaunt through the South:

As mentioned, I'd been to Asheville, NC in 1991. One of the keen memories of that earlier trip was the drive over/through the Blue Ridge Mountains, from Tennessee. Though I can't claim to remember exactly what the map looked like 15 years ago, I certainly recall driving on a small, mountain road that took well over an hour once I left the interstate in Eastern Tennessee. That was -- and remains -- one of my real exposures to unfettered, country culture.

I vividly remember small homes, often with signs out front indicating that quilts were for sale. Many of those houses had small fields behind them with tobacco growing. There was also harvested tobacco stacked up in little tepee shapes, presumably for drying. Finally, in that 1991 journey, I stopped into a little country store on the mountain into Asheville, to get a cup of coffee. Before paying 25 cents for a cup, I was greeted with "hellos" as soon as I opened the door.

I was excited to return to this scene and told my wife inumerable times what to expect. The map even showed that the interstate from Tennessee to North Carolina was still under construction.

At least it had been when the map was made. Because the interstate was built when we drove there last week. I have no idea what happened to the road that I took fifteen years ago, but we never found it. Instead we made it over the steepest highway I've ever driven on, in about 15 minutes. It was wide, smoothly-paved, filled with cars, and utterly without any of the charms I'd witnessed years ago. I suppose the old road still existed, but as I said, I wasn't sure where it was. If you go to Asheville, look for it. I wish I had.

Asheville itself has changed too. I presume the interstate and the town have a chicken-egg relationship. While it was hardly a small town when I was last there, it felt nothing like a city. Yet Asheville now serves as home to 100,000 people, there are tall buildings downtown, and the shops and restaurants are decidely upscale, if not exactly hip. And it has a feel rather similar to The Hamptons, Woodstock, NY or Carmel, CA -- a town with the superficial charms of a country village, complete with shops and homes predicated on crafts, on the rustic, on images & impressions of a rural, agricultural life. Yet, as with those towns, the real smell, the real core is Money.

And the wealthy, well-heeled, middle-aged folks who have it. Asheville is a "hippy town," in its truest sense, since hippies are creatures of the 60's and early 70's. And Asheville, at least the moneyed portion of it, is dominated by white men (and more white women) in their 50s. The cute little boutiques, the yarn & fabric shops, the faux-ethnic restaurants (i.e., Asian food served by Caucasians), the bars, feel like they've been directly transplanted from NY or LA.

There were some great things though. First off, the city is beautiful. The panorama into the distance is of mountains. The stunning Blue Ridge Mountains. The town is constructed upon hills, and the streets curl and careen over and through those slopes. The architecture is undeniably early-twentieth century brick and wood for the most part, and trees grow all around the edges of the city. It lacks nothing in terms of aesthetics.

Also, the "other half" of the population apart from the transplanted (or seemingly so) northerners are clearly not all that well off. There seems to be a sizable black population, far more segregated then we'd eventually see in Atlanta or Raleigh. And the significant homeless numbers appear made up of white locals who've fallen through the cracks created by the upwardly mobile citizens driving the town in its new direction. Every couple of blocks, and certainly in the "town square," there are numerous rough looking characters sleeping on benches & panhandling.

At one juncture, we walked past a trio -- two men & a woman -- of these folks. As I mentioned, Mrs. Mike is from Korea, and thus doesn't look like 99% of the locals. One of the homeless guys said, "Excuse me, can I ask you something." I'm used to homeless people in NY, and I've made it a habit always to give someone the opportunity to at least ask for money. I usually turn them down, but I try not to just brush someone off until I legitimately know they aren't really asking for directions, or something. I know that sounds absurd, but it's true. Guilt or otherwise, that's my m.o.

Anyhow, I stopped, asked him what he wanted, and he proceded to question where she was from. Looking back now, perhaps he was merely curious (or just really drunk), but at the time the words "Racist, redneck, cracker bastard" flashed before my eyes, and I waved him off before moving along. Who knows what his agenda really was? But I wasn't interested in explaining the details of our life to a complete stranger.

Finally, my favorite spot in town was the bookstore on one of the main drags in downtown: Malaprops. Probably just like any number of cool, laid back, college town-type bookstores, it nonetheless felt right. Good books, good music playing, excellent coffee & snacks, very nice salespeople. I liked it.

To be continued.

4 Comments:

Blogger Thrillhous said...

sounds like a good time! What with UNC-Ashevile being there, your wife probably wouldn't have had a problem.

12:38 PM  
Blogger DED said...

Maybe the homeless guy thought that Mrs. Mike was from Vietnam. Was he old enough to be a vet from that war?

Interstates change the landscape, not just geographically but culturally. And that theme was rampant through Pixar's "Cars" movie this summer.

4:12 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

Thrill-

There really weren't any "problems" anywhere on the whole trip.

It just gets tiresome to get looked at like a circus act at times. I think it's the "miscegenation" angle that causes the curiosity more than anything else.

Ded-

I don't think he was that old. But he was bombed enough that he was experiencing his own Apocalypse Then.

The interstate thing is something to behold. Was that movie worth seeing?

7:49 PM  
Blogger DED said...

Yeah, "Cars" is a good movie. I saw it with my son twice (first time full price, second time in the cheap theater). Good story. Nothing too corny. As for the fx: www.dedzone.net/blog/2006/06/cars.html

10:13 PM  

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