Past the Mountains
I never minded the restlessness that creeps it’s way in our heads on road trips. Being a passenger in a car for five hours can leave you bored and somehow tired from doing absolutely nothing. But I’ve been on so many, I’ve learned to love it. Being able to sit in a car for long amounts of time before you reach your destination, is to me, like the calm before the storm. And I hoped for our first visit to Asheville to be our hurricane. A place that would let us revel in our apathetic ways before we were officially grown up. Although I hated how aware I already was of our own naivety.
I knew the city for a few things: art, beer and music. The city was riddled with kids like us, twenty-something year old art students, it seemed perfect. It sits in the west of North Carolina, hidden in the mountains, and five hours from home in Raleigh. It was once one of the biggest cities in the state, but now it’s fallen behind a bit, creating a population that some old Southern lady will call “them blue-haired younglings”.
We knew we had reached the mountains before we could see them. The gates that held the kids inside the playpen. The popping of our ears as we ascended up the long, winding roads told us. We learned two things before we even got into the city: the views were beautiful, because you can’t see past the mountains, and the people sucked at driving. We watched happily and laughed as a blue Jeep that cut us off earlier was pulled over by a sheriff. These drivers were even worse than the ones we braved in streets of Savannah, our own college town. An hour later, we could see it. Crossing a bridge over a rushing river, abandoned train tracks greet you on your right, next to a graffitied water tank that reads in large blue lettering “Good Vibes”.
The streets of downtown are cluttered with different wanderers and different shops that could quite possibly all be owned by the same old hippy guy with grey dreadlocks and stained Woodstock t-shirt. Beside you as you walk are some of the most impressive examples of 1920’s Art Deco architecture I’ve ever seen. From my ripe old age of twenty one, you can imagine my professional eye. Other parts of the town are painted with graffiti, strewn with Alice in Wonderland themed stores, and riddled with musicians and the homeless. It’s beautiful. We walked through the streets, ones I was grateful weren’t like the cobblestone that seems to rise up just to trip you, like in Savannah. These streets were paved nicely, and we only encountered one rather steep hill that almost tired us out. We stopped at bookstores, where I admired the smell of used books, pages that smell like a smokers attic, not organized in any particular order. Later we wandered around art galleries, ogled smoke shops, antiques and clothes we couldn’t afford. We found ourselves in underground breweries, dimly lit and filled with the hoarse cackling of tipsy travellers. I being the youngest, happily showed off my newly valid id to bartenders, and we flooded our mouths with lagers and mead.
The streets were loud but quiet at the same time. Loud with chatter and music, but toned down by the mountain breeze that blew past our ears and seemed to slow down the commotion around us. Loud with colours of bright blue, pink and purple that assualted our eyes, but quiet and soft when you tilted your head to catch a glimpse of the giant, blue hazed mountains overlooking the city. You can’t see past the mountains.
We came across one of the many performers on the streetside, one who seemed different, and he caught our eye. He sat under a tent constructed of wood and a thick, dark cloth embroidered with gold, something like a Victorian looking Zoltar machine. In front of him was 3 an old Remington typewriter, like the one Stephen King uses, I thought. I admired it closely and barely managed to restrain myself from pushing the keys, like a kid that had to have what she wasn’t allowed to touch. He wore a dark purple vest on top of a white button up shirt, with a pocket watch chain slinging out the side. No hair on his head, but his muchstache was long and curled up at the tips, like he had just stepped out of a 1920’s film. He had a basket of small papers beside him, a basket of poems. He seemed shy, but polite and very friendly all the same. We chatted him up about his work and he kept our attention longer than anything in the city had so far. He was a poet, travelling from city to city, writing poems about whatever you told him. Give him a word, your favourite poet and come back in fifteen minutes, there’ll be a poem waiting for you. Payment was whatever you thought the poem was worth. He said he had gotten as low as thirty seven cents to as high as eighty five dollars in the past. We excitedly threw words and our favourite poets at him, causing him to throw his head back and forth with flustered eyes. Rather than what my friends gave him to write about, the words “drinking” and “art” became the subjects of theirs, I tried hard to think about the city. Telling him my favourite poet was Edgar Allan Poe, I expected something despairing in some way or another. Then I gave him my word. Apathy. He looked at me for a moment, not necessarily confused, but not quite sure either. Then shook his head.
We continued our parade through the city, getting slightly sunburnt as we went. It was hot, as summers always are, but at least the air was somewhat thinner here, not thick and hard to swallow like back home. To our disappointment, we found out that most stores downtown closed around five. We complained and carried on, promising we would wake up before three o’clock in the afternoon next time we visited. We stopped for lunch at a taco restaurant that was colourful, crowded and tasted like they tried too hard to be different, like most of us running around the city.
Half an hour later we returned to the poet. He smiled and handed each of us a small carbon paper with black ink-stamped words. My friends smiled and fell in love with theirs. But quite honestly, I didn’t like mine. What he did, that I didn’t expect, was approach the poem with an apathetic tone, one I didn’t care for, with references to modern shows and phrases. I hated being reminded of the stupid things our generation does and says. I hated the tone because it swallowed the poem and you couldn’t escape it even until the very end. But I smiled and said I liked it, and handed him a ten dollar bill.
I woke up the following morning, (afternoon in all honesty) and laid in a stranger’s bed in my friend’s apartment beside my boyfriend. The sunlight poured through the thin curtains and I could see the mountains, still watching us, from across the parking lot. I couldn’t see past the mountains, the gates that kept us in. I sat up and grabbed my poem from the nightstand and read it over once again. I felt immature by being disappointed in it, but I did find a line I found myself tracing over with my finger:
So I’ll take a deep sigh
At all the world’s restless wonder
We couldn’t stay away. We returned and paraded the streets once again. The sun was setting, creating an orange glow around the city, and silhouetted mountains all around us. String 5 lights turned on and the city’s nightlife was springing into action. The tattooed, pierced and hair dyed pedestrians still flooded the streets, drinks and smokes in hand. We didn’t find the poet again. Perhaps he moved on to a different city, to analyze the people through his poetry, while also just trying to make a living. He did seem quite unique, and perhaps that is the reason he kept our attention for so long. But in a way, he reminded me of everyone else in this city, including myself. Roaming an offbeat town, some homeless by choice, reluctant to tell you what they’re running from. But most of all, just trying to get by, and not getting stuck in the webs of naivety that we create around ourselves. I loved this restless city, our little hurricane indeed. But it was time for us to go home.
We drove out on a winding road where cars sped without a care and the dark blue cast of the night seemed to chase us away. I thought about the poem and watched the city fade into the blue. And yes, it’s beautiful and coloured blue and pink and purple. And it’s loud and fast and the music stays on full blast. And yes, your eyes stay blurred with fatigue and your breath stays ripe with the smell of Bacardi. But I don’t want to live there. Not forever.
Not in the city itself, but within its gates of apathetic grandeur. I love it at the moment, it’s where we’re supposed to be. But not forever. I think the day will come when we emerge from the city of our naivety and the music will be turned down. And the colours may seem more muted. And we may not be driving down a highway with no speed limit. And we may not want to live in a city like Asheville, and that’s okay. Because we will see things that we couldn’t before, perhaps things that are past the mountains.