One question I’ve been asked a lot lately is “what’s your favorite city so far?” or “what city would you like to live in someday?”. It’s a bit tough to answer since I’m only spending a day or two in most places I visit, and I tend to hit up the most popular attractions because I want to make my stay worthwhile. It’s like spending a night at a stranger’s house. You see them on their best behavior, it would take weeks of sustained contact (or perhaps a fair quantity of drink) to get them to reveal their ugly, unseemly, and ultimately most interesting side.
In judging cities, my principal frame of reference is Madison, WI, the place I’ve lived the longest and know the best. Madison is a lonely little place that tries ever so hard to be more than a college town. It fancies itself a lot more “weird” and “liberal” than it actually is.
I hear all sorts of places compared to Madison. A popular one is Austin, Texas. On paper this seems to make sense; both are capital cities, homes to flagship state universities, and progressive enclaves in an otherwise conservative state. But that’s really where the comparison ends. Austin is a real city and feels like one. It has a real downtown with skyscrapers and fancy condos and super expensive parking. God knows Madison’s city leaders are trying to catch up to this level of gentrification but they have a long, long way to go.
Basically, Austin is the city Madison is trying to become. Asheville, NC is the city that Madison thinks it is.
As soon as I got there, something about Asheville just felt right. The place is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which keep the air cool and seem to somehow protect the city from the turmoil of modern civilization. Positive slogans about – good vibes, be happy, love life – on t-shirts, bumper stickers, cafe sandwich boards. People seem to believe it too.
I went to the River Arts District, a formerly industrial section of town that’s been transformed into an extensive stretch of arts studios. Most of the studios keep their doors open and people are welcome to walk in and gaze at the galleries (often you’ll even catch the artist at work). For a person who appreciates art but lacks either the talent to produce it or the funds to properly patronize it, this is a perfect setup. I spent hours in this delightful district walking the streets, peering into the studios, wondering how cool it must be to do that for a living.
For an Arts District, this part of Asheville was charmingly unpretentious. If you flew over the area you’d likely notice only the vacant lots and abandoned factories. The studios and cafes seem to have sprouted up in the area like mushrooms on a forest floor. I’m impressed by how much of this district they’ve managed to keep grungy, without developers trying to buy up every pebble-strewn lot and flip it into posh office space.
From the Airbnb home I stayed at it was only a half hour walk to downtown. I passed brewpubs and cafes and galleries and just felt so elated. The city seems just large enough to be considered a city, but still small enough to feel charming. The place has character, a quirky, liberal, unselfconscious strangeness. I spotted this gentlemen among the bums of Biltmore Avenue:
Poetry on Demand? Well I just had to take him up on it. I gave the guy $5 and said “let’s do this.” He asked me a few questions and I told him who I was and what I’m doing. He seemed to totally dig my endeavor, and told me that he’s essentially doing the same thing (except he’s hitchhiking, which is far more hardcore). Then he began hacking away at his typewriter, and came up with this spontaneous gem, which I hope he doesn’t mind me sharing here:
It’s brilliant. Solid fucking gold. He’s captured my mission better than I’ve done at any point in this blog. If Ghost on the Highway ever becomes a novel, this will be the epigram that opens it. Thank you Phil, wherever you are. If I was any kind of decent person I’d have offered him a ride to Raleigh, but I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask.
Later that day I saw a film at a local independent theater, then just tooled around the downtown area smiling and imbibing the atmosphere. Why was I so smitten with this town? Maybe it was because I’d grown tired of the chaotic bustle of the LAs and Seattles of the country, but could never fully warm up to the backcountry church towns either. As an American I naturally want it all; I want the conveniences and progressive values of a big city without the traffic, the fuss, the overbearing yuppies. I want a place where I can remain anonymous but still feel comfortable smiling at strangers. Of all the places I’ve seen, Asheville comes the closest to meeting this paradoxical criteria.
I chose a bar at random: the Yacht Club. It’s a pirate-themed Tiki Bar that, I later learned, was uprooted from its original home in the Florida Keys. I ordered a mixed drink special – Painkillers for $5 – something I never do. I started chatting up the cute tattooed girl next to me, something I also never do. These kinds of things don’t come natural to me; at my core I’m a bashful introvert, conservative in all but my politics. I have to force myself to do anything interesting; like quit my job and bum around the country in a beat-up Chevy. But tonight it seemed to come a little bit easier.
I talked to the tattooed girl for a while. She was there with her grandmother, who was very drunk. She described herself as a “vagabond” who liked to move from city to city, so naturally we got along well when I described my situation. She grew up in Portland, which we both agreed is a lovely place but has grown unlivable due to gentrification. We talked about how beautiful Asheville is, and somehow the subject of junkies came up.
“What I don’t get,” she said between sips of whisky tonic, “is why they just shoot up in parking lots and pass out when there’s so much gorgeous nature all around. Why not hike up into the mountains and shoot up there?” I agreed that the local addicts were not taking advantage of the scenery, and then a few other patrons chimed in with junkie stories of their own. Seemingly everyone in the bar had a tale of stepping over this or that passed-out user in the city streets.
Indeed, for all of Asheville’s charm there are definitely a lot of junkies. They line the downtown streets alseep in baja pullovers that aren’t long enough to cover their track marks. Of course this is a problem in every American city but it seems a bit more acute here. I wonder whether these kids pick up the habit in town or if they’ve just migrated from podunk mountain towns too poor to justify panhandling.
[I should note here that Phil, the guy who wrote my poem, definitely did not look like a junkie. He was clean and sharp with healthy skin, and his goals seemed clear if decidedly irreverent.]
Eventually the tattooed girl had to leave; her grandma was getting too loaded. Eventually I packed it in as well. I walked back to the Airbnb house in the dead of night and was sobered by an acute sense of danger. I mentioned that my place was a 30 minute walk from downtown, what I didn’t mention was that that walk is shady as fuck. After leaving the residential section you pass through a back alley and then under a series of bridges that are graffiti-laden and poorly lit. It seems like a perfect spot to commit a violent crime without having to worry about pesky witnesses. At one point I passed underneath a pair of streetlights that flickered in a slightly offbeat pattern, creating a strobe light effect that only heightened my fear.
There’s no way I would have tried such a walk in Milwaukee or Atlanta or Seattle. But somehow I felt that things would work out here, that I could keep pushing the luck that ought to have run out weeks ago. And somehow, yet again, I got away with it. Throughout that long, dank, forbidding walk I didn’t even see a passed out junkie underneath a bridge. It was almost disappointing; once again it seemed the ne’er-do-wells of Asheville are missing a golden opportunity.
Still, I don’t know why I would do such a thing to myself. Why not take an Uber? What am I proving exactly? Almost every day I get texts from my dad, and they always end with “be safe.” It’s not as though these messages haven’t sunk in; indeed a lifetime of such prudent advice has made me the fundamentally conservative man I am today. But there’s something deeper, darker, more unyielding that pushes me to into these self-created challenges. It’s the same spirit that forced me to try this adventure in the first place. It’s the real Ghost on the Highway, not me.
I’m just chauffeuring his ass around.