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Published: June 26th 2017
Geo: 35.5984, -82.5531
The Old Watchman did a fine job. I woke to find myself not murdered or raped and all of my possessions right where I left them. I did, however, wake in a cocoon of fog from each breath condensating on the cold windows throughout the night. When camping or sleeping in the back of a truck on a cold night, one would think that the camper would stay safely beneath the covers or mummified within his sleeping bag, but I have found quite the opposite to be true. On those very cold nights, almost every time I wake - whether I am in a tent, under the stars, or in the back of my truck - I will check the clock and glimpse to the eastern sky to see how long I have to wait until daybreak. Even though I know it is absolutely true that the night is coldest just before dawn (and darkest, as I learned at Burning Man), the approaching of the morning hour and the yawn of the fiery sun beginning to chase away the stars gives me hope because I know that soon I will be able to slip into my clothes and emerge
from my dwelling - each simple movement sending warm blood into the muscles and skin of my extremities. I set up my camp stove and begin to heat some water, every second that the sky grows brighter is one second closer to warm oatmeal and coffee or tea reigniting the heating process from deep within my belly. And often, by the time my body is comfortably warm from cooking and eating and cleaning, from rolling up my sleeping pad and stuffing away my sleeping bag, the sun has risen enough to bless me with her direct rays, I grow too warm, and begin to shed layers and items that were essential only 45 minutes earlier.
If New England is reminiscent of our country's birth, to the glory days of old, an era of brightness and brilliance, a time of creation and building up, a time of rebirth and independence - the Revolutionary War, then the south is reminiscent of a near-death experience, an era of darkness and madness, a time of destruction and tearing down, a time of death and tumult - the Civil War. The most deadly war in American history, of course, being that every death was that of
It is befuddling to me, humorous in a sickly sadistic way, that when we look at the world today and see countries that are currently being torn apart by civil war (the African continent is lamenting) we are shocked and amazed by the barbaric nature of such places. "How could they do that? Are they not civilized? I'm so happy that I live in America - land of the free!" We forget that it was not that many generations ago that this country was marked by many of the same attributes, the same attitudes, the same gross absurdities and desecration, the same mass destruction and hatred of another human being based solely on where he calls home or where she was born. No. Are we so different? Does not the same blood still run in our veins? The blood of the Union and the Confederacy, the blood of Rwanda, of Uganda, the blood of Sri Lanka, the blood of Darfur and Libya... is their blood not the same as ours? Is their humanity not the same as ours? Though our civil war ended nearly one hundred and fifty years ago, perhaps there still remains a war in our nation, within our nation, a country tied on one end to an Elephant and on the other a Donkey, tearing it in two. Replace the generals with politicians, the tanks with banks, replace the hills and forests with the conduits of biased media and big box news, the whites of the enemy's eyes with the green in his wallet, replace the ammunition bunkers with corpulent ad campaigns, and replace the soldiers with... well... what they have always been - ordinary citizens in need and hope of a better future, simply wanting to live, to love, and to die in freedom. A new kind of civil war. But one thing remains the same: we still lose.
Now that I've got you feeling all fine and dandy about life, let's move on. I had decided to sleep at the rest stop less due to weariness and more due to wanting to spend a few hours in Lexington, Virginia in the morning before making my way to Asheville. It was early on a Sunday morning. Needless to say - not a whole lot was going on. The streets were about as busy as the barren sidewalks. The Visitor's Center, however, was open! A very kind
and knowledgeable old gentleman (does anyone under the age of 60 ever work at a visitor's center?) greeted me and offered me many suggestions when I informed him that I really only had 2-3 hours to spend. Being Sunday, most of the museums were closed, but he gave me some maps and pointed out a 3-mile walk that I could take that would pass by a number of historic buildings and residences, out to the old barracks and through part of the Virginia Military Institute campus, down to the only museum open Sunday mornings (blasphemy!), and finally through the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery.
A picture perfect fall morning. Sunny, yet crisp. Retired leaves sprinkled over the ground, polka-dotting the sidewalks, that smell that can only be called "Autumn" taking a joyride on a gentle breeze. I should like to meet a girl named Autumn some day. I bet she would smell nice. Exploring a new-found interest in history, strolling through the small town was a delight. People were friendly and I was greeted again and again by kind smiles. VMI students, sharply dressed in crisp, pressed white pants, shiny black footwear, and proudly adorned gray tops, Bibles in hand walking erect
and proper, greeting me with "Good morning, sir." Sir? Well. I'm not so sure about that, but thank you, and good morning to you! I was impressed with the amount of respect that they showed to themselves, their school, their training, their community. It was refreshing. Uplifting. Perfectly congruent with the refreshing autumn day.
The small museum was attended by two women, one young and one old, both of whom seemed somewhat surprised to have a visitor. I sat my cup of coffee on the counter. "Even if you don't require me to, can I leave this here so I don't spill it on something?" Old uniforms, VMI class rings going back generations, a dorm room replica, numerous artifacts and relics, and the coat that Stonewall Jackson was wearing when he was fatally wounded by friendly fire (how would you like to be the guy that shot Stonewall?) The lower level was stocked with scores of old pistols and rifles, and even some blow guns and other that used compressed air chambers. A gun enthusiast could easily spend days in that single room. I fall at the opposite end of the spectrum, but it was still fascinating to witness the metamorphosis
of the rifle and to think of actually having to use the bayonet attached at the end when my enemy was so close I could smell him and hear him breathing his last breaths (or would they be my last?) On the walk back toward my truck I encountered a colorful piece of paper on the ground. Picking it up, I read a note, clearly written by a well-scripted female hand : "Don't be mad b/c I'm smarter, funnier, better looking, + have more friends." Very nice.
There is something very peaceful about a graveyard. Well, at least a well-manicured and taken care of graveyard. Tombstones from 200 years ago. Some of children, some of couples, some tombstones that only had the birthday written - a tombstone caught in a long sigh waiting for its to be occupant's final breath. Strolling through the Stonewall Jackson cemetery that day I made a decision. When I die, for whomever takes on the responsibility of dealing with my dead body (little more than a temporary dwelling place for the soul within), if they must waste money on a tombstone, and I hope they don't I want it to say only one thing: LIVED. It
doesn't matter when I die, and even less when I was born, but what I want people to remember is that I LIVED. Imagine seeing that solitary word inscribed on a tombstone. What would your reaction be? What would it make you think? Would you just brush it off, or would it take you back for a moment, into the recesses of your heart and your memory, and cause you to truly and intimately ask yourself, 'Did I really live? Am I living?' Are you?
Down, down, down the western edge of Virginia and into Tennessee. Honking the horn like mad as I crossed the state line, I noticed someone standing in the rest stop waving as my truck gently sailed by in a sea of doppler. Across through Oak Grove and in to Johnson City, and then up, up, up to the spine of the Appalachians. At its crest, the descent down in to North Carolina. This pass, whatever it was called, was one of the more beautiful and inspiring sights I have seen this entire journey. Nicely done, south. Nicely done.
My uncle Harry lives in Asheville. Technically my step-uncle, I suppose, being that he is my mother's step brother.
Half-brother of my uncle Earl, who I visited months ago (seems like years!) on his farm in Washington. Just as Earl was a spitting image of my grandpa Burt, so was Harry. Each of them only carried half of Burt's genetic code, and the other half given by different women, but Burt was alive and well in each one of them. Harry did not grow up with Burt, I don't think he ever even knew his blood father, but his strong personality, his poignant laugh, his crudeness and somewhat offensive or racist jokes were that of my grandpa. This observation alone if proof enough to me that nature, along with nurture, contributes to one's personality.
Harry is a talker. He loves to talk and debate, loves to show people his cars and projects and explain what he's working on and what he's done. He must have told me on three separate occasions about the bridge he built in the driveway that can support up to 20 tons! Retired, he has time on his hands to do what he loves, and he is a connoisseur of showing people where he calls home. We visited the liquor store, the grocery store, the post
office and an old time bar. He took me out in his Camero convertible, which only leaves the garage on the most special of occasions. Through town and up the Blue Ridge Parkway, naturally looking very similar and just if not more beautiful than my journey down Skyline Drive a few days earlier. At the beginning of the drive, roughly 2000 feet above sea level, it was a warm, sunny day, enough to where we even had the top down. With every mile, every foot gained, the temperature grew colder, the sky a little less blue. The top went up. The thick clouds that we were now thoroughly engulfed in threatening of rain. All of this was so that we could reach Mt Mitchell - the highest point east of the Mississippi. When we finally reached the visitor center at the top, it was blowin wind an' spittin rain. Much like Pikes Peak and Mt Evens in Colorado (two of the 14ers that have roads going to the top), it was only about a 100 yard walk to the actual top of the mountain. Also much like Pikes Peak and Mt Evans, also allowing people to improperly boast that they
have been there. More like their car got there and they sort of tripped and rolled out the door, reluctantly dragging themselves up 50 vertical feet of agonizing gain until, phew, finally, woo.... yes! The highest point east of the Mississippi! Look ma! Unfortunately, due to the fact that it was practically snowing, we couldn't see beans, let alone any distant valleys or mountains. But, it was still fun.
Back down through the storm, back down through the changing trees, back down into the lovely fall day descending on Asheville. I had told uncle Harry that I visited the Vanderbilt mansion on my way to New York City, so he wanted to take me to the Biltmore Mansion in Asheville. We didn't want to take the tour, but asked the gate attendant if we could just drive in and see the estates and the mansion from afar. "Yes, but we would still need to charge you the admission price, which is $60 per person." What?!?! Fuck off!! Still in the Camero, we joked about just flooring it and making a mad dash through the grounds. By the time they caught us we would have at least been able to catch a few good views and give some people a pretty good scare! We decided to behave, turned around, and just went back to town for a beer.
It was a great two nights spending time with him and his family. His son, bearing my last name as his firth, offered for me to sleep in his bed (he prefers the couch and always gets excited when company comes so that he can make this switch!). At only 13 years old, the kid is still taller than me, and apparently on a promising path to becoming a good wrestler (and he hates to admit that his 60-year old father can still pin him, but you didn't hear that from me).
I went out that night to see town on my own a little bit. Monday night, so I wasn't expecting much, but I ended up stumbling across a small venue with an amazing little jazz/blues/getyourassontheflooranddance band. Of some 20 bodies on the dance floor, I was one of maybe 6 males. So this is Asheville? Huh. Not bad. 😊 Great, great, great music. The likes and energy of which one would be sure died of in the 30s along with so many of the greats. But here is was, in little ol Asheville. Talked to a homeless guy with a patch over one eye. Quite the character. He bummed a cigarette and a dollar. "See that hole over there? The one in the bottom of that pole next to the building? Every time I walk by there I check for stuff. So, if you ever come back to Asheville, feel free to leave something in there... a burger, a bag of cash, maybe a bottle of whiskey, cause I'll be checking!" I assured him I would remember and honor his suggestion.
I was not able to meet up with the lovely belles that I met and bathed in the river with so many months ago in Durango (again, it seems like years...). With less than 48 hours spent in Asheville, I feel I didn't even really get a taste. A whiff, maybe. A curious hint on the wind of a nearby restaurant that beckons you to come enjoy and explore. Will I be back? Ha! Hell if I know! I've given up such promising thoughts, such future thinking, but I sure hope so. She has been on my radar for far too long to spend such a minuscule time getting to know her. Then again, hasn't that been just about everywhere? There are not many places I have been that I would not go back to. Yet there are so many other rivers and mountains and cities and relationships and bars and mysteries out there to explore. This world is endless. This world is endless. If the vastness of the world were spanned over a linear timeline of a hundred years, I have seen but a blink. And I don't plan to sleep any time soon.
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