Due to the circumstances of my birth, I’d been imprisoned in the mountains. I spent my childhood there serving a sentence without a prescribed term limit. I was afforded a few weeks away during the summer for good behavior. What crime had I committed, I wondered. Where was the sense of grace or pity that might free me?
But it didn’t matter. I persevered in silence.
There were people who lived and died without escaping, without even trying to scale the heights, to breathe the air on the other side. But, I suppose, an argument could be made: Why should they? This life was the cool and the green. Cool, green Asheville, N.C.
I fell in with a group of fellas whose families had migrated south, reversing the earlier movement, in some cases, of their parents’ parents. They didn’t see the mountains as a great wall, maybe because they’d been able to come over them, where we natives assumed the only way was to travel underground.
More importantly, they saw something that didn’t exist. They saw a city in that valley, a place defined by more than the latest census figures, education rankings, crime statistics and the like. They weren’t passing through like F. Scott Fitzgerald, who came to town long enough to leave Zelda to wander among the fog and mountains in her mind while he searched for Jazz elsewhere.
They saw the falling leaves and knew that the vibrant colors would return. They knew that their arrival would signal a new spring cycle.
What they apparently didn’t see were the gerrymandered lines drawn across the land. They saw the grandeur of the castle George Vanderbilt erected and christened Biltmore House and the splendor of Biltmore Forest, the private community he annexed as a manifestation of his destiny.
But it was the children of those new immigrants who came to realize the unspoken curfews enforced by the locals.
Children, both black and white, who saw, as those of us who were born into it, that there was a time and a place for everybody under the sun but, when it went down, that time was up and no one had time to take prisoners.
I recall a friend, one of the New Southern immigrants, who dreamed of growing up and buying a house in Biltmore Forest. I recall thinking it was naive of her to think, or even dream, of such a thing.
Didn’t she realize black folks couldn’t live there? The very thoughts, both hers and mine, were from another age, a dark age, but one that still casts its shadow over the land, even today. Keep singing “We Shall Overcome,” Bruce — maybe somebody will listen and remember we’re still trying.
I made it along the underground, slipping over to Chattanooga for a spell before making my way up north to the land of the Quakers, where I became one. Four years in Philadelphia for college, and then another nine for good measure in the center of the city. Free at last, free at last. That’s what I thought and sometimes said to myself, but duty would call and I’d return to the New South.
Death was the draw initially, and then for a short while I visited friends who had settled there now, who had transformed the place into the city their parents had dreamed it could be. Good for them, I would say during my brief stays, but I knew it hadn’t changed completely. It still had that old home smell to me.
It’s an old home, sure, but it’s your home is what people always reminded me, when I spoke of it. “Asheville is your home,” they would say.
So I stopped talking about it and soon stopped going back. Death had taken it away from me, taken away many of the reasons to return.
Upon settling here in Cincinnati, closer to it, I found myself thinking about the place more and talking about it again with others who had discovered it, much like that earlier group of immigrants. And then, too, there it was in the media rising in the national consciousness, overtaking Austin as the new alternative, progressive Mecca.
There was yoga and an emerging music scene along with film festivals and a political awakening. It had everything I find myself wishing that Cincinnati contained.
So it was time for me to make a slight return. Local author Thomas Wolfe was a model of sorts for me when I was a kid. I remembered the school trip to his family’s home near downtown. His mother had run a boarding home, a rather profitable enterprise that had sustained them during the nation’s lean times in the early part of the last century.
But death walked the halls, slept in the beds of several rooms, sat at the kitchen table. The house was a place where people came to die.
It was no wonder Wolfe wrote in Look Homeward, Angel that you could never go home again.
I went back a few weeks ago after nearly a decade away. I went back to write these underground notes that will redefine me and, likely, Asheville as well. I went back with my fiancee, our two girls, my parents and my younger brother. And I’ve decided that I’ll make an annual pilgrimage to the place of my birth, that prison with its history which no longer holds me captive.
I’m a new man hoping to prove Wolfe wrong. (tt clinkscales)