Asheville’s Gentry & cold showers
The mixed legacy of a Southern “hippie town”
“Why did he come to Asheville?” the other sergeant quipped as they laughed, the bite victim’s arm still wearing a band-aid.
My curiosity and a friendly Couchsurfing host lured me to explore Asheville’s Green Book stops and maybe take a deep breath — before plunging into the cold mountain waters of Skinny Dip Falls.
Couchsurfing is a strange community and website.
From great intentions in linking worldly travelers to host and be hosted — it wants to run like an free AirBnB, creating natural hospitality and connection. As the name implies, those “couchsurfing” find and solicit couch owners.
They are decidedly for-profit. The business model seems at odds with the spirit of “couchsurfing”.
The reality is tiers of “Verified” and “Not-Verified” members — with those requesting stays set in a submissive role, at the mercy and whim of the hosts/couch owners. Without a payment or contract, the platform does its best to connect and confirm relative strangers. There is no free lunch/stay/community. You trade the known for a strained semi-known.
I’m glad it exists and so many use it. Travel and the spirit to wander should have a place to meet. I hadn’t had any luck with it — everyone was busy or out of town, as I often was when requests came in for me to host. I’m sure affects my view. Then I actually had an Accepted Stay, in Asheville, NC from a seasoned host in John Gellman.
A Stay with John, the photographer/coffee roaster
He likes to cook for guests. We ate well, and often late in the day.
“Most travelers are road weary. A home cooked meal is just what they want.”
He loves to roast, grind, and brew his own coffee.
The next morning, with strong, high-grade coffee running through us, we walked through downtown Asheville to John’s studio in a historic building, complete with its original elevator and the latest human operator.
John has photographed Duane Allman, the Rolling Stones, and many other big names.
His focus now lies on the Buskers of Asheville — and the popular Busker of the Day feature on his blog.
John took me in for a couple nights — my longest single stop since the roadtrip began.
When we spoke, he began with his experience caring for strangers:
All-American Truckers and their politics
Remember the Drive-By Truckers’ songs I was singing out loud as I crossed into the green of Tennessee? Turns out, they were playing that weekend in Asheville. John and I got tickets. We had our faces melted by the rock-heavy, culture-confident country boys of DBT.
As the long set picked up speed, the passion and political views of the lead singer began to flow.
He dove into his anti-Trumpism and love for his Alabama hometown. An uncomfortable tension ripple through the crowd. You could feel them split. Some, mostly older men, shifted nervously, averted eye contact, and stumbled to the long bar for beer and distractions.
We were desperate to regain escape from our polarization.
When the singer offered a pre-political TBD song, they jumped back on the music-escape train — rode it hard and heavy. We emerged a few hours later into a cool Carolina night, fresh from the rain — folk music and bold statements still ringing in our ears.
Asheville had always been on my mind as a balancing force for this trip.
It stands in stark contrast in the South as a liberal, woo-woo spot populated by artists, musicians, students, and (dare I say) New Age types.
My parents once visited Asheville, and described it as a random “hippie town” in the middle of Western Carolina.
“The Largest Estate in North America” — the 8000 acre Biltmore — sits on the edge of town.
I had no desire to see and selfie with the large-ish population of tourists there. It reminded of the tensions of massive wealth in select south. The Vanderbilts built the estate — and many parts of Asheville I would discover.
John reminded me at one point, even Anderson Cooper was a Vanderbilt — a recognizable part of the same family who created the nearby University of their last name. The Vanderbilts have served as barons of countless primary American industries — and have claimed their large and deep stake.
A Confederate Legacy
A tall phallus loomed over the buskers and the tourist shops of downtown Asheville.
Its presence is a constant source of tension. Gentry, new and old, find themselves in conflict, in denial, in resolved submission to the steady remnants of Asheville’s past. It honors a North Carolina Governor, U.S. Senator, and Confederate soldier.
Ever meet someone named Zebulon?
Zebulon Vance exemplifies the mixed, conflicted history of America. He owned slaves and fought for the Confederacy. He supported yet resisted the Confederate government for North Carolina’s individual freedoms. He spoke and worked for religious tolerance and Jewish equality.
North Carolina elected him to be a United States Senator after the Civil War. He was denied by the 14th amendment to actually serve due to his ex-Confederate status.
Here, on this well-maintained and prominent monument, he is listed as a Senator — as if the conflict never mattered.
Robert E. Lee had his own tribute stone and plate. The edge had been pried up by a crowbar one night — an attempt at vigilante-style removal.
It all felt like a delusional “What If” and “Remember when we were…[young/proud/rebellious/free]?” — a present day mindset trapped in an idealized past.
History is set by the historian — one made of selected echoes to be carried by the people.
The storyteller works against or around the prevailing narrative. They work to retell the story, to translate and remind us of context and the pressures beyond the big name.
We often hear the pleasantries first and foremost. In a good story, we also hear the tradeoffs, the damages and darkness past the humor and haunts. We see the stark meaning of actions outside our time and place.
My stories are told in search of the “good story balance”. My mission lies in honesty — of my perception bias and its meditation to find a neutral rationality. I listen and observe — to share what value I see in the flows of people.
Storytelling is an art form, a great human tool for understanding ourselves and the world.
Bear with me as I chase the rare beast of creative logic in my tales.
Faded Traces of Asheville Green Book Stops
Eagle Street was a guidepoint to a Green Book district. After To Eagle Street I drove.
The Savoy Tourist Homes (that’s plural) of Eagle and Market streets are now gentrified in full.
The Palace Restaurant’s more affordable fare for traveling motorists has long been replaced — currently by an expensive Mexican-fusion joint.
The current points of Interest include the Asheville Pinball Museum and Wicked Weed Brew Pub — signals of the culture shift and hipster-ization of the city (“like early Austin but cooler, and sprinkled with rednecks” as a local described it).
There were other references and whispers of Eagle Street’s history as a place of refuge and support for the black community. THe National Register of Historic Places lists the “colored library” and a “Young Men’s Institute” at the site. It was built by a Vanderbilt as an equivalent to the YMCA — for people of color.
Why were YMCA’s not used, while YWCA’s were?
Why was the YMI built when a YMCA stood proudly only a few blocks away? Why did the Vanderbilts fund it?
New construction roared around me at historic buildings were converted into lofts and coffeeshops.
I gave the parking meter what I had in coins and had a walk around (yes, parking is scarce in much of Asheville — very Austin-like).
I saw the plaque I was looking for, and an open door.
The YMI stood tall and proud.
Through the first open door to my right sat Tonia Plummer. She knew the building, the history, and saw Asheville change. Her warmth and perspective moved us into deeper concerns as I explained the Roadtrip Project. She rose and guided me through the building’s great halls.
We toured the latest exhibit, yet to be opened. A group of women attended to the final touches of the space before the works would be hung. Each was a tribute to famous and noted activists in African-American History.
We returned to her office. She invited me to sit and talk. After a few moments, I had to record what she shared.
Her observations and beliefs on the shifts in North Carolina, the South, and American at large started with a re-crash course on the history of slavery and the YMCA question:
(Full interview and the organized transcriptions will be added in the post-trip interview series)
We spoke on “The Block” of Asheville — a rich African-American neighborhood not unlike the thriving “Black Wall Street” I learned of in pre-riot Tulsa. It was converted, is still in conversion — just outside on the very street where we spoke. Her tales of school integration echoed the unsupported and unwelcome bussing and force-feeding of black students I heard back in Oklahoma from the Lincoln School principal.
Now, her learned adaptability has made her able to find home most anywhere she goes.
Buskers, the Homeless, the Police
The 3 women police — 2 sergeants and an officer — we met later described the rolling incidents and encounters with the homeless and busker population with a mix of compassion and a warm-yet-confident set of judgements on certain individuals.
“He assaulted officers in Colorado, Virginia, and the Standing Rock protest before he bit me last week” said the lead officer, who had been bitten in an attack a few days ago.
“Why did he come to Asheville?” the other sergeant quipped as they laughed, the bite victim’s arm still wearing a band-aid.
“Buckers are NOT homeless” John insisted, when we discussed the Asheville music scene.
With the range of people and styles in Asheville, it can be hard to tell. Yuppies mix into an aging gentry, matched by local and traveling artists. The “rednecks” move around the tourists. The cost of living and passing through is higher than ever. Whole Foods and Trader Joes are thriving as symbols of history are remodeled, monetized, and tolerated.
The Cold Jump into Skinny Dip Falls
“Nobody skinny-dips there anymore though — too many families during the day now.”
Only 6 months post foot surgery, John Gellman hiked up and jumped into the cold mountain falls with me outside Asheville.
With my shoulder for leverage at a few steep spots, we slowly made our way up to the top of the trail.
A bachelor party fussed over the plunge into the swimming hole near the upper falls. They hooted in unison, stripping down to their shorts and jumping in succession. I did the same soon after.
I couldn’t help myself. The water felt incredible.
We were cheered as John took the stage, following my shoulder grip to the edge. He made it — he saw, he jumped, and he conquered to applause.
(Photo evidence is out there somewhere…I’ll leave it up to John to share when he’s ready.)
Our senses reset by the cold dip, we wound down through beautiful North Carolina mountain views to the sweet sounds of Duane Allman and other folk singers unknown to me.
Walt the Busker stopped by
Walt and John watch football together, every Sunday.
I knew he was recovering and adapting to the new capacities from a terrible car accident. It left him in a coma.
John had become a guardian and a messenger from Walt to the busker and homeless community of Asheville. He pulled through and (mostly) healed. Everyone loved Walt. His brain and manner was different now.
He spoke with ease, though often he dwelled on certain subjects and odd conspiracies. Walt’s function, his new range of abilities, were very high. It still triggered memories of the head injury unit my nurse wheeled me through to scare me out of riding bikes after my motorcycle accident at the age of 19.
Deeper and further back still, a memory humbled and had me reflecting on my sister’s classmates and friends who taught me compassion when I was young — the differently-abled people of the Barber Center.
The Dr. Gertrude Barber Center gave me plenty of exposure to what the community called “special” or “slow” or in earlier times “retarded” people. It was, it is a world-class facility — a refuge for people with certain disabilities, especially as institutions were defunded, closed, and their My sister was a Barber Center student from an early age. She rode “the short bus” you hear referenced in so many off-hand, cringe-y jokes. She was picked up earlier than me and dropped off later. I helped unload.
(I have a special line of thinking and a few articles planned for and because of my sister. More to come post road trip)
Dr. Gertrude Barber was a pioneer and her center is still a pioneering place for people with disabilities of many names. There was compassionate work to do — both in care and in contribution, creation and service by the individuals there.
I attended programs for siblings (like me). I learned to expect the unexpected, to appreciate simple, innocent, honest perspectives. Their genuine care was often out of sync with the views, fears, and priorities carried by the “rest of the world.”
The memory made me ache some to see my hometown again. It was a signal to be moving north.