I shot video of our journey into the Blue Ridge, but I managed no good photos. The image here is instead a final capture from South Carolina the night before we headed north.
I love mountains— they are one of my favorite landscapes, one of my favorite places to be— and I was eager to see Asheville for that reason, although other reasons abounded and affirmed themselves. I had heard all the talk about that city serving as the hipster capital of the South, an enclave of craft breweries and tattoo parlors and liberal bumper stickers; unfortunately, a certain parasitic variety of person is attracted to places with artists, artisans, and nature-stewards. But usually those artists, artisans, and stewards themselves have been gathered in those places for the sake of meditative beauty, deep history, and what I will call a witch current— an energy of collective memory grounded in the land. I wondered if the beauty, history, and current were still alive in Asheville. (Some would probably say Asheville sits on a leyline; despite my occult practices I put no stock in such concepts, but I would allow that Asheville is at least haunted in the way I’ve described earlier.)
With the diamond flash of the sun’s corona still glimmering in my mind from the day before, we drove through green and green and green, the elevation climbing. Today’s time on the highway would amount to only an hour, but I savored every minute of it. The closer we drew to this unfamiliar city, the more I noticed houses on mountainsides that made my heart ache. Perhaps those homes were expensive, or perhaps they weren’t, but if you are the sort of person who chooses a house on a mountain, then you are not the sort of person content to live in its shadow. You will live close to this rocky breast of the earth.
Rather than check in to our hotel right away, once in Asheville itself we stopped first for lunch at a chicken & waffles spot. I’d have gladly sought out such a meal without someone else’s suggestion, but this was chiefly a pretext to rendezvous with a friend of mine from bewilderingly distant college years. I had seen her only once since college itself, and we had only been schoolmates for a little while because she transferred to a different university where she finished a horticulture degree. Now she was living in this part of the country, farming and foraging and practicing various crafts. Though not of Appalachia herself, by this point I could have assumed she was, from her new drawl to her encyclopedic knowledge of local plants. Like me she was a witch, and it was good to speak with another witch after the eclipse.
Catching up with this friend, I was stunned by the true extent of the region’s interest in living off the land. Not only was my friend able to successfully provide most of her own food for herself during the summertime, but she could further make ends meet by teaching other people to forage. I have not encountered such widespread interest in New England; I suspect that the classes and attendees are there if you truly look, but suburban sprawl inhibits all but certain varieties of homesteading in the main population centers, and the rural areas are too thinly peopled for an entire foraging school to function. Meanwhile, the Asheville metropolitan area boasts close to half a million people, and yet the land seems better preserved. For now.
Regardless, I also received the impression that in the heart of Appalachia live a larger proportion of people who have preserved local folklore, traditional agrarian or hunter-gatherer lifestyles, etc. This is not due to some lack of old traditions in other parts of the United States, and it is not due to some greater indigenous presence; for good or ill, the majority of indigenous people in this country live in urban centers, and many of the Appalachian traditions come from settler cultures, though indigenous influence and voices are not gone. I am not in a position to comment further along those lines, but my core thought about Appalachian residents following “old ways” is that the region has stayed desperately impoverished more or less since colonization— so along the Blue Ridge and surrounding vicinity, skills like subsistence farming have proven more important there than elsewhere. There are some hipsters in Asheville, indeed I saw plenty of them, but outside of the downtown temples to Quirkiness™ is something else, something older, and it moved me to hear my friend explain it.
After the lunch, my witch friend fittingly showed us the way to a witch shop, always a complicated notion in my mind but a beautiful set of rooms in this instance. I did buy several things there for private purposes. And then, following some frozen custards for dessert, my husband and I had to bid my friend farewell so that she could go about some evening commitments, but the two of us continued our Asheville excursions after finally stopping at our hotel.
Once we had washed and freshened up, our stomachs were very ready for dinner, and that taste of barbecue the day before had assuredly not been enough. Here in this western part of the state, we paradoxically tried Eastern Carolina style pulled pork, and although my favorite style to date has always been Memphis, this might now come a close second. I can’t remember the last time I gorged myself so thoroughly; I virtually inhaled pork, fries, hush puppies, and other wonderful Southern delicacies until I could barely move my body. I will be eternally grateful for my friend’s recommendation to that restaurant, though my digestion probably hated us both.
The Asheville stint concluded— appropriately, perhaps— with a trip to the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway, after we were up the next morning. I had already known that one day wouldn’t be enough, but I hadn’t expected to feel the need for an entire week or more. The Folk Art Center was filled with beautiful things, half of which I would have gladly given my left arm to buy and support the local artist, and the other half of which I would have gladly given some other limb if it meant I could learn how to make such beauty myself. And the parkway itself was so peaceful and atmospheric that I could have driven aimlessly on it for hours. Yes, there was a witch current. I felt it in the sighing of the leaves and the shape of the foothills. I will go back: to learn and revere.
D. Llywelyn Jones
To be continued in part 6.