Friday, June 17
We arrived at Crowfield’s, an age 55 plus community on the outskirts of Asheville, where Alison, Embry’s second cousin, lives. On the way we passed through downtown Asheville, which in some ways is the exact opposite of Bristol. The population of the town is about 80,000 compared to Bristol’s 50,000—not all that different– but the downtown is bustling and vibrant with numerous café’s, coffee houses, restaurants, bars, art galleries, boutiques and stores of all sorts. Streets are comfortably crowded at four in the afternoon with hip-looking people strolling along the sidewalks. Ashville is a blue oasis in a desert of red. It has been this way for years, having established itself as a welcoming community, unapologetically progressive, attracting artists and musicians, retirees and others wanting to live in a setting of stunning beauty and cooler temperatures, with access to all kinds of cultural and intellectual pursuits. My first impression when we first visited Asheville years ago was that it was a kind of Greenwich Village South.
So why Asheville and not Bristol?
Asheville never had much of an industrial base like Bristol so it did not experience significant job losses when the manufacturing jobs moved overseas. Before the economic downturn in the region, because Asheville was already a tourist haven with the Biltmore Estate and access to national parks, white water rafting, hiking and other outdoor sports, it did not have to reinvent itself. Also UNC Asheville brings in thousands of students, intellectuals and academics. Civic leadership and commitment to openness and moderation provide a welcoming atmosphere for like-minded people—especially retirees bringing money and free time with them. Finally and perhaps most important, Asheville is what is called a “microtropolis”—a small town at the center of a larger metro area. Both Bristol and Asheville are situated in metro areas of just under 500,000 people. Asheville serves as the center of its metro area. Bristol is only one of three small towns, all competing against each other for customers and all struggling.
Alison lived most of her life in New York City working in the textile industry as a designer and color specialist, then followed the textile exodus to Greensboro as the big companies moved to the South. Semiretired now, she has settled in nicely with a network of friends and involvement in all kinds of activities. She has developed a new-found interest in painting, and her landscape paintings can be found decorating hotel lobbies and restaurants in downtown Asheville.
Our first full day in Asheville was exhausting. We awoke on a sparkling morning to see a flock of wild turkeys outside our window. After a morning walk of two miles around the 70 plus acre, wooded property accommodating about 200 townhouse-type condos, I joined Embry and Alison and college-friend Liz for lunch at Biltmore Forest Country Club, Asheville’s oldest country club. Liz has been a journalist, college professor, and foreign service officer with the State Department serving in Egypt during the Arab spring, Pakistan during the War in Afghanistan and various other trouble spots. She appeared on the front page of the Washington Post when working as a reporter during the first Iraq War, a battalion of Iraqis surrendered to her since she was the only American around. Now mostly retired and involved on and off with think tanks, she lives in the same complex as Alison.
We ate lunch on a patio overlooking the golf course surrounded by the Smokey Mountains. Much time was devoted to North Carolina politics (dismal), the election (Liz supports Bernie. Alison, Embry and I, Hillary), and the challenges of aging and finding the right balance between purposeful activity and simple enjoyment of life.
Easier said than done.
After lunch Embry, Alison and I set off to visit Monroe, another family friend who is also a Davidson graduate, about five years behind me. His brother, David, was a fraternity brother of mine graduating three years before me and sister, Ethel, an expat artist who lived in Colombia, created our favorite painting, a huge abstract, that hangs in our new digs as it has in every house we have lived in.
It should have been a tipoff when he told us that cell phones do not work where he lives and that his address can’t be located on a GPS.
He lives near Black Mountain, a village about 20 miles south of Asheville. We go up a winding road, cross a one lane bridge, when the surface turns from asphalt to dirt as we head straight up the mountain with a steep drop off on the right. If we were to meet another car going the opposite direction, someone would have to back up for miles.
We turn onto the road—path is more like it– to his house, hoping we have got it right since backing down would be impossible. After about a half mile, we see it—a small cottage, nestled on a steep hillside in the midst of a deep forest. If you see canoes, it will be our house, Monroe had said. We see canoes! And then we see Monroe, a beaming, bearded, slightly balding 60-something man scampering down the hillside with both arms extended and a broad smile. Monroe is followed by his wife, Fern, a bit shy but welcoming. We have arrived!
There is no way to do justice to the three hours we spent with Monroe and Fern.
After graduating from Davidson, Monroe began a career which included several years in the Peace Corps, years working in Asia and Africa with Care, eventually meeting his wife-to-be, Fern, a volunteer with a Mennonite outreach initiative in Lesotho. After returning to the U.S. they moved into their mountain cottage, where he has been a community organizer and she is a community nurse. The wood paneled rooms in the cottage are lined with dusty books and memorabilia with posters promoting good causes—fighting hunger, eradicating AIDS in Africa, civil rights, expanding Medicare in NC, and social justice. Family photos of their three children, now all grown and who all were raised in this isolated and stunning location, are everywhere. Family photo albums of family photos line the shelves, one for each of the 30 years they have lived here. A wood stove provides heat during the winter. There is no air conditioner, no cable TV, no modern convenience of any kind. I think, when the power grid goes down, they won’t know the difference.
Monroe’s current cause, working from his office in the basement, is fighting institutional racism in North Carolina. Naturally he has been on the front lines of the “war against people” (my term) being waged by the Republicans in North Carolina. He embodies a kind of uninhibited exuberance for life you don’t expect to find in a remote cabin, near the top of a tall mountain in the wilderness of North Carolina.
We spend the afternoon talking on their deck with views of Craggy Gardens, on a mountain of over 6,000 feet on the other side of the valley. They show photos of their new friends, a mama black bear and three cubs, who visit their deck at least once a day. Having seen the movie, “Revenant,” I do not regret the bears not showing up during our chat. We take an hour’s walk on narrow paths around the property admiring the views and marvel as Monroe flies through the air on a old tire hooked up a rope hanging from a limb that allows him to sail a hundred feet above the ground below him. Not bad for someone approaching 70.
When six pm approaches we rush off following Monroe and Fern, who are driving their car, inching down the path to the valley to a very nice restaurant in the village of Back Mountain where we meet Gilmour, Monroe’s first cousin and roommate of Embry’s brother, Mike, and Gilmour’s wife, Nancy, for dinner. Over dinner, we converse about old times when the families spent summers together in Montreat, the Presbyterian retreat center nearby where Gilmour and Nancy still spend every summer.
I wonder how long we will be able to keep up this pace. Fun but exhausting.