Four stories in Asheville, North Carolina
“Hey man, wanna hear the truth?” A scrawny young guy tells us as he opens his guitar case.
“Sure, man.” My sweetheart said. I don’t look as convinced.
A young girl lights up a cigarette and cozies up to the railing of a window behind her. She takes her first drag, “It’s really good.”
Our musical guide, whose long hair is wrapped in a loose ponytail, nods and sits cross-legged with his guitar near his heart. What happens next is a compilation of soulful sounds about the complexities of relationships. The acoustic story tells of the way life goes when you used to be friends. I let myself into this man’s pain. It is a pain I share too, we all do. Life’s impermanence is as hopeless as it is seductive.
He finishes his song and we cannot help but cheer for him. On a sidewalk in Downtown Asheville, North Carolina we have shared a moment with this musician. For the briefest of moments our worlds came together in a shared exchange.
“Life is suffering. That’s the truth.” He puts down his guitar. His lady friends nod in agreement staring off into road.
This is the reason I travel. It’s the interruptions that remind me life’s purest joy comes from exchanges with the unfamiliar. To see ourselves reflected back to us is how we discover who we really are. Looking within is vital but often skewed.
Asheville shows you who you are whether through the eyes of a man on the street corner or the historic books and trinkets you suddenly have an appetite for.
When we first came to Asheville it was by car. We arrived at almost midnight. The city was covered in a sheet of darkness and I opened my eyes after a long nap squinting to see the cabin-like houses. Even in the dead of night I knew it to be special. That was 3 years ago. Today, I have experienced North Carolina from its premature hours to the edges of a starry-skied midnight.
Asheville is now a city in its second quarter. When we fist came to discover it, its reputation was already growing. It was famous among people familiar with the Carolinas but still secret enough to constitute as a “hidden gem.” Our Uber driver tells on our ride home after bar crawling through Downtown: Asheville is getting famous.
“I came here before the boom,” she said. Her business is in art but she moonlights as a driver to help pay her mortgage– a mortgage she feels thankful for in the wake of people flocking to the once low-key destination.
Signs of its expansion are everywhere, but still we nearly laugh in the sweet woman’s face. Coming from Miami, Florida we are veterans in overpaying per square footage. But she’s right, Asheville has transformed from the quaint city we met hidden under the night’s protection. A newly sprouted River Arts District resembles closely what was once a fresh Wynwood Arts District in Miami. The seeds have been planted testing the people’s openness and interest to such a cultural metropolis. It seems to be responding with a resounding yes.
Our walk through the newly plotted arts haven reveals galleries, coffee and teashops and even a trendy taco joint. Patrons are among the more free spirited seen in clusters of Downtown: dreadlocks, bare faces, piercings, loose pants and faded T-shirts. They smile at newcomers then casually go back to the steady pace of their lives. The slowness is the biggest distinction from Miami’s Arts District. Even though we’re in Florida, there is a sense of urgency and bustle more closely resembling New York. Here, the small town mentality is preserved. It mixes with the new alternative culture like taffy flavors that mesh together in contrasting yet coordinated brightness.
I hope they keep that pace. My hand is over my heart and I can feel the stillness take root within me. Miami was once a slow town like all the smaller, more relaxed places in Florida surrounding it. But now, everything seems to move at a quickening speed more reminiscent of older, larger cities. I wonder if we’ve lost a little bit of our true essence?
Change is a tonic, the words of author William Zinsser echo in my thoughts. A friend told him that advice when he was scared to take a chance. Now, he is that friend to everyone who reads his books. I hear his words right now.
We walk down River Arts District knowing we won’t see it for months to come. What will this turn into? How will it take hold of Asheville?
“This looks so different. It sprouted from nowhere,” my sweetheart says examining the neighborhood as we walk.
“They say change is a tonic.” We link arms and keep our steady stroll
“I’ll have an espresso with Bailey’s, please.”
The first time I visited the Battery Park Book Exchange was also my first time in Asheville. I had graduation goggles. Everything was brilliant. Every kitschy place that had an off-the-beaten-path vibe became an instant home run. I had forever syndrome: Rather than absorb the experience or truly take in the settings, I was glossing over the details and making up the rest in my mind.
You know the situation; you visit once and rave about it. It’s the first date you leave thinking can really see your future together. This, I’ve learned, is a common symptom of being outside the present moment. We gloss over people and places because we’re much more interested in the idea of them and the notion of who we can be. It’s a daydream on steroids.
Most people don’t get the chance to visit the same destination several times. It often takes that much to lose the goggles and base us in reality. Today is the first time I’ve noticed how randomly selected the books are. It wasn’t until this very moment, because I want to make a purchase, that I notice there isn’t anything for me to buy. My favorite bookstore in Asheville and I don’t even like the books.
What I do relish in is the environment. From the first cursory glance I knew the décor, the scents of coffee and wine and the hushed-but-excited conversations between the patrons, were me. I imagine myself with the same giddy feeling as Belle singing and jumping on the staircase attached to an elaborate wall of books filled with history, stories and knowledge. Provided, of course, that I didn’t have to read any.
Today I can tell what I love about this bookstore is the idea of it. Had I been writing a typical-style travel article, I may suggest you have a bottle of wine and chat about life, politics, psychology or science– having never partaken in a glass myself. The idea of who we can be, or the self we most strongly identify with, is a strong enough measure of our tastes.
I’m tempted to judge myself for only having realized that now, then quickly convince myself that most people are unaware and so I am in effect ahead of the curve. This only makes me feel pretentious, and after all, I am inside a bookstore I love– despite not liking its books– daydreaming about fascinating conversation and bitter wine– notwithstanding my own lack of experience in either practice. Instead, I take a deep breath and sit on a small bench hidden at the top of the windy stairs sipping my coffee and Bailey’s. Awareness and a deep commitment to staying present is less about scorekeeping and more about self-improvement.
Perhaps the Battery Park Book Exchange is not what I’ve made it. Maybe I will have that glass of wine and thrilling conversation one day. Despite knowing all this to be true, there’s still something about this place that I genuinely like. Possibly because it feels like being in a Woody Allen film, a longtime daydream of mine, or perhaps, old habits die hard.
I always feel robbed of the last day of vacation. My anticipatory nature prohibits me from enjoying it. I run through the logistics of the day ahead while harboring a semiserious depression for the resuming of “real life.” Normally, the last few places we want to visit on vacation will have the opposite effect of the first days’ forevering: I will barely notice anything around me as I mentally embark on the voyage to get me home from where I am.
Today, I should be thinking about the 45 minute drive from Asheville to Greenville Airport, our flight on Allegiant that will most likely be late, the securing of our bags at Fort Lauderdale Airport, the 30 minute Uber ride to Miami Lakes to pick up both our cars and then the final 35 minute drive home by which point it will be nearing midnight.
As if an act of God, today I am here. I lay in bed slowly opening my eyes. There isn’t a hurry to be anywhere else but with myself. A short walk down three flights of creaky stairs and I am still here. I pour myself a cup of coffee. I have to drink it while it’s fresh. There is no microwave where we are. The deletion of this convenience alone has been fundamental in mindset. I must experience only what is in front of me lest I miss out on hot coffee. Without much of a choice to grab my cell phone or laptop, I look outside and take small sips.
Back in our little attic, I begin to pack up our belongings one by one. I’m done quickly as the result of another vacation miracle: we did not overpack. Cross-legged on the carpeted attic floor, I let my mind drift between coconut-infused coffee sips. What could life be like here? It’s so quiet. Back at our small apartment, admittedly a luxurious cabin in the last hippy neighborhood in Miami, I can still hear our appliances and the sounds of cars and sirens passing by.
Am I who I want to be? Lingering thoughts of the bookstore’s truth are here. I am mostly who I want to be, but the past few months have been submerged in revelation. Nearing my 29th birthday I have been reading myself like a brochure, skimming over the whole and deciding what attractions are fair and which I can definitively skip. Acceptance. I hate that word. I am the closest I have ever been to it alone in this attic looking out at the quiet woods surrounding the log home. I’m not sure I need the remoteness more than the removal from my own existence. The ego as it’s less glamorously known.
When I began my blog I was excited to be where I was and design my life to feel remote despite its opposite nature. Now, I resent being categorized as a blogger. I wish I could turn off my social media self and instead move away where my writing will somehow be discovered and celebrated by fans who don’t want to see what I ate for lunch on Instagram.
But, for now, I am here and this is me. I am on a floor getting ready for the last day of vacation not feeling any bit of the Mondays overtake the moment. There have been so many times in my life I’ve been told stress comes from being outside this moment. It’s a figment of our imaginations called the future and past. I never believed it until now. I hope I hold onto this forever.
Minute by minute the day goes by exactly how it is: in front of me. It feels as if I’ve unlocked a revolutionary cheat sheet for life. At several points between buying coffee and cook books in Downtown Asheville, I want to look up and shout: the key to happiness is staying right here, people! But instead I casually go about my day with quiet superstition. If I make a big deal about it, the magical moment will disappear. I should act like I don’t even see it.
The drive to the airport is long but not arduous or full of to do lists; our flight is delayed, but I am not annoyed, I simply read more giving an added layer of concentration that I normally wouldn’t; the plane ride gets tiresome but I don’t even feel the need to fall asleep to speed up time. All these moments accumulate without the drudgery they usually do. And then, hours later, we walk through our front door. We are home. I don’t feel that aggravated urge a full day of worrying gives you. There’s nothing inside me that needs to sigh out loud before I face plant on my bed. This moment, like the very one that preceded it, is relative. I am here, at home, taking off my shoes and washing my face. I remain me.