The first clue that this might not be the earthy, small town we were expecting was the sign "University of North Carolina, which was promptly followed by angry, red brake lights that brought us to a screeching standstill. Traffic, lots of it.
Still feeling the peaceful vibe of our mountain hideaway, we crawled thru the main drag, gaping out the windows. Perhaps it was the wrong time of day, perhaps the mystics and healers were watching TV inside their crystal caves, perhaps we took a wrong turn and ended up at this trendy college town full of white people wearing OM t-shirts, riding bikes filled with over-priced organic goodies to their cars parked a few blocks away? The whole thing was weird, kinda like a movie set, on a very hip sitcom.
"Hey are you going to the festival?"- asks a college kid with pink sunglasses.
We look towards the tents, where a small group of rag tag kids are playing guitars, and vendors are selling what look to be jewlery and handmade soap.
"We don't know where were going, we just got into town" replies Travis.
"Oh well you can't go in there with the dog. City policy, no dogs allowed in outdoor festivals. Someone brought in a snake at the last festival and it bit a kid in the face, so..." he looks at Chopper who is furiously licking his nose, "you can't bring in the dog."
OK. Strike one, or is it two now? I don't know but I was losing interest in the whole project.
"Hey wanna hear a joke?" says a voice somewhere down on Choppers level. We look to see a smiling face, dirty feet, and a backpack that has been stitched, glued and pinned in all possible ways. His name was Richard and he's been traveling for three years. As he began his story, I noticed my aversion to bum story-telling. You get so much of that in Baltimore. Every homeless person has a baby that needs food, a bus to catch to a job interview, or a car that broke down just out of sight. Richard was no different, except that he didn't ask us for anything. He told us his joke, looked at Chopper and told us that Asheville had some strict dog policies, and mentioned that his own dog was in the pound, after being tethered while he went to get some booze. Evidently there is a crew that patrols the city looking for tethered dogs, that it then takes to the pound. Strange, but as we later found out true.
We left Richard and wandered around Asheville a bit, but as we weren't really feeling the place, we headed back to the car, ready to get back into the wild. We had decided that if Richard was still sitting there, we would take him to get his dog. He wasn't there, so we got in the car and promptly got lost. We circled the downtown area, and as we turned the corner there was Richard, talking with two other punk travelers.
"Hey you wanna get your dog out of the pound?" I asked as we rolled to a stop alongside the crusty bunch.
Yeah! was all Richard said as he jumped to his feet grabbing his pack.
"You've been blessed!" says one of the punk kids, mouth slightly open. "And so quickly!" I could tell the punk kids were slightly blown away, but I wasn't sure why. Turns out they were praying together on that sidewalk for someone to help Richard get his dog out of the pound. Their heads were bent and the prayers were spilling forth, and then we pulled up and offered to help. Perhaps there were mystics in Asheville after all.
Riding thru town with Richard, we got a good look at some different parts of the city. Asheville is quite huge, and outside of its cute and trendy neighborhood, there was nothing distinguishing about it. Wal-Marts, auto parts store and pizza delivery joints. Anywhere USA.
Richard's dog turned out to a a very big boy named Kaiser.
This wasn't his first time at the pound, and he seemed to take both his imprisonment and his release in a happy stride. I could only imagine how Chopper would have looked after seven days at the pound- a drooling, shaking, and neurotic mess.
It was at the pound that I drilled the attendants about Asheville laws, and found out that tethering is a big no-no. After expressing my ignorance of this law, the nice lady at the desk explained to me it is the responsibility of the owner to be familiar with all the laws of the city, and if indeed you plan to go get a cup of coffee and leave your dog tied outside, you better expect him not be there. All part of some city protection and revenue building scheme. Don't you feel safer knowing that Asheville is free of tethered pampered pooches?
By this time, Chopper was completely over this adventure in the Dog -Nazi City, and meeting Kaiser didn't improve his mood. Mostly his attitude reflected an avoid and ignore strategy, with a dash of tolerance and a tad of leave me the f alone.
Kaiser was unfased. He slobbered freely in back, snorting happily. Richard was glowing at the reunion, and after I commented on Kaiser's great teeth, he took out his tooth brush and showed me how he brushes his teeth, twice a day. For an outdoorsman, he had great dog hygene.
Richard filled us in on the city of Asheville from the perspective of a homeless man. His attitude was jovial as he showed us the stack of tickets he got from the police. Tickets for loitering, tickets for not having the proper dog tags etc. "Why would you give a homeless man a ticket?" he joked. It seemed obvious to me. To get them the hell out of the city. Ban the bums, and keep Asheville clean! For a place that was supposed to be progressive, this really seemed like the same old us vs. them strategy.
As we left Richard and Kaiser to "hustle" in Asheville, we reflected on our own travels and how close we once were to becoming stranded in a broke down van with very few options. We were then functioning on a survival level, working very hard to hustle our next move. We survived by making up an address and getting jobs. We were young, and it was all an experiment that got almost too real. What would we have done if we were old and it did get that real? Would we be seen as useless and lazy, recognized long enough only to be given a few tickets and fines that we obviously couldn't pay? One thing is for sure, we wouldn't go to Asheville, they ban the bums there.
As we made it back into the surrounding mountains, the excitement of the day began to wear off. Maybe it was the magnetic pull of the Blue Ridge, but we began to once again regain our centers. Our first impression of Asheville left us disappointed, but nonetheless the mountains, trees and hills of the area were spectacular. Billy greeted us with a "hey where you been?" and we told him all about Kaiser and Richard, and warned him against loitering around Asheville.
However, just as we have completely written Asheville off, we heard a little bird call followed by some human sounding footsteps.
On the path leading to our tent was a young couple who came to look at the land. They lived near Asheville, settling there after having been drawn to that area of the country. Hmmmm. They looked around, and as we began to talk, Travis and I both realized that they were the representatives of the people of the Blue Ridge that we were wanting to meet. The real deal, people of the Earth. Not mystics, not crystal healers, not alien junkies, but real people, living in the mountains, learning permaculture and dancing around the fire. We didn't need to go to Asheville, or anywhere for that matter, to find community. Wherever you are is the right place and whoever is there is the right people. Home is where the cat is, when we will finally understand???