Southern Times

The young man wore ragged clothes, beat-up shoes and a scruffy growth of more facial hair than I’ve seen in a long time. He was trudging up Lexington Avenue, a torn rucksack over one shoulder and a battered black guitar case over the other. This small kit seemed likely to be his current sum of belongings in the world. He paused at the corner, looked up at a street sign and pondered which way to go. I was just passing, driving a load of our furniture, books, electronics, linens, towels and endless kitchen and bath gear, bound for our new apartment near my wife’s new job and office.

Asheville and the rear view mirrorThe sight of him almost sent me off the road.

Thirty-five years ago I was doing almost the same thing, wandering with a head full of unformed schemes and dreams, the future equal parts uncertainty and boundless possibility, the world an open book and life an adventure still unfolding.

Maybe we spend our lives in tight, largely unrecognized circles, treading paths guided by vague hints and notions, or, alternatively, by some deeply-hidden compass we most often never realize is at work. Whatever the case, somehow at 56 I’ve found myself stepping into a time warp, exiting a career and life I loved but which in some ways didn’t meet my expectations, and popping out in a city that seems fresh with the vibrancy and questioning I once was deeply tuned to.

I graduated from high school and started college in 1973. My time was shaped by the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement and the protests of the 1960s. I was a few years too young to experience the full force of those events, but their power still lingered and informed the years when I became my own person.  Part of me didn’t trust anyone over 30, and certainly didn’t trust our government, believing instead in some vague idea of relying on simplicity, common sense and people’s better natures. Money and possessions were suspect, along with traditional careers, and life was supposed to be about discovering that true inner compass, no matter how deeply hidden, and then following it. It’s a caricature, for sure, but I’ll admit it: I searched for mine in a VW bus with characters from a Grateful Dead album cover painted on the side.

It’s probably no surprise that I floundered around. A lot. Eventually times changed and so did I; I needed a job, a more defined purpose, even a career, and managed to stumble into one – newspaper journalism – that seemed to suit me. I tried not to give up my ideals, no matter how vague they were, and tried to stay in touch with that inner compass. I did well enough in my field  to be comfortable, and had a lot of fun, too. But my deep questioning was for the most part silenced, or at least slid beneath the necessity of meeting daily challenges. The world and my future weren’t limitless any longer, but they weren’t bad.

Stepping into Asheville, though, seems like turning back the clock and stepping back into a bit of who I once was, or at least climbing onto a platform that gives a nice view of a scene I once knew well but thought had largely faded from this country. The place is filled with young drifters, artists and musicians, activists and non-conformists, and, equally genuine, a far larger majority of more “normal” people. Having once driven a VW bus, I like the vibe. There are head shops and used-clothing boutiques, galleries high-brow and low, yoga and meditation centers, community groups backing every conceivable cause, ideology and whimsy, bars with a stunning variety of live music, eclectic bookshops and lofts where the lights shine late at night and young folks sipping wine wander in deep conversation or study their next move on some work of art in wood, paint, words, melody or their own unique medium. It feels like the kind of place where a young poet might share a house on a street like Montague and someday sing or write about it in meaningful ways. It seems like the kind of place where searching for an inner compass is not considered indulgent or useless, but even sort of the point.

To be sure, Asheville is in some ways a parody, almost so hip, funky and alternative that it has its own built-in conformity. And maybe some of its wandering non-conformists are hopelessly naïve.

I don’t know if I grew up and left all that dreaming behind, and I don’t know if it’s a good thing I did. Perhaps seeing a young hippie wandering up the street might not seem so evocative at 56 if I was still in his shoes and hadn’t purchased at least a modicum of material security with years  spent on the corporate treadmill.

But I do know I really liked seeing him. I really liked hearing the faint echoes of a beat I once found vibrating all around me and deep inside, one that is still largely drowned out by our instant, frantic culture.

It struck me later that as he looked up at that street sign, that young man did not do what it seems 95 percent of the rest of us would do these days: whip out a smart phone to call somebody (and what? Validate the moment?). He didn’t consult a far-off computer to tell him where he was or where to go. He was alone, and I’m pretty sure that was part of his purpose. It meant he was likely to learn something, probably about himself.


Mike Williams

Mike Williams

With roots in Mississippi and Alabama, Mike Williams worked for newspapers across the South for 27 years. After earning a degree in American Studies at Amherst College, he worked for Alabama newspapers in Baldwin County, Montgomery and Birmingham, followed by stints at the Miami Herald and The Atlanta Constitution. His last job was as a foreign correspondent for the Cox Newspaper chain. He now splits his time between Florida and the North Carolina mountains. His interests include race relations, history, Southern folk culture and the environment.

  1. Tim Oliver

    If you’ve never been to one, you must go to a Widespread Panic concert. They play Ashville, at least, once a year. It’ll sure take you to that time warp you speak of, and I mean that in the best way possible.

    1. Mike Williams

      I hope to catch Panic and Warren Haynes and Toubab Krewe and Bruce Hornsby (just missed him at Biltmore) and the list goes on. I guess every generation thinks its music is special, but I’m convinced ours really is.

  2. It’s an even better read the second time! Great narrative. cheers

    1. Mike Williams

      Thanks for your encouragement, and the example of your own fine pieces.

  3. Keith Graham

    Just an absolutely wonderful, beautifully written article, Mike — the kind, of course, that you are famous for crafting. A lot of folks I’ve liked over the years seem to have gravitated to Asheville and the North Carolina mountains. I’m glad we still have a few pockets around the country — and even in the South!— where some remnant of the counter culture spirit still flourishes.

    (That exclamation point above was the one I allow myself each year.)

    1. Mike Williams

      Thanks, Keith, for the comments and the help you gave me as an editor all those great years. And I’m flattered to be connected to your only exclamation point of the year!

  4. Many folks, especially from the outside, sometimes think Asheville is an exception to the Appalachian culture of the mountain south. That is only because they do not know real mountain people very well.

    The Asheville Mike writes about is the embodiment of that culture–its open hospitality, its modesty, its emphasis on authenticity, and its “you mind your business and I’ll mind mine” ethos. Mountain people are extremely tolerant, and they don’t much get credit for it.

    When I moved to Asheville in the eighties, it had the fourth largest per capita gay population in the country along with one of the strongest church-going populations that included Billy Graham as well as a couple of large fundamentalist groups. Yet these groups coexisted quite peaceably and without a hint of confrontation. When Gannett bought the local paper, they did a piece on this subject– clearly a “let’s stir things up” strategy. No one in either community would bite.

    So Asheville continues to draw folks who love its easy going hospitality and its astounding beauty. Just don’t forget it is indeed a southern progressive thing, and it is most definitely a southern mountain thing.

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