The mountains are my backbone and the city is my eyes. My family are natives in this town, long past the generations of grandparents I have known. I’m sure there was a time when my Scottish ancestors were strangers in a strange land, but the familiar Appalachian dialect and smell of fresh rain soaked deciduous underbrush is coursing through my veins. Every time I leave, it isn’t long before my heart begins to ache for the protective presence of the greyish-blue peaks that obscure my view of the horizon in every direction.
Our family car pulled into the gravel drive next to my grandmother’s small house, the early evening already pitch black. I was still an only child, and I unbuckled my doll from the seat beside me, who was dressed in her best Christmas attire, just as I was. I followed my mom up to the front door, with my dad bringing up the rear, bags full of wrapped gifts for my younger cousins. Even as a child, my introverted nature required me to take a deep breath before entering the living room, which was too small to comfortably fit the energetic children and teasing adults.
I have never had the pleasure of traveling to visit family for the holidays because most of my relatives live within a 30-minute drive of my house. I know of a few distant relatives who have taken liberties to transplant themselves as far as San Diego, California or somewhere in Alaska, but for the most part, there are four generations of Ingles, including hundreds of second and third cousins, great uncles, and other questionable relations, all living within a 40-mile radius of Asheville, North Carolina.
Aunts, uncles, and cousins were already making themselves at home in the tiny room, which held a couch, some chairs, a warm fireplace, and a small Christmas tree in one corner. The children spread out on the floor as we all feasted on ham, deviled eggs, salad, and macaroni and cheese off paper plates, with the choices of Pepsi or sweet tea to drink. My younger cousins ran around and played while I sat quietly, listening intently to the adults’ conversation.
Finally, it was time to open presents, and we all gathered around, tearing into each bag and box bearing our name. By the end, the floor had disappeared in a sea of wrapping paper, and toys were already being played with and broken. When the parents had run out of things to talk about and the third child began to cry, my aunt insisted that Santa would not come if we weren’t in bed soon in an attempt to herd everyone out the door. We gathered up our gifts and Tupperware containers, helped my grandmother tidy up her living room, said our goodbyes, and traipsed back down the gravel path to our car, where I would quickly fall asleep before reaching home. The next morning this would all happen again with the family from my mom’s side, except with no children and healthier food.
I hoped out of our SUV with my four friends in the parking lot of my dad’s office, with a map and camera in hand. My mom poked her head out of the passenger’s side car window.
“Remember the streets we told you not to go down.” She said. “And make sure you all stay together as a group. And text us every once and a while to tell us where you are.”
It was the weekend of my sixteenth birthday and my parents were allowing my friends and I to spend a day Downtown without adult supervision. Many girls dream of fancy parties with long invite lists for this milestone birthday, but spending a day exploring the unique shops and local restaurants of my hometown city center with my four closest friends sounded much more appealing to me.
“Yes, yes I remember everything,” I said, slightly annoyed at my parent’s overbearing reminders. “We will be fine!”
I was full of energy, practically skipping down the sidewalk, feeling so grown up and excited to be able to wander around without adult supervision. Examining my map, we made our way to Doc Chey’s Noodle House, my favorite restaurant and home of the most delicious Pad Thai in Asheville. After slurping up the last of our noodles in the dimly lit, Asian inspired restaurant, we took to the streets again to see what we could find. It was an unusually warm February day, so there were plenty of interesting people out making the most of the beautiful weather.
We wandered in and out of colorful shops full of foreign goods, peeked in the windows of expensive boutiques, and strolled through Woolworths, the once popular soda fountain now turned into a large gallery teeming with locally made handicrafts. As we walked and laughed, melodies curled through the air from the accordions, fiddles, washboards, and banjos played by eccentrically dressed and dreadlocked street performers on every corner. Bearded jugglers played like jesters in the park, while stylish couples laid out on blankets in the grass, and Yankee tourists took the most direct route from their expensive hotel suite to the award winning restaurant on the other side of the city, so as to avoid the body odor of the beggars and vagabonds. I didn’t mind the unseemly sights or smells. Everything mingled together to conceive the spirit of the city.
Asheville is less of a location, and more of a feeling. It’s not so much a noun as it is an adjective. It is not the place I am from, but it describes the type of person I am. Asheville is a juxtaposition between immense nature and dense society, between historic landmarks and contemporary novelties, between the strong tradition of Southern culture and infiltrating New Age movements. Asheville is defined by the soul of its people, and the people embody the spirit of the city.
We pilled in to two white vans and pulled out, down the dirt road and out of camp property. I squeezed in the back seat next to my friends, who were fellow counselors with me at a camp where I spent every summer during my four years of high school. We were all exhausted, having already spent close to ten hours of our day with young children, playing games, swimming, and making sure they all went home that evening in one piece. The vans turned off the highway and onto a two lane, curvy road, lined with forest on either side. Banjo music blasted from the speakers while Anna, our red-headed camp director, guided our van slowly around the gentle curves of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
As we drove I didn’t pay much attention to the view out my window. The sense of drifting that was generated by a vehicle navigating the winding mountain roads was second nature to me. The sea of rugged mountains that rose up from the valley below barely caught my attention as the backdrop of my entire life growing up. As I sat in that van, my mind wandered off to how I would spend my time that night or how I wished I might have stayed back, but I was startled back to reality by the gasps from those around me. Most of the other counselors were from Florida or South Carolina, and I realized the majesty of the mountains was not as commonplace for them as it was for me.
I smiled and sat up a little straighter as they praised the beauty of my home, and realized how grateful I should be to get to experience this setting every day. Each person on the right side of the van had their noses pressed up against the windows, and some held up their phones to take photos of the landscape. After about a 20-minute drive, we pulled of the road into a parking lot that looked very familiar. I got out of the van and breathed in the chill, damp air. The sun was beginning to break through the clouds, and everything around me sparkled with raindrops from the afternoon shower.
Craggy Pinnacle has been a favorite hiking spot of mine from a young age. The hike is short and easy, but the trail is covered over by the branches of the crooked, blooming trees, giving the feeling that you have just stepped into a fairy wonderland. The large crew of camp counselors entered the trail and traversed single file toward the peak. I kept my head down so as not to trip over roots or slip on wet rocks, occasionally glancing up at the dense foliage around me. About halfway down the trail there is a tree which has grown sideways, creating a natural bench. Many of us stopped here to climb and take pictures, and I remembered stopping here years before on a hike with my parents.
We continued on, the air becoming cooler and the soaked ground soft under our feet. Soon the sky opened up and we stepped out of the woods onto the open peak. The weathered crests stretched on as far as I could see, and for the first time I understood the vastness of the terrain. People rave about the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, but those peaks are young and foolish. They stand tall and polished, fully aware that they are favorites of many experienced outdoorsman, but the Blue Ridge Mountains are older, wiser, and humbler. They are silent, they listen, and they understand.
I laid out the contents of my pack on the beige carpet in one corner of our living room. Sleeping bag. Sleeping pad. Bug net. Four pairs of clothes, two pairs of shoes, and a jacket. Lots of bug spray and sunscreen. Water bottle. First-aid kit. Passport and papers. I began to organize and trim down my life so as to be able to fit it in the pack I would carry on my back from destination to destination. I was ready to embark on my pre-college adventures, but sat on the floor with my back against the couch remembering I still had 2 weeks before the start of my journey. I pulled open my laptop, scrolling through the galleries of photos and blog posts from trips taken through this mission organization in years past. I tried to imagine what it would be like, stepping off the plane in Haiti and meeting my host family, making friends and serving the community in Jamaica, or playing with children and practicing my Spanish in Belize. My body was stuck on the floor of my living room as I cursed the frigid, late-December temperatures outside, but my mind had circumnavigated the globe in a matter of minutes.
I stared into the empty space in front of me, not only looking forward to my upcoming 6-month long experience in the Caribbean, but letting my imagination engage in even greater romances. I thought about how wonderful it would be to live as a vagabond, traveling from place to place with only the possessions I could carry. I wanted to see everything, try everything, and experience the world up close. I vowed to never again let myself get stuck in the same place for years on end.
The old red pick-up truck bounced and jostled down the long, rocky dirt road that led from the small village in the heart of the Cayo district to the highway towards San Ignacio, Belize. My arm rested on the window frame and was sure to be burnt by the end of the trip, and dust blew into my eyes, but this was preferred to closing the windows and drowning in our own sweat. As I rode along, packed into the front seat of the truck with my host family, and unable to readjust without jabbing an elbow or knee into my host mom next to me, the radio host announced that the heat index that day had reached 100 degrees. I sighed and gazed out the window into the dry woods that lined the road, paying close attention to the occasional cement house where throngs of caramel-skinned children played in brightly colored hammocks that hung from the porch.
I knew I should try to make conversation, but I instead retreated into my comfortable imagination of Asheville in the summer, conversations with my family, affection from my boyfriend, and everything that would accompany leaving Belize next month and returning home. I had already been away for four and a half months, and though I had thoroughly enjoyed my gap year adventure in the Caribbean, my heart ached, and my mind constantly jumped forward to the end of the trip.
We arrived at the market in San Ignacio about half an hour later, and I followed my host mom through the maze of vendors selling hammocks, blankets, wooden crafts, exotic fruits and vegetables, and plates heaping with rice and beans, burritos, and empanadas. I passed by a few tables of beautiful handmade jewelry and locally made, organic soaps and perfumes. For a moment I was sure I had been transported to an arts fare in Downtown Asheville, but the thick Spanish that floated through the air and the sweat that stung my eyes brought me back. I noticed a group of teenage girls talking and laughing together next to a cart that sold fruit and shaved ice, and I craved the companionship of my close friends back home, with whom I had already begun to make summer plans with. I continued to explore, coming to the section of the market that sold fruits, vegetables, and homemade snacks, and added visiting the North Carolina farmers market to my list of things to do in the coming months. Just a few more weeks and I would finally be settled back in the place that is most familiar to me.