A Walking Memory of West Asheville
The writer owns her own real estate firm, Rouleau Real Estate Group. She is also a published writer of creative non-fiction and a believer in the radical power of symbols. In depth psychology, the image of home is symbol for the transmuting aspects of the self. A real estate professional is both guide and advocate, helping you to move to the next home in which to house yourself.
In the spring of 2014, I walked West Asheville for the first time. My sister Jane had found us an adorable Airbnb, off State Street, closer to Carrier Park and the Velodrome than to Haywood and The Admiral. I lived in rural Ashe County, North Carolina, a lost mountain county folded into the corner of North Carolina and bordered by Tennessee and Virginia. Jane was in the urban Piedmont of Charlotte, where we had grown up. Her daughter Amelia lived in Arden and would have gladly made up a bed for us, but Jane and I wanted to experience Asheville on the ground, not 10 miles out in the suburbs. We had been lured by that pleasantly schizophrenic Asheville vibe—southern-old-money combined with Appalachian stubbornness and iconoclastic chic. Jane was single, vibrant, her twenty-plus-year marriage securely in the emotional past. I was depressed and separated, again, after twenty-five years of marriage.
“Come on, P,” I can hear her encourage me. “Let’s walk to the River Arts District.”
A walk to the River Arts District would have been a respectable 2 ½ mile walk, each way, from our rental. After I moved to Asheville in 2017, I learned the hip name for the River Arts District. Known as RAD, the first time a local used the abbreviation in conversation, it slid from their mouth, marrying a sensibility and place with three little letters. My aging brain would have scanned its neural lexicon for meaning, and it would have, then and now again, settled on a pedestrian word like “cool.” I like the word rad; it snaps your mind into focus, like a last line of poetry. I like definitions, too, the synonyms and antonyms sounding the depth of a word. But definitions can also hollow out meaning and in the case of the word rad make parody of the social and spiritual complexity of Asheville and of the artists who live and work alongside the yard of the Western North Carolina Railroad:
Extraordinary; wonderful; awesome, chill, gnarly: Want to go to this way rad party? (late 1970s+)
A radical (1980s+)
Fifty-four years old in 2014 (I’ll do the math for you; I was born in 1960), I would have given anything to be chill, or gnarly, a cliché of chic. Jane, on the other hand, was and is that buoyant, rad chick whom you just want to throttle if you are a melancholic of my ilk, pragmatic and Pollyanna by turn. Down Haywood Road she strode, past abandoned industrialization and nouveau establishments with impartial devotion to new possibilities. Sweat trickled its way down my backbone, my new rad boots worrying blisters into existence on my right pinkie toe. Jack, my yellow Labrador, panted beside me.
It’s not that Jack and I weren’t in shape. Two months prior to our trip to Asheville, I had hauled Jack and myself to a cabin that I had purchased the year before, in 2013, as a rental investment, before I became a real estate broker, before it had broken through to consciousness that I had bought a house as a future refuge. Every morning before I left the cabin for work, Jack and I walked. And every afternoon we walked and walked, away, I had hoped from a marriage, worn meager by apathetic time.
The cabin sat just a few miles, as the crow flies, from my husband, seventeen years always my senior. One morning, as I gazed out to the distant horizon from the cabin’s A-frame glassed wall, I realized that what I was meditating on was the main route which lead back to that life. As hard as I searched, that day and mornings following, some of the route remained hidden behind peaking mountain ridgelines and disappearing switch-backs, the South Fork of the New River roiling omnipresent, unseen, through the gaps in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I imagined what my husband’s perspective offered up to him. Our home sat on 24 acres, up a half-mile dirt road, at the base of a holler with indifferent cows our only neighbors. We loved to brag that we owned from ridgeline to ridgeline. He would be at his desk already, his eyes seeing nothing but a mountain side of dying Hemlocks and white pines which cried in the wind and the slash of the driveway disappearing around the bend.
Jane is actually my step-sister. When my father (our father?) died in 2010, Jane and I became friends for the first time, she 48 years to my 50. That’s a whole other story. Daddy had officially lost his mind to Alzheimer’s by the time I had dreamt that his debts were paid, and the aging priest had given him last rites at the nursing home. It was one of those melodramatic scenes that Daddy, in his right mind, would have assumed.
The priest encouraged us (my step-mother Helen, Jane and me) to gather around Daddy’s hospital bed and hold hands in prayer. None of us would be caught alive praying for Catholic salvation (we were, each in our own way, religious skeptics), but we did as the priest supplicated and paid homage to Daddy’s supine form. Our father was both a narcissist and a shit of a parent (I told him as much when he still had a mind which could confess the truth, so don’t gasp all horrified). When the priest intoned in that Catholic way that Joel Joseph Rouleau, Jr.’s sins had been forgiven, it took us all by surprise when I sobbed, snot dripping onto the shiny, yellowing linoleum. Jane and I went to supper afterward, breaking bread as two southern girls would do at times like these. Three hours later, our iced teas sweaty on the table top, greasy napkins scrunched in our laps, hard questions asked and answered, we became acquainted with each other’s hearts.
Our instantaneous and abiding affection for one another encouraged us to contemplate buying a home together in Asheville. Geography can root us to a place, terrains mapping us as surely as neural synapses map our memories. And we wanted to hang in walkable West Asheville, where walking is an art form in meandering.
West Asheville was an incorporated town, off and on, through much of the 1890s, the City of Asheville annexing West Asheville once and for good in 1917. If you ask multiple people what the boundaries of West Asheville are, you will get multiple answers. Broadly, it stretches from the French Broad River and the Western North Carolina Railroad on the east to Patton Avenue on the northwest and I-40 on the south. Haywood Road is its main corridor. The narrow, neighborhood side streets form a mosaic of eclectic architecture: 20’s Tudor cottages, 50’s ranchers, two-story colonials, Craftsman-style bungalows. Linear-angled, modern homes perch on stilts and the ridgeline along Riverview Drive in East West Asheville. At night, the horizon over RAD, the river, and the railroad is a light show, downtown Asheville awake in the lap of Beaucatcher Mountain.
The three of us strode across the Craven Street Bridge, single file—Jane, Jack a nose ahead of me on leash, then me. The Craven Street Bridge is one of four bridges which span the French Broad River and connect West Asheville with downtown. Built after the French Broad flooded its banks in 1916 and washed away the original Smith Bridge (built by 1833), the Craven Street Bridge holds a story from the early 20th century.
Once upon a time, boys loved to strip to their nakedness and float and swim and play in the river. On this particular summer day, the river pulled them toward the bridge’s concrete pilings. The normally lazy river ran fierce from a heavy rain, the eddies swirling, the undercurrents treacherous. The boys discovered that one of their friends was missing. They dove deep. They hollered his name. Neighbors launched their boats. And with their lit lanterns held high, they searched for the boy. His body was never recovered. To this day, as dusk turns to night, you may see the shape of a naked boy running across the Craven Street Bridge, only to disappear before he makes it to land and safety.
I did not want to disappear, the eddies and undercurrents of a failed love pulling me under. How do you effect a radical life shift when you are chained, like the hound of death, to a craggy mountain holler at the end of a dirt road? (I am my father’s daughter after all). It can only be accomplished by the tenacious pragmatist who insists on finding a living path through desolate land, not by the whimsical Pollyanna whose hope is cliché on her best day. The last day of our visit to West Asheville, I made an appointment to look at a rental. But walking the oak floors of the vacant 50’s colonial, the home echoed my emptiness. I would not rent a sweet bungalow, that day. I would not leave my marriage, not then. I would not find myself in the North Carolina mountains, not yet—but the innocent laughter of the neighbor children frolicking in their weedy, chain-linked yard across the street from my West Asheville rancher resounds with a plaintive hope as I write this last line.