Grace Slick sang, “One pill makes you larger, the other makes you small. And the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all,” on Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” cementing the figurative connection between Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the ’60s drug culture. Perhaps that’s why an educational anti-drug video, produced 20 years later, featured a drug-using rabbit — and collaterally why that rabbit appeared on the cover of the first issue of Mountain Xpress.
When the monthly Green Line caterpillar was pupating, on the cusp of metamorphosis into the weekly Xpress, I had been a contributing freelancer for a few years. I wrote commentaries, reported some news, drew cartoons and wrote the monthly humor column for the Grin Line page. That summer, I had stumbled on my first big scoop: I learned that the federal government was doing all it could to suppress a report it had contracted from the Research Triangle Institute (RTI).
RTI had analyzed the effectiveness of Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), a program that was being used in schools across the country and taught by police officers. The study revealed that students exposed to DARE used drugs earlier and more often than their non-DARE peers. Big money was at stake, from the federal to the local level, and the “Just Say No” folks did not want that story to leak. They blocked publication of the results.
I took the story idea to Calvin Allen at the Fund for Investigative Reporting and Editing (FIRE), in its office just down the hall from Green Line, and he endorsed it. That meant I would be paid real money (which neither Green Line nor Xpress could afford on its shoestring budget). There was no specific deadline, but I completed the story as quickly as I could assemble information and interviews. It just happened that the story was ready to go as the Xpress rollout loomed.
Along the way I borrowed a copy of the official DARE videotape (from the Asheville Police Department), which proved to be a modern day Reefer Madness fantasy. It unabashedly claimed that any exposure to drug use would lead inexorably to crack cocaine, anorexia, failure and death. The cartoon rabbit image was irresistible and nabbed the cover position for my story. I lucked out.
Alternet, which was then a wire service for alternative newspapers, picked up the story and it ran again in Columbus, Ohio. That rocked my fledgling writing career. My humor columns had led to a weekly radio commentary on WNCW 88.7 FM, and suddenly Alternet was willing to syndicate Duck Soup: Essays on the Submerging Culture. Now I was “getting ink” across the country! Whooee!
Thanks to the patient guidance of the brilliant Green Line/Xpress editor Peter Gregutt, my writing continued to improve. I became founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, and managing editor of Xpress. With my appetite for investigation whetted, I went on to cover other “crack rabbits” — like the groundwater pollution at the Sayles Bleachery site (still un-remediated) and former Sheriff Bobby Lee Medford’s corruption. Six of my books have their roots in my work for Xpress, and my later entry into municipal politics grew out of years covering City Council and Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meetings (together with a sharp elbow jab from another former managing editor, Jon Elliston).
Mountain Xpress has been good for news reporting in WNC, sometimes challenging other media outlets to keep up, sometimes keeping the others in line. Longtime readers will know that my relationship with the paper hasn’t always been pacific, and I still find time to snipe when I think criticism is due. But I remain grateful for my years as a contributor there, and proud of what a feisty and committed team of journalists, editors and artists has pulled off.
“… if you go chasing rabbits and you know you’re going to fall. Tell ‘em a hookah smoking caterpillar has given you the call.” And know that caterpillars often turn into butterflies.
Cecil Bothwell is author of nine books including She Walks On Water, a novel (Brave Ulysses Books, 2013) and a member of Asheville’s City Council.