Before I came to Asheville, I studied the AAA maps. At first, I planned to drive here from Phoenix, Ariz., and noticed that Interstate 40 ran through the middle of town. Asheville looked pretty easy to master, on the maps. My daughter put the kibosh on driving. She didn’t want my car at her house. There wasn’t room for it, and overnight street parking was out of the question. And quite likely, my daughter worried about me, since I had a heart attack in 2011.
So I sold my beloved Mercury, and flew Southwest Air to Greenville, S.C. My daughter picked me up at midnight, and we drove 100 moonless miles back to Asheville, where it wasn’t long before I learned a few lessons about directions and misperceptions.
When the sun came up I was baffled. I couldn’t see the sky. Trees grew all around the house, seemingly to 100 feet or more, and there were dozens of different trees, all of them strange and new. (Phoenix isn’t known for trees; you can see the sky for miles.) I couldn’t see the sun, or the horizon; I couldn’t tell the directions. North, East, South, West meant nothing to me here. How did the pioneers know where they were going? It was as thick as a jungle around my daughter’s house. Yet she was, strangely enough, very centrally located in the city.
My first lesson in direction came from U.S. Highway 25, which north and south through town but changes names few times (Hendersonville Road, Biltmore Avenue, Merrimon Avenue and such). I learned that if I could find and stay on 25, I could find my way home. As a practical matter though, Highway 25 gets lost at times, and when it does, so do I.
This not a trivial problem when you’ve got a cataract in one eye and the trees give you a sense of NESW obscurity. Complicating that is a set of looping freeways that appear to give you a tree-free view that promises direction, but only sweep you swiftly into terra incognita, where you just must get off at a roadside business and confess that you don’t know where in the hell you are, and can hardly remember where it is you want to go.
The last sign I saw said Weaverville, and I knew I didn’t want to go there. I pulled off as soon as I could, at a convenience store where most of the customers were black. I told the clerk, “I’m lost. I have no idea where I am. I’m trying to get back on route 25 to go to Biltmore Village.”
Before he could reply, a young black man volunteered, “Biltmore Village? Yeah, I can get you there. Follow me.” We went out front, where his old sedan was parked. A few other young black kids were in his car. Rap music blared inside it.
It occurred to me that it might not be smart to follow this guy. I didn’t know him, and I didn’t want to seem racist. So we started out, me following along — trying to keep him in view if he turned. It wasn’t long before he got off the freeway some place I would never have tried, and we skittered down a hillside in a series of tight turns.
Whoa, I thought, this doesn’t look right, but in a minute the young man pulled into another convenience store, jumped out and went in alone. I jotted down his license plate (in case the cops wanted it, if I ever got out of this alive).
He was back out in 10 seconds with a cigarette in his hand. “Needed a smoke,” he hollered to me as he got in his car, and wheeled onto the street in the direction we were headed.
If he was going to Biltmore Village, you certainly couldn’t prove it by me. I was as helpless as a runaway train. Water on the right, across a bridge, water on the left. (For the record, rivers in Phoenix don’t have water in them, much of the year.) Finally we came out at a wide spot where he pulled over. I pulled up next to him, so we could talk through open windows.
“See that next light up there?” he asked. I nodded. “Turn left, then at the next light, turn right. Go to the top of the hill and you’ll see it down there.”
“Really? Okay. Thanks,” I said, “and hey, what’s your name?”
“Mike,” he shouted.
“Great,” I shouted back. “Mike, that’s my brother’s name.” He waved his lit cigarette at me and took off. I followed his directions, and at the top of the next hill, there it was. I recognized the Grand Bohemian Hotel. I knew where I was again, but not how I got there.
This local kid had taken pity on me, a green yokel, and led me out of the wilderness into a safe haven, for nothing. Just the satisfaction of being “the guy,” the one who knows how, I guess.
I want to see him again. Give him a pack of smokes, at least, and find out more about his life. If I can find him, that is. But hey, I’ve got his license plate number; that should be a cinch.
DeWitt Robbeloth lives in Asheville.