The heavy, steel doors at Appalachian Hall slam shut behind me.
“We’re required to place you in the locked unit,” the nurse explains, “because you’re out of control and we don’t want you to hurt yourself.”
So starts the memoirs of one of Asheville’s notorious and unlikely characters — Mickey Mahaffey, who walked into town back in 1998, declaring himself homeless by choice. He lived in the woods, waxed eloquent about the life of the wanderer and gained local notoriety for defending the rights of the homeless. Three years later, he ran (unsuccessfully) for mayor of Asheville on a political platform reminiscent of Czechoslovakian revolutionary and President Václav Havel.
Mahaffey will read from and sign copies of his new book, Whispers of My Blood at Malaprop’s this Friday, Sept. 10, at 7 p.m.
Mahaffey went on to start the School of the Traveler, a notably campus-less project, which calls into question the values of today’s acquisition-crazed industrialized world. He can usually be found either living in Asheville, camped in the woods, or off in Mexico building his hostel for wanderers, at the bottom of the world’s largest and deepest canyon.
Mahaffey is clearly a charismatic and happy man driven by his vision of simplicity and harmony with nature. His earlier years, however, were different: As a child, he traveled the country, preaching about original sin; when scars of childhood abuse came back to haunt him as an adult, his life slowly filled with sadness, pain and guilt — from which he turned to alcohol and drugs; he wound up in bankruptcy, with two failed marriages and long periods of separation from his children.
But life offered Mahaffey a second chance — which is when he decided to leave behind most of what was familiar to him and seek solitude and, hopefully, answers in the wilderness.
While vagabonding and camping, Mahaffey wrote and wrote — about his apostasy from fundamentalist Christianity, of being diagnosed manic-depressive, of leaving his wife and family and traveling on foot across North Carolina, of wandering in Mexico’s Copper Canyons, and finally rekindling his familial bonds and becoming an honorary Raramuri Indian while dancing his way into sanity.
Mahaffey has stitched and threaded his essays into a soul-renewing tale of healing, full of adventure and fun, warmth and unexpected events, with surprising stories and unique characters. And most important, says Mahaffey, his book tells of making peace with his life and recovering his most valued treasure: an intimate relationship with his three kids.
Some excerpts from Whispers of My Blood:
As the night draws to an end, [Camper Dave] grabs the bamboo flute and takes his backpack from beneath the table. As he pulls on his overcoat he invites me to go camping. I say sure, thinking of warm days in springtime, but he hoists his pack and exclaims, “Let’s go right now!” “How the hell can you go camping in the middle of the night in the dead of winter?” “Just walk out the door!” he shouts.
Only in the wilderness have I found the insight to deprogram my fundamentalist indoctrination and maintain the power to break the curse of bipolar disorder.
Paradoxically, chronic pain and debilitating depressions have led me on an extraordinary path of discovery above and beyond my wildest imaginations.
The American way of life in its present state of wanton consumerism, for which we wage wars to protect and annihilate the earth to sustain, is primitive, as in subhuman, undeveloped, savage.
I’ve slept in the land of bears, coyotes, wildcats, rattlesnakes, copperheads, through rainstorms and flash floods, blizzards and falling trees, but not once have I been in serious danger. I’ve never been molested by the wilderness or the creatures of the wild. Only humans.
Originally posted on Sept. 5