From the Oracle at Bear Creek

[Editor’s note: Our search last year for a “skeptical reporter” turned up some memorable applicants — perhaps none more so than Richard E. Koon, M.D. While we chose to hire another journalist (two, actually) for the staff position(s), we were so intrigued by Dr. Koon’s background and writing samples that we invited him to submit a commentary. What follows is just that. In the good doctor’s own words, “This column is intended to be aphoristic, thus explaining the notation points and the jump between materials that are not necessarily connected.”]

An ad last fall in the Mountain Xpress sought out a skeptical journalist to write in a style characterized by, yes, skepticism: a doctrine beginning with doubt in order to reach the truth. Having a formal background in philosophy, I imagined myself as the Socrates for Asheville/Buncombe County.

Socrates: In the fifth century B.C., the establishment considered Socrates a pain in the ass. Yet the Oracle at Delphi declared him the wisest man in all of Athens. Surprisingly, Socrates was a monotheist in a polytheistic culture. His only prayer? “God, Thy Will be done.” He thought democracy was a joke, which he proved [with his take on the] dilemma of the One and the Many. Socrates demonstrated publicly that people didn’t know what they were talking about — so one man/one vote was senseless.

Politics haven’t changed, so I don’t waste my time voting. The low voter turnouts on local issues confirm that your vote won’t really make any difference.

Absentee landowners: I grew up in Asheville (1951-69), then, after 25 years’ absence, returned. I surveyed much of the 636 square miles in the county, making a 360-degree arc — Weaverville/Burnsville/Black Mountain/Fairview/Sweeten Creek/Hendersonville Highway/Brevard Road/Smoky Park Highway/Leicester/River Road — and finally purchased property in North Leicester: It was most reminiscent of the county I had known years ago.

Most disturbing upon my return were the skyrocketing prices, the part-time residents, and the ominous amount of land in the hands of wealthy absentee owners.

There’s a vacant lot on Furman Avenue; the owner from Charlotte wants $100,000 for it! The Southeastern Corporation owns the vacant parking lot where Ingles once stood. Apartments at a complex on the corner of Elk Mountain Road rent for $500; the owner lives in Charlotte. What do these distant capitalists care about the cost and quality of life in this area?

Put me on the Board of Commissioners. If every property law has to be violated, then:

1) Absentee property owners will have a special tax so high, there will be no need for those who live here year-round to pay taxes.

2) Secondly (I got this idea having lived in Montana, with exposure to Oregon), county signs will be erected, reading: “Welcome Tourists, but Don’t Plan to Move Here.”

Incidentally, in 1996, I lost my mind and paid the $900 filing fee to run for governor of West Virginia. Of course, Socrates refused to run for public office. Also, my grandfather, E. S. Koon Sr. (1892-1977), refused to run for mayor of Asheville.

Thomas Wolfe: Downtown literally glorifies this great writer. The problem is, it’s obvious that he remains unread. He freely used words such as “nigger” and “pregnant white trash.” His description (in Look Homeward Angel) of “nigger town” from the peak of Beaucatcher Mountain is classic.

Wolfe should be credited with the phrases “the me generation” and “the great American novel is advertisements.” Unfortunately, he succumbed to tuberculosis in 1938 at the age of 37. It was said that he had read all 10,000 books in the Pack Memorial Library, when it was located on the Square (behind the then-recently-erected monolith).

Greenways: They are the mountain peaks arcing around Asheville. Wolfe called the city the “soul of a nation” — it should be hustling and bustling and crowded. But the real estate agents and home builders want to provide, for those who can afford it, a mountain-top residence.

Here’s where zoning needs to be enforced: no housing closer than 500 yards to any mountain peak. The Grove Park Inn’s aggrandizement is enough of an eyesore. If you want a distant mountain view, climb the damn thing. Or, use one of the three access roads to the Parkway within 20 miles of Craggy Gardens.

Old mountain culture: Where is the old mountain culture? Certainly not in downtown Asheville. But I must give the city credit for the revival of apartment living downtown, allowing people to walk to their work or to local businesses.

The remnants of the old mountain culture are located in isolated county convenience stores. Price mark-ups notwithstanding, here is friendliness — and places for social gatherings or just plain loitering. People are on a first-name basis, and ads are posted on the outside at random.

I have my set of favorites: On New Leicester Highway, the Hot Spot (two hot dogs for $1) and Gossett’s Citgo. I jokingly gave Gossett hell one day for raising his gas prices. On Alexander Road, the French Broad Community Store pops up like an oasis; after driving about seven rural miles, a huge Exxon sign appears on the horizon. Often, an RV or truck is for sale in the parking lot.

I must also mention the convenience store on River Road at the Madison/Buncombe County line: the Riverview Serv-Gro. I was completely lost one day and a man I encountered there was kind enough to drive his truck the whole way to my Madison County destination.

And to think, I had to lie down on the floor at one of the mega-stores to get service. The sale of the $400 refrigerator I had selected never took place.

[R. E. Koon, M.D. holds a B.S. in philosophy and chemistry; a medical degree from Duke University (with subspecialties in general neurology and psychiatry, and child and adolescent neurology and psychiatry); is the author of several articles about child psychology; and has penned two books. He unsuccessfully ran for governor of West Virginia four years ago.]

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