BY DENNIS DRABELLE
Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed landscape architect who designed the grounds of Biltmore, wrote that enjoying natural scenery “employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it.” Those paradoxes accompany me whenever I visit Asheville’s Beaver Lake.
About five days out of seven, I park my car at the adjacent bird sanctuary and make the roughly 2-mile waterside circuit, sometimes tacking on an extra mile by turning around and doubling back at the Little Free Library across the water from the warden’s cabin. Having yet to see a specimen of Castor canadensis on my treks, I’ve coined my own name for the place I love so much: Writer’s Lake.
By the time I get there, you see, I’ve finished my writing for the day and am ready to take suggestions from the morning’s work: a fat sentence willing to be slimmed down, an inconsistency begging to be fixed, a gap to be filled, a right word itching to elbow out a wrong one. The process, I imagine, is much the same for nonwriters with something work-related or personal on their minds — for them, in other words, it may be Potter’s or Yoga Instructor’s or Algebra Student’s Lake.
My suggestion is to avoid a head-on attack but clear a small mental runway for insights to land on if they so desire. Meanwhile give the rest of yourself up to the curving, gently rising and falling trail, its mountain views reminding you what a treasure the lake is in corrugated Buncombe County.
In this space, however, I want to zero in on those who use the lake, not on its conduciveness to literary triage. We walkers share the trail with lots of runners and a few bicyclists, most of whom are considerate enough to holler “Passing on your left!” as they approach from behind. I’ve become lake friends with a couple of runners and even know one, Brett, by name, though we converse in snippets that make tweets seem verbose. “Great day,” answered by “Couldn’t be better,” is a typical exchange.
One Saturday during COVID-19’s second semester (the fall of 2020), a van pulled up in the parking lot just as I was locking my car. Out stepped a dozen boys in running togs, and I asked what school they represented. The answer came as a surprise: a high school in Pomona, Calif., which they’d fled because the disease was rampant there and Asheville offered a less toxic alternative. (As I remember it, a friend of one runner’s family had lined up rooms in local houses for the refugees to inhabit.)
The boys started warming up, and I went on my way. A couple of minutes later, I heard them coming up behind me. As they ran by, I shouted out the best welcome I could think of: “Go Pomona!”
To understand another memorable lakeside chat I took part in, you have to know that I’m a dyed-in-the-red-wool St. Louis Cardinals fan. Three or four years ago, as summer wound down, the Cubs held first place in the National League’s Central Division, with the Cards a couple of games back and a four-game series between the archrivals coming up. As I neared the part of the lake where the trail veers west from Merrimon Avenue, a middle-aged man and woman wearing Cubs caps came toward me.
They smiled. I smiled back and said, “You looked like fine people until I noticed your headwear.”
They knew exactly what I was getting at. “You must be a Cardinals fan,” the man replied with a laugh. “The next few days will tell the tale.”
“May the best team win,” I said.
“We’re happy with that way of putting it,” the man said.
I never saw the pair again, so I’ll do my gloating here: The Cards swept the series.
Weather and baseball talk are about as deep as lakeside conversation tends to get, but there are exceptions. I walk with a limp and have a scar on my right leg to account for it. One summer day — a hot one calling for shorts and a T-shirt — I was about halfway between the parking lot and the warden’s cabin when someone said from behind, “If you don’t mind me asking, what happened to your leg?”
I turned around to see a young man of about 25. As we fell into step, I told him the story: a childhood accident with a sharp object.
He informed me that he was a healer. “And thanks to Jesus I’ve had some success.”
“Have you?” I responded, to be polite.
“Maybe I can help you,” he went on. “You may not see improvement right away, but I’ll give you my card, and if something happens later, you can let me know.”
I don’t believe in miracles, but my Catholic mother did. When my parents got me to the emergency room of a St. Louis hospital for treatment of my “big hurt” (my youngest brother’s term for it), no surgeons were on duty, so she began silently praying for one. She looked up and there was Dr. Bowdern, our family physician, on his way to visit his sister, who was hospitalized with tuberculosis.
Mom begged him to sew me up first, which he did with considerable skill, given that surgery was not his specialty. She was sure that her prayer had been answered, but I have my doubts. That would imply, would it not, that God gave Dr. Bowdern’s sister TB so he could save my leg?
Back at the lake, I accepted the young man’s card, but he wasn’t done with me. “Would it be all right if I laid a hand on your leg?” he asked.
In Washington, D.C., where I spent most of my adult life, the answer would have been an automatic “No.” But this was laid-back Asheville, the fellow had a way about him, and I told him to go ahead.
He grasped my scarred calf and implored Jesus to heal me. When he let go, the leg looked and felt the same as always, but I promised to be in touch if anything changed.
I kept that card for two or three years, but the limp and the scar stayed as they were. One day not long ago I decided I’d given the young man a fair chance and threw away his card.
The importance of being civil
During my six years of lake walking, I’ve admired Canada geese, great blue herons, little green herons, pileated woodpeckers, cormorants, the occasional hawk and hundreds of turtles. I’ve said hello to bird-watchers, dog walkers, baby stroller pushers, fishers, the tattooed and the plain-skinned, the young and the old, the headphone-equipped and the bare-eared. Occasionally my interlocutor or I will say something clever, but most of the time our back-and-forth is pretty mundane.
That’s all right. As we cope with new COVID variants and more political divisiveness than the country has known since the 1960s, it seems more important than ever to use a fleeting encounter as an opportunity to exchange pleasantries and respect.
Asheville resident Dennis Drabelle’s most recent book is The Power of Scenery: Frederick Law Olmsted and the Origin of National Parks.
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