Staying put: My city and I’m sticking with it
Home is not where you have to go but where you want to go; nor is it a place where you are sullenly admitted, but rather where you are welcomed—by the people, the walls, the tiles on the floor, the flowers beside the door, the play of light, the very grass.
–Scott Russell Sanders
I was driving alone from Fairbanks to Anchorage a few years ago, dealing with early September snow showers and shoulderless mountain roads. I was intermittently entertaining myself with the awe-inspiring landscape and trying to stay awake by listening to Alaska Public Radio. As the radio signal faded in and out, an author who had recently written a book titled Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World was being interviewed. Scott Russell Sanders spoke compellingly of creating a life that’s “firmly grounded in household and community, in knowledge of place, in awareness of nature, and in contact with that source from which all things arise.”
I was spellbound by the author’s perspective. And though I had contemplated thoughts of remaining in Alaska a while, I decided then and there to return to Austin and to irrevocably claim it as my home.
On my return, however, I found that this eclectic Texas city could not hold my allegiance. Certainly I had many fine friends there. I enjoyed running on the trails around Town Lake. I could while away half a day at Book People, Whole Foods Market, and Waterloo Records without spending a penny if I so desired. But this was also the place of scorching summer heat, flat terrain, and a booming population. I would not put down roots in Austin.
Before I proceed, it would probably help you to know that I had participated in a week-long workshop near Dahlonega, Georgia, at the tail end of the Southern Appalachians, a few years prior to my Alaska trip. This encounter involved whitewater rafting on the Chattooga River, a ropes course, and a solo camping experience. As nightfall approached on the banks of the Chattooga, I lay alone in my makeshift plastic shelter. Then, as dusk turned to darkness, I became filled with a profound sense of having come home—home to myself, home to the plants and animals around me, home to the mountain terrain. And I knew from that moment on that somehow, someday, I would return to live in this part of the world.
There has been much talk recently of why people are coming to Asheville, why they aren’t coming, why our youth are leaving. I don’t pretend to know what motivates others; I can only speak of my experience. A few days after my epiphany on the riverbank, I visited newfound friends Loyd and Ken Kinnett of Hendersonville (also workshop participants) at their charming mountaintop home. I came for a weekend and stayed several weeks. I tried with all my might to land a job with North Carolina Outward Bound School, and I wound up with a new friend but, alas, no job. I cast about for other means of supporting myself but finally returned to Texas. Nonetheless, every two or three years I would visit Ken and Loyd and, if only briefly, re-experience my dream of living in these mountains.
It took ten years to turn vision into reality. Shonnie and I came to western North Carolina for a week in August 1997. I was negotiating with a local entrepreneur about assisting him in his business endeavors. Shonnie was visiting the area for the first time. My opportunity did not bear fruit, but Shonnie discovered a job opening, had an interview, and was all but invited back for the second interview before the week was out. Needless to say we considered this a very good omen.
During our weeklong visit we both were drawn to Asheville in ways that can be described with words and in ways that cannot. The lively downtown full of diverse individuals, Jubilee! Community Church, Salsa’s, Laughing Seed, French Broad Food Co-op, Fine Arts Theatre; Malaprop’s Bookstore, then-Mayor Leni Sitnick, the ease of navigating the city; opportunities for community involvement, the four distinct seasons, the underlying vein of spirituality that permeates this place, and, of course, the mountains.
Near the end of our week in western North Carolina, we hiked to Shining Rock. It was foggy, and we caught only glimpses of the sweeping mountain vistas. But as we trekked and talked and laughed and sang, our path became clear. We were moving to Asheville. And we’d be staying put.