America is speeding towards the edge of some unprecedented cliff, but in the pointed wedge of western North Carolina, where forests color the map green and mountains give it the look of crumpled paper, you would never know it.
For two days I drive and walk around the small mountain towns near Asheville, and no one seems alarmed – or pleased, for that matter – by the state of current events. No one looks as if they feel the way I do: unable to comprehend how anyone is doing anything but endlessly screaming. Here, in the Blue Ridge Mountains – or the Great Smokies, or the Appalachians, or whatever name these hazy peaks go by in this corner of the world – there is no outward evidence that anyone cares about anything beyond this place or this moment.
As I drive, I feel I’m not going forward but upward, constantly struggling against the terrain. Towns that should be ten minutes apart by car take half an hour to reach on narrow winding roads, and I wonder whether inland mountains necessarily make for insular places. Though it’s more difficult than I’d anticipated, I try to get to as many towns as I can, just to see them, like the curious mountain-climbing bear in the song.
In Sylva, where a gleaming white courthouse towers over a nostalgic postcard of a main street, a boy raising money for his school football team tries to sell me coupons, and a toddler loitering adorably outside a store says hi.
In Black Mountain, a crowded, hippy-ish sort of place full of the kind of cutesy public art and cookie-cutter shops that would make a prettier town charming, a seasonal festival has taken over a section of downtown. A woman standing beside me at a crosswalk asks, “Are you going to the show?” and is genuinely shocked when I say no.
In tiny Chimney Rock, where rugged commercial buildings are crammed close together below the mountains, and neighboring Lake Lure, where the flat, yellow-tinted beach strikes me as a faded, reduced-size copy of what a beach vacation should be, I’m instantly transported to a bygone era of American tourism that I didn’t think existed anymore. I later realize that Dirty Dancing was filmed here, and it all makes sense. The Jews were restricted to their Catskills resorts due to discrimination, and the North Carolinians are confined to their hokey towns and man-made lakes because of mountains.
I quickly tire of the mountains. There is something vaguely menacing in their constant presence, something oppressive in the way they dictate every aspect of life. And they are relentless; at one point, I cross the Eastern Continental Divide, and it feels no more momentous than any of the other hills that become valleys that become hills and on and on. But some towns feel more open than others, like quiet Rutherfordton, where I find knowingly retro murals and a sweet little brick-paved pocket park off the main road.
Other towns seem more upscale, like Hendersonville, where the downtown resembles an outdoor shopping mall. On spotless sidewalks in front of bland restaurants and office buildings, a parade of colorful painted bears wait to be auctioned off for charity. The bears have themes; one wears a suit and tie, one holds an ice cream cone. Many are mothers with babies, who do not stand but sit, the larger bears enclosing the cubs protectively.
Before I leave, I decide at the last minute to go to Saluda, a one-block town of a city at the top of the “steepest, standard gauge, mainline railway grade in the U.S.,” per the sign beside the now-disused train tracks. Opposite the tracks, low brick buildings house the library, the oldest grocery store in North Carolina (opened in 1890), and the minuscule municipality’s offices. Here, in this spot I almost didn’t reach, it all coalesces: the wooded peaks, the unpretentious but slightly sophisticated vibe, the gentle curve of the street along the tracks. Maybe, I think for a moment, if I lived here in this rustic hideaway, it would make perfect sense to ignore the real world. One could exist here, suspended like a reflection in a drop of mountain rain, and ignore the dangers lurking beyond.
And then I turn around and drive out the way I drove in, down the mountains and up the mountains and on and on until I’m far from North Carolina and my memories of its western towns, their idiosyncrasies and their isolation, are already fading.