A Good Night In Altamont

Asheville has eluded me for two and a half years. Ever since I moved to Raleigh and began working in various towns across North Carolina, and into Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland, I have longed for an Asheville assignment. I have traveled extensively throughout the region for two and a half years and the travel has afforded me the chance to get acquainted with my newly-adopted home state. But Asheville has always escaped me. Until now.

I have visited briefly in the past and have always loved Asheville, this cool, western jewel of the Carolinas, surrounded by the ancient Blue Ridge. There is a magic and a mystery to this place that is unlike any other town that I have known, with the possible exception of Charleston, though the vibes of the two towns are as divergent as their landscapes.

I have been reading Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel” – a Christmas gift from Melissa. It is a gem of a book from a contemporary of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, London, Steinbeck and Faulkner. Wolfe is perhaps the most under-appreciated of the great American writers of the early 20th Century – and he was a North Carolinian. “Angel” does not even appear on the Modern Library’s list of 100 Greatest American novels, yet Pat Conroy wrote of Wolfe:

“I realized that breathing and the written word were intimately connected to each other as I stepped into the bracing streams of Thomas Wolfe and could hear the waterfalls forming in the cliffs that lay invisible beyond me. I had not recognized that the beauty of our language shaped in sentences as pretty as blue herons, could bring me to my knees with pleasure – did not know that words could pour through me like honey through a burst hive or that gardens seeded in dark secrecy could bloom along the borders and porches of my half-ruined boyhood because a writer could touch me in all the broken places with his art.”

Wolfe has deepened my already abundant love for this place with his prose. He referred to Asheville in his fiction as “Altamont”. There is an Altamont Brewery here. An Altamont Theater and an various other businesses around town which have incorporated the Altamont name. Wolfe’s cultural influence looms large.

It was a dreary day; windy and cold to the bone, though spring is near, and the days have already lengthened promisingly. It is winter’s last stand. After I could do no more work I walked from the Hotel Indigo across a bustling, early evening Heyward Street, to The Captains Bookshelf – a rare and used bookstore just a block away. Asheville has two amazing locally-owned bookstores in the aforementioned “Captains”, and Malaprop’s – both within an easy glance from my window at the Indigo. At Captains, I wandered the shelves for nearly an hour, perusing timeworn titles and inhaling the faint aroma of old books. I selected a paperback copy of Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro ~ and Other Stories”.

The lady at the register was out of central casting. Aging and bookish,  her dishwater grey hair was assembled in a loose bun held by a pencil, and she wore a threadbare cardigan two sizes too large, which accentuated her frailty. As she reached for the book with a palsied hand, she sighed as she read the title. I daresay she nearly shed a tear, and she said in a wistful tone that it was a wonderful, beautiful book. I told her that I loved Hemingway but I had not yet read this particular volume. She looked at me as if I were a typhoid carrier. This is a serious bookstore.

As I left the store the smell of rain was heavy in the air, and I lifted my collar against the brisk wind. I cut across a parking lot beside a fossil-like shell of an ancient two-story brick building that has been repurposed as a parking garage. I crossed back across Heyward Street, past Malaprop’s and turned left down the narrow and steeply sloping Walnut Street, which reminded me vaguely of the ally ways in old town Prague. Just as it began to rain, I tucked into Zambra, a tapas restaurant and one of my favorite stops in town.

I settled into a small hightop table in the back of the dimly lit bar area, near the kitchen. I ordered a Tempranillo and sat reading Hemingway by the faint, yellow light of a wall sconce above my table while the wine worked its magic. While a steady, cold rain poured outside, things were about as cozy as they could be in the in the darkened warmth of the bar.

After a while I ordered a crawfish étouffée with mushrooms and a brown sauce that made me nearly emotional. I followed that with a Spanish tortilla with spicy beef sausage and sweet potato, which was wonderful. Finally, another glass of wine and boudin croquettes with kimchee aioli. I was supremely happy and could have only been more pleased if Melissa had been there with me to share it.

Following dinner, I ambled back out into the softening rain, which had washed the streets and left a satisfying petrichor of damp asphalt and soil. I made the short walk back to the Indigo, sated and happy. I’m having a nightcap now in the room, and as I write this blog my gaze is drawn west, out my ninth story window toward Wolfe’s rain-veiled North Carolina mountains. Despite winter’s clinging damp and cool, I am thankful for old books and good wine and the aroma of rain in early March.

It is a good night in Altamont.

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