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Driving The Mountains of Asheville

Exiting the estate grounds takes about 10 minutes; we drive another 10 to reach downtown Asheville. We're going to see a humble boardinghouse, Old Kentucky Home, near the business center. It's where Thomas Wolfe (author of Look Homeward, Angel and You Can't Go Home Again) grew up. His mother, rabidly determined to make a fortune in real estate, used the proceeds from her hostel for down payments on bargain properties around town. People came to stay not only to enjoy cool summers but also because mountain air was regarded as helpful for consumptives. One of the guests must have imported the bacillus that gave Wolfe the mild case of TB he suffered as a young man. Years later, a bout of pneumonia reopened the tubercles in his lungs and released active bacilli that infected his brain and killed him.

Wolfe's first novel describes a town he calls Altamont and a gloomy boardinghouse in it. He also mentions the nearby château, an extravagance that no doubt contributed to the narrator's discontent with his drab origins. Recently restored after a fire, the house doesn't look so bad, really. After contemplating the Victorian façade—its yellow-and-cream color scheme, its gingerbread ornamentation, the army of rockers on its veranda—IFT and I find the entrance to the Thomas Wolfe Memorial on North Market Street. A brief inspection of Wolfiana there, and then a guide takes us through the house itself.

It's a mazelike agglomeration of rooms on two levels, including one where Wolfe's brother Ben died and the upstairs sleeping porch that the wanderer liked to use when he did or did not come home again. We pause and feel a chill several times: in the labor-intensive kitchen, the dining room, and a parlor with a pump organ and family photographs. Because of today's overcast skies, there's an unfrosted Edison lightbulb still lit, its tungsten filament leaving a looped retinal afterimage for several minutes following my first squint at it. The ensemble makes a strong impression, compounded by alcoholism (Wolfe's father's), matriarchy, family deaths, and the indigenous mountain dreaminess. Wolfe left it all behind for a while, first as an undergraduate at UNC Chapel Hill, then as a romantic exile in New York. He was lionized in the years when he was alive and publishing but, according to an informal survey I took, the reputation has declined. Given a longer lifespan, he might have learned to curb his rhetorical bent and develop his comic abilities. When he died, he was brought home and buried in Riverside Cemetery, the headstone bearing two epitaphs taken from his writing. The first (from Look Homeward, Angel) simply says, "The last voyage, the longest, the best."

We drive 20 minutes east to Black Mountain, a small town nestled at the foot of the so-named mountain range, which includes the highest peak in these parts. It wouldn't have occurred to us to make the excursion except that a famous experimental school opened there 70 years ago. John Andrew Rice, the founder, had been booted out of a college in Florida, at which point he decided to set up his own alternative. His associateRobert Wunsch proposed a Christiansummer camp outside town as the site of the new college. Starting with Josef and Anni Albers, who left Germany and came to Black Mountain at the beginning of the Nazi era, the school counted among its faculty and students progressive artists of unusual caliber: Ben Shahn, Robert Rauschenberg, Jacob Lawrence, Robert Motherwell, the de Koonings, and Franz Kline. Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham were on the faculty, and Black Mountain's writers included Francine du Plessix, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Jonathan Williams, and Robert Duncan. While not bound by any uniform aesthetic, these figures shared a bent toward the experimental, making a collective impact on American culture by their work and by the freewheeling lives they led. The counterculture of the sixties really began the previous decade in California and North Carolina.

Present-day Black Mountain is basically a Southern hamlet populated by churchgoers and businesspeople. Because of the school's legend, there has also been an influx of amiable freaks, who've set up as potters, musicians, and painters within its ambit. As we stroll State Street, IFT takes in its laid-back galleries and crafts shops with a smile that looks...benign?Patronizing?Dinner here would be contraindicated, but there are cafés and bluegrass bars worth hanging out in. At the window of a shop selling dulcimers, we fantasize about apprenticing ourselves to Appalachia's sweet singers. Would Dolly Parton take our citified ways in stride?

An obligatory stop is the Black Mountain Center for the Arts, and the sites where Black Mountain College held its classes. BMC's true monument is the influence it had after its doors closed in 1956; it generated concepts that have played a role in American culture ever since. Okay, but how many artists have actually been here?Back in town, we buy the T-shirts that prove we have. IFT struggles into his. Cool. He says he wants to take the wheel when we hit the road back to Greensboro.

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