Wednesday, December 31, 2008


The big controversy in Burnsville, county seat of Yancey County just outside Asheville is whether or not the state is doing a good thing widening US Highway 19 that runs from Interstate 26 to Spruce Pine and points east. The idea would be for Burnsville commuters to be able to drive all the way to Asheville at their speed, leaving tourists and slow pokes to dawdle in the slow lane. Personally I sometimes wouldn't mind such forward thinking on Highway One through the Keys, even though the Bonneville makes tourist passing an enjoyable pastime for me most days... My brother in law (retired) is incensed about the road widening and has been fulminating about it for years, and now it's happening so the sight of the earth moving equipment just makes him morose, a bad loser. The dude who sold us some craft pottery in downtown Burnsville was quietly delighted. He commutes an hour to Asheville airport to his day job and the road widening from his crafts store/home will be a lot easier.

Burnsville benefited hugely from the boom years of the 1990s, and the by-pass Highway 19 East collected the fast food joints and light industrial sheds and the car repair shops, while downtown Burnsville became a tourist mecca of cute stores and restored old buildings, with a core residential area spreading up the hill behind the main square:

Burnsville promotes itself as "home," the place where everyone wants to be, small town America, where you know your neighbors and you go shopping on foot from little store to little store and say 'howdy' as you go. It does a creditable job of recreating Mayberry:

This is the town everyone can love, warm (short) summers of leafy green trees, and miles of hiking trails with gated communities popping up like toadstools all through the woods, this is retirement and tourist country. Burnsville boomed in the 1990s when lots of people came to live in a quiet backwater and, not yet retired, earned their living by running a small store in the town while their other halves commuted forty minutes to Asheville. Burnsville these days has an abundance of small stores struggling to cope with a failing tourist economy. I was reminded, as I always am when we leave Key West how deprived we are in our choices. There were more stores with greater variety in this little mountain town than in our "major city" at the end of the Keys.

And the weather is what a lot of people enjoy,people who are not as heat obsessed as am I...

Nephew #2 was trying to convince me to buy a parka like his against the chill winter weather. I just snorted. My proposal is that next year we celebrate Christmas at our house in the Lower Keys, because I don't propose to ever need such a jacket in my life:

He grew up just outside Burnsville and remembers coming to the Yancey theater with his family. Unhappily the theater was closed "due to icy conditions" a sign proclaimed in it's window. However the film was Bedtime Stories with Adam Sandler so I probably wouldn't have needed to go, had the family let me off the Christmas leash.

As it was we strolled and shopped and heard tales of woe from shopkeepers lamenting lack of trade in the high tourist summer months and a dead Christmas season so I am predicting a very much less vibrant Burnsville to come...We stopped for tea in the tea shop that lives off foreign orders for fancy paper invitations...weird but true. They make paper and ship it round the world, a profitable endeavor that allows them to operate a low key and delicious tea room upstairs:

Yet even the tea shop owners lamented the fact their suppliers of fancy paper are drying up, preferring to make more money selling their paper abroad in their countries of origin, rather than bothering to ship it overseas to Burnsville. The tea shop is a labor of love supported by the profitable paper sales... We walked past the tractor shop, a healthy reminder that some people still do cultivate luscious lawns in the appropriate time of year:

Burnsville, unlike the in-laws' remote mountain home, is served by cellular telephones, and I got to photograph at least one coward huddling out of the freezing wind making a call:

We paid homage to Otway Burns after whom the city was named. The city was founded around 1833 and Otway apparently made a name for himself and his state in the war of 1812, so he got the town named for him:

And there he stands hovering over his city which will in some form, weather the tough times ahead as best it can. Appalachia is no stranger to economic downturns and doubtless they will grow the food we townies in the Keys will only dream about as we fish for grunt and serve them with bland grits.Even though Appalachia and the Keys are as different as possible they do have something in common. I have seen this same plaque on the corner of Peacon Lane and Caroline Street in Key West:

Pretty soon I shall be back in Key West and be able to touch, with ungloved hand, that same message and not get frostbite. What joy.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Celo Community

The first time I went to visit the sister and brother in-law at their home outside Asheville, I drove alone, as my wife who as already there. It was a long arduous drive through mountain roads, in the dark as I had lost the race with the sinking sun. I felt like I was in the back of beyond, far far away from a civilized place when I finally drove up through the bushes to their cabin in Celo:

Even by the light of day their hand built home has a Hansel and Gretel air to it, perched on a knob in the middle of the North Carolina mountains and woods.
I remember stumbling in, out of the cool autumnal night and being greeted by a wood paneled room, a fireplace, a stove and a massive old fashioned kitchen all apparently pumping out heat simultaneously. They took my bags and then an unaccustomed sound rang out, like a clarion call. "You have a phone out here?" I asked incredulously as I struggled to acknowledge where I actually was. That I had called them at the phone many times previously did not occur to me till everyone had stopped laughing. "And we have wine too," my brother in law the connoisseur, reminded me as he poured.Celebrating Hanukkah there this month seemed particularly appropriate in light of the exceptional cold hitting much of the nation, and not sparing western North Carolina. We lit candles this year with especial meaning as the wind howled down the mountains and through the trees giving us the impression we were about to be run down by a truck. When we retreated to our electrically warmed room at the Celo Inn, just off Highway 80, we could hear the wind howling and the rain pounding on the roof, making the place feel like a tent. The elements ravage this part of the world. It's the style around here this German fairy tale architecture, all gables and wooden beams, and at this time of year dead looking deciduous trees. Another guest at the Inn admitted it was her first visit and I encouraged her to come up from Florida in the summer when it is glorious in green. "It's just another kind of beauty," the Innkeeper remarked when I talked about how alive the trees are in summer. So it is another kind of beauty, but I just like green better than dead:
The winding mountain roads around here are lined with leafless trees this time of is the Little Toe River, which runs through the valley:Celo (pronounced: See-low) is a corrupted version of the Italian or Spanish for "heaven," cielo, and for those that seek mountain living it is just that. For those of us pantywaists who think 70 degrees Fahrenheit (27C) is cold, Celo is a nice place to visit, particularly during the three weeks of summer when temperatures go above 80 F and cause the locals to sweat and curse their way through a heatwave. These are people who revel in their ex-urban toughness, who love plaid and wool and mountains hemming them in:From my in-laws front yard one can see Mount Mitchell, reported on elsewhere in this blog as the highest point in the eastern United States:My brother-in-law and his wife are among the oldest members of Celo Community, founded decades ago as a form of communal living in the 1960s style. It is sometimes referred to as a Quaker community but it is not. What it is, is a bunch of land owned in common and the people who ask to join are sponsored and voted in (or out) at community meetings. Home plans are also agreed to by the community by consensus votes and transfer of homes by sale or inheritance also have to garner the community's consensus. It is a laborious and cumbersome way to live, in my opinion, but it suits some people very well. My brother-in-law tells me numbers are up and as far as I can gather there are almost half a hundred families living in Celo Community these days. They are growing vegetables and raising animals:The style of most homes in the area are rural mountain cabins, home to artists and artisans, painters and recluses and gregarious people and tough people in shirt sleeves when it's freezing cold:Celo is not easy to find, it's not a tourist attraction though the community does have a little gift shop and food co-op on Highway 80 close by the Little Toe River. Access to the community is across a bridge next to the Inn:One of the two great institutions of Celo is across the bridge:
When my sister-in-law the physician worked there it was a little wooden house and now they have built this magnificent brick structure. Back in the old days before roads, communications and cell phones (which still mostly don't work around here), the health center was a blessing to the locals who lived in Appalachian isolation, and the clinic still serves a profound community need. One road heads off in front of the clinic all paved and modern:The other, all gravel and dirt and pot holed and wet, turns into the main body of the community, the communal land:And off that winding "main road" that the State wants to modernize and widen and pave with all offsets and sidewalks and stuff that the residents are leery of, there are side roads and paths......with cryptic signs and odd sign posts:And the road winds past open spaces backing into mountain valleys that North Carolinians mysteriously call "coves" as though they had some long lost nautical flavor:The main road through the community branches off past more of these little houses, whose occupants are all known to my family members. It's a bit disconcerting when out walking to get a casual wave from a complete stranger. The fact that one is there at all, is an indicator of belonging in some way, and if I were asked, I'd say I'm with my brother-in-law and they would nod and tell me to take greetings to him. Try that on a street corner anywhere in the USA: This is quite the other world compared to the rushing suburban scene just forty minutes away in Asheville to the southeast. Celo Community has been struggling with self sufficiency in the diet, and my brother in law is excited by the numbers of people seeking refuge in this organic world especially as farming is coming back to Celo as the outside economy offers less income. However so are the deer increasing in numbers and they enjoy snacking on people's vegetable gardens. And because this a consensus driven community they have been debating for four months whether or not to allow hunters to cull deer that are all over the mountains and after an entire hunting season of debate they reached no conclusions. People outside the community mark their turf with these bald signs:Along the line where my Quaker brother-in-laws' garden backs up against the outside world he made up these signs:He was brought up to be polite. I took the dog for a walk, that and updating my blog were easy ways to get away from the pressure cooker of the organizational chaos of ten more or less related people celebrating a holiday. Mason who lives in Asheville with Nephew #1, likes the woods obviously:The centerpiece of Celo Community is the school, which when I think about it gives this whole farming, mountain, alternative living enterprise, a rather domestic flavor. However the back to the land movement here, which seems suddenly less eccentric and more needed as our national economy continues to fail in spectacular fashion, is in fact devoted to the proper raising of children. My wife a woman not driven by a desire to have kids, turned down the opportunity to homestead here decades ago, but for couples seeking those much touted anti- urban values Celo offers land, security in a physical sense (no gates needed) and most importantly the sort of school where ending a sentence with "please" is an instilled value:You have a school with youngsters being taught not just to read and write but how to get along in these unremarkable school buildings, the focus of much attention at community meetings:That spirit of easy going tolerance is exemplified by the Volkswagen bus parked under a shelter nearby. It's not running and hasn't been running for years, as long as I remember. It just sits there. My brother in law said he spoke to the owner recently who, with some embarrassment explained it was a restoration project (the perfect non conformist symbol of course!) and he hadn't quite "got around to it."Procrastination drives me nuts, especially when I see it in myself, and that alone is a good explanation for why I would never do well in Celo. In Celo though, procrastination is just another way of saying that the wheel of life goes around and when it's the right time it will get done, and until then there are lots of other things to occupy our minds and bodies. Celo's way of doing things may one day have to be mass marketed to the unemployed, the foreclosed and the aimless in our new world order, where the discredited free market gives way to shared living. I wonder how we will take to it en masse, the concept of living mindfully?