Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Claremont via Ashville

Look for the next edition of the "Coasting in Noblesville" series on Thursday. Taking a brief detour.

Monday the 24th:
When a Realtor goes on vacation, it’s never entirely a vacation. In the first two hours out of Noblesville this morning, the phone rang often enough that I found myself at a grocery store Starbucks in Cincinnati doing a little house research and sending a quick flurry of emails.

Back on the road, between the white lines.

In northern Kentucky, trees in dull, muted colors stand atop the sharp edges of gray limestone cliffs that rise up at either side of the road. But between Lexington and Knoxville the trees explode in a firestorm of reds, oranges and yellows. The boulders amid the rock walls here are rounded and yellow. A natural spring trickles out of a hundred foot tall stone wall, splattering onto the right lane. A truck mists it across my windshield.

Soon the road falls back into lowlands along a lake and then a river. I do not know their names.

My iPhone, in a can koozy on the dash bleeps a calendar alert. I peek and notice it’s reminding me today is someone’s birthday. I recall typing that into my phone earlier in the year, even then with a clear idea of the gift I would give. But the calendar alert might as well be a phantom limb. The gift was not given. Was this friend an emotional bulimic – someone who binges upon, then purges intimate relationships?

I notice David Bowie’s Heroes is alight on the Sirius Radio readout. I punch the On button and flip the volume to max, letting Bowie blast the dark vibe out the window.

But I quickly switch back to Ryan Adams’ new album of stripped down guitars and piano. It’s turned out to be the perfect soundtrack for this trip among the turning leaves and winding highways. I’m coincidentally heading toward Ryan Adams territory – North Carolina. I won’t go as far as his hometown, the melancholy subject of his song Jacksonville Skyline. I’ll stop just past Hickory.

Mid-afternoon I am in that picturesque, snaking, seemingly endless gorge that connects Gatlinburg to Ashville. At times the slate walls, dotted with pine stubble, rise so high they nearly block out the perfect blue sky. Clouds of leaves fall from trees along the ridges and swirl in mini-tornados just above the asphalt. The silver Mercedes ahead pierces the vortex and leaves the scatter across my windshield.

I’ve never made this drive down 40 alone. I stop for gas at a small cluster of buildings in the darkest, most wooded depths of the gorge and realize I’ve stopped at this very gas station before, perhaps a dozen years ago with my wife and kids when we were headed for Blowing Rock. I recall being in the parking lot with them, hustling the kids out of and back into the car.

They are not kids anymore; one is in Japan, another is at college, and the youngest is a high school junior. And their mother and I are separated.

Late afternoon I stop at a coffee shop in Ashville just down the street from the Biltmore. I sit outdoors, drinking tea with honey on this priceless autumn day among college kids and aging hippies. This beautiful town is in its evening rush hour. A train passes beyond a line of trees. At the table next to mine a pretty young girl and an elderly woman sip at bottles of blackberry Izze soda and dote over a German shepherd drowsing on the bricks between them.

I text Shari my location so she’ll know I’m getting near, “Sipping tea in Ashville.”

She responds, “Lucky Duck.”

For months Shari noticed my melancholy postings on Facebook and finally offered, “Why don’t you come down here and stay with us for a week? You can have a room upstairs and just spend your time writing.”

I’ve never taken that luxury in all my years of writing. Men who golf or fish gladly go off for a week to enjoy it. But most of my writing has been done in stolen moments. Ideas frantically jotted down on the back of a muffler shop receipt while at a stop light get typed up before bed that night. For an hour at lunch or a couple hours after dinner in the evening I’ll sit with my laptop and organize my thoughts. Not sure if I can do it a whole week. But I’m willing to try.

I arrive at Shari’s little farm at the edge of this tiny town. We eat gumbo and talk until late, catching up.

Tuesday the 25th:
This morning I sat with her at the “back table” at the local cafĂ© with an assortment of old men. The place has a low ceiling and wood-grained paneling. With a plate of eggs and grits before me, Sam, a round-faced man in overalls says, “You know, Shari’s the prettiest smart girl in town.” I’m tempted to take the bait and ask where she fits in among women of a broader range of I.Q., but Shari beats me to it. Sam smiles but does not respond.

He tells me that though he quit drinking 15 years ago, he’s going to drink some peach-brandy next year on his 85th birthday. Shari pats the table in front of me, “Ya know he’s talkin’ ‘bout moonshine.” Sam is defensive, “But it’s made with real peaches!”

I’m desperately seeking a wifi signal. Eventually we’re sitting at the only coffee shop in town. I crack open my laptop, deal with a property inspection at home and respond to a short list of business emails. Shari gives me a get a quick tour of town.

By afternoon I find myself on her back deck with my laptop computer and finally, here, I am writing. Shari is upstairs writing, too. She actually earns a living at it. She reappears occasionally to tell me a story or listen to one of mine, or just sit in the metal swing rocker and talk to her boyfriend on her blackberry.

She and I were teenagers once. We looked out for each other.

It’s another perfect autumn day. The leaves are just now starting to fall here. They land on my keyboard. The wooded lawn falls away from the deck toward a red barn, perhaps 40 yards away. Shari’s horse appears and then disappears from behind the barn, grazing in the brilliant sunlight. I write a little, then stop to read from among Shari’s stories published in the stack of magazines beside me, then write a little more.

And so here I have written 1,100 words and it is 5:00. Have I earned the right to run to the grocery store and buy a lemon for my gin and tonic?

I think so. It’s vacation after al

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