Friday, May 8, 2009


A distinctive feature of streets in Asheville is they curve. They roll and bend, swoop this way and that. Few are straight, and those that are, often as not, rise and fall. The city is raveled by streets and roads along which you cannot see very far.

I’ve wondered how geography shapes us. I’m not na├»ve enough to suppose that the city’s planners – or the street department – made streets curve the way they do merely by some committee’s intention. The topography must have had something to do with it.

But reason for being is not always easy to distinguish from effect of being. The lay of land may have had the most to do with the trajectories of roads, but the fact the roads turn may have turned city residents and visitors to the point the streets are consistent with our intentions.

What interests are served by curves? Two come to mind: First, the element of surprise, curiosity about what’s around the bend – a curving street may be more interesting, more inviting, than a straight one, at least for the rambler. “Tell all the truth,” sang the poet, “but tell it slant.”

Those looking for the shortest distance between two points find it elsewhere.

Second, the element of deceit, for if I wanted to hide something, I’d find a place where paths, roads, streets, and alleys curved this way and that. Asheville’s neighborhoods are a maze of arteries, a mountain delta, in which a person that wanted could easily get lost.

Isn’t that a feature of mountains generally? Mountains were not engineered by people with secrets, the desire for privacy and hiddenness. But they suit and attract such people.

Consider the hermit, the recluse, the hilltop monk.

Consider the Olympic bomber, the marijuana grower, the methamphetamine cooker, the tax dodger, the escaped convict, the moonshiner and blockade runner. Indeed, the desire for whiskey is not unique to mountaineers, but the reputation for making it and transporting it illegally certainly is an association of mountains.

Perhaps one reason is clear branch water. Surely another is that it’s easier to hide a still in a mountain cove than on a Kansas prairie.

So if Asheville had no choice but to make its streets twist and curve, the terrain itself may have attracted the first Ashevillians and many that followed. I’m not suggesting that we all have something to hide. We may simply have pursued novelty, amusement, and distraction, a desire to be in a place where mysteries wait around the next bend.

I count myself among these immigrants. And perhaps, I’ll admit, the impulse to distraction is itself a sort of deceit. I’ve been thinking about this. When I sit and meditate I sometimes get bored and wander off in search of whatever lies over there, around the bend. I can't stay still.

And when I roam am I not in some way hiding from myself, failing to pay attention to what is just here already?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad I live in Asheville. But I wonder whether, as a population, people who choose to live in mountains are more likely to wonder what’s around the bend, and wander there, while those who live in flatter places, well, they already know.

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