Thursday, June 26, 2008

River (Paddle and) Walk

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Today's walk began with a French Broad River paddle from car park on Amboy Road to a point on the river opposite where Jonestown Road intersects Riverside Drive in Woodfin (about five miles downstream from the put-in). Then I walked back to the put-in along Riverside Drive (the first couple of miles I walked on the railroad tracks beside the road), right on Lyman, along Lyman to Amboy Road, and across Amboy bridge. Paddle began at 9:45 am. Walk ended at 3 pm.

Overarching sense was that the city had turned its back on the river.

Setting off
Downtown bridges
I put in beside the river overlook, upstream of Amboy bridge, along the greenway along the riverbank. There was an old guy smoking a cigar and watching his dog, a collie-shepherd mix, sniff around. Another fellow showed up in an SUV with a big husky. The two dogs, and two men, knew each other. The newcomer and his dog walked off. The guy with the cigar asked if I was going fishing or just paddling. I told him that I was just paddling. He spoke as if he’d run the river through town before, seemed to wish I’d invite him and his dog along. He talked all the while as I untied the boat, carried it to the shoreline, which involved a six-foot drop at river’s edge, and as I put paddles and gear in the canoe and locked up the truck. It was a good, friendly start to the trip.

I sort of wished he had joined me. But I was also glad to be paddling alone.

The day was warm already. Sun hot. The water was slow, languid in most places, except where there were rocks and riffles of current at drops. The river was low so the banks were exposed and all the debris that people toss into the stream: old tires mainly but also soda bottles and cups, cardboard and packaging, fishing line. And then there were the tree trunks and other more natural litter washed down by floods, some of it hanging quite high in the branches. Real contrasts: drought time water levels, memories of floods.

The river turns north about a hundred yards or more after I put in, under Amboy bridge, past the river park, over a small ledge.

From a canoe the river seems to earn the name “broad.” Since it was shallow, a number of times I had to zig and zag across its width to find a way through. The water was clear. I could see thick greenish brown algae on the rocks. Lots of fish, which I assumed by their length and grace to be trout but learned from two fishermen at the end of my run were probably small-mouth bass. The way the sun plays with the amber-colored water made me think they were trout.

A great number of birds stood in the water or perched over head or flew past: kingfishers, herons both great blue and green, ducks, geese, doves. No turtles; I was surprised. Once I saw a bump on the water’s surface that I thought was a muskrat’s head but it was a floating log. Forest and trees along the river banks. Though the river flows right through town, you’d never know it. It’s not like there are ports or riverfront walks or docks or lots of access points. Or any access points. Even where I got on the river at the “river park” it was not easy actually to get on the river. They had a couple of decks from which to look at the water. Nothing to facilitate getting on it.

Indeed, my overall sense of Asheville’s relationship to the river was that the city had turned its back on it.

Perhaps that is changing, but slowly. As I said, there’s lots of trash, tires, debris that’s floated down stream.

The only people to face the river head on are houseless folks who camp along its banks. I counted ten camps between the river park and an area south of Woodfin. They seemed especially to like the area between railroad tracks and river, where the railroad tracks run along the western otherwise unpopulated side of the river. Nice looking camps, with trim backpacking tents and wash hanging in branches. I was tempted to stop and chat. But they didn’t know me, and I can’t imagine they’d have appreciated some stranger with house and wallet showing up just like that in a boat wanting to interview them about their camping experiences.

A friend who has worked with homeless folks in Asheville later pointed out that a good number of these fellows along the river suffer from mental illnesses, and some of them are quite anxious about strangers approaching them. “Especially from the water,” he said. “That’s supposed to be the safe side. They expect people to come from the land side. Not the water side. That could have really flipped them out.”

I’m an anthropologist, interested in “others.” And yet I sometimes wonder about this interest.

Don’t I, in a sense, create their otherness with my interest? Don’t I exoticize them? And yet I do hold onto the notion that witnessing others’s experiences is valuable, necessary, human. Better than turning my back. It’s an ongoing dilemma. Why are those houseless men along the river more interesting to me than anyone else? What about graffiti artists? Why are Gabra camel herders, with whom I’ve lived and worked and about whom I have written – why are they more interesting to me than my own neighbors? It’s their difference, of course. But difference is everywhere, and I wonder how useful the idea of degree-of-difference actually is: is my wife, Carol, really so much less different from me, or my brother or mother or friend, than someone of a different society or class? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Genetically we humans are all almost identical. And yet we look and behave and think and want and avoid in so many different ways.
Warehouses on shore
This is in the city
I especially enjoyed paddling beneath the bridges, which caught the reflection of the sun off the water. Under one was a colony of cliff swallows (I think), flying in circles and visiting the apartment complexes they’d built with mud up in the groins of the bridge posts. Like small grey clay pots.

All the way along I saw the backs of warehouses and factories, up beyond the line of trees. Here and there was evidence of fishing: a stoop, a bench, a chair, old fishing line caught in a tree. The only fishermen I saw, however, were two young men at the take-out in Woodfin, the ones catching smallmouth bass.

Plastics in Woodfin (east bank of river)
Riverside Drive
Aikido in Woodfin
Railroad overpass
Outside a tobacco warehouse
MOMS is everywhere (Lyman Street)
An official griffito
I stopped at a bank that seemed less steep, lower to the water, than others. It was beginning to concern me that the bank was everywhere so high I’d never be able to get the canoe out without getting completely muddy. Here I found a grassy patch of trees and a low bank and I stood on the shore, which was muddy but not deep mud. I pulled the canoe up to my chest and pushed it onto the bank, which lay at about shoulder height. Then I climbed up myself. I ate lunch on a rock, tied the boat to a tree, tucked paddles and gear beneath, and set off on foot with my keys and camera to walk back to the truck.

The map tells me this was about six miles back along Riverside Drive. It was, in some ways, the more interesting stretch, though it paralleled the river run. Human life along Riverside Drive faces the street, and in that way addresses people along the street. I never felt addressed, called to, noticed, while I was on the river. But here on the road were signs and storefronts and doorways and windows that invited me or looked out at me and called for my attention.

Still, there were few people on foot. I notice this everywhere I go in Asheville: the relative scarcity of walkers (downtown and my own neighborhood may be key exceptions). They’re out there. We’re out there. But compared to those in cars, we’re a tiny minority. There was no sidewalk, for instance, along Riverside Drive. And in places the shoulder was narrow or not existent. I walked the railroad track as much as I could to be safe from the speeding cars.

That was another interesting thing to note: that the road and rails tracked the river. That human geography had been shaped at least in some few but significant ways by the natural topography. Of course they did. The roads, like the water, took the path of least resistance.

The pictures speak for themselves. They reveal abandoned buildings. Graffiti on walls. Dirt and clutter by the roadside. It seems such a shame that the city would not find more ways than it does to enjoy the river.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

AB Tech Walk (with Neil Thomas)

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Neil Thomas and I walked from Montford (he picked me up on foot at my house on Pearson) to AB Tech to visit Pete Kennedy, GIS and map-making expert, to talk about the Citizen-Times "ning" on "Changing Places." We walked back by a different route and stopped at the Green Man Brewery for a beer and where Neil was meeting an old friend. I walked home from there alone. One thing that struck me on this walk was when I was walking and taking pictures I felt like a tourist, but when I put the camera away and was walking home alone at around 6 p.m. with a day pack on my back, I felt like a houseless man heading for the mission. These "felt likes" are of course projections. But it's curious how I imagine people in cars view people, like me, who are on foot. Who walks in this town? What does walking mean?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

East End-Kennilworth Walk

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Today's walk took me up over Beaucatcher ridge from East End (the parking lot of the city school board on Mountain Road), down into Kennilworth, around the ridge's southern nose, and finally back up the western side of the ridge into East End. Find walk photos at Flickr:

I tell my students that ethnography is an intimate look at a small slice of human experience. What I am doing with these walks -- because of their quick, in-out, superficiality -- feels like the antithesis of ethnographic work. But these surveys are, I think, a necessary preparation. I am walking "transects" of Asheville, getting a broad feel through my eyes and feet for the city's landscapes and variations. Later on I'll settle in.

Today's walk took me up over Beaucatcher ridge from East End (the parking lot of the city school board on Mountain Road), down into Kennilworth, around the ridge's southern nose, and finally back up the western side of the ridge into East End. For anyone unfamiliar with Asheville, East End is historically one of Asheville's African-American neighborhoods, largely demolished by so-called urban renewal, reduced to a fraction of its former self. Kennilworth is one of the city's older, more affluent, and largely white neighborhoods.

I was never more aware than during today's walk of Asheville's geographic and demographic variations: a working class neighborhood made of tiny box houses and trim, crew-cut lawns would suddenly give way to Tudor houses and dense gardens and old, storied trees, and around the corner, small bungalows and even a couple log cabins. Likewise, crowded development on one street would end, and then I might have been walking along a forest lane. It gave me goosebumps to see this variety so close to city center.

The variation won't last. Not all of it, anyway: I came upon builders in the forests developing dense gated communities on once green slopes above town. Like Tolkien's Ents, the woods seemed threatened as I walked through them. Of course, that perspective expresses a bias for a particular scenario, one that preserves trees. There are other biases. Put another way, development on the slopes seemed assured.