Only in Asheville: An Eclectic History debuts June 8, 2015. Chapter One is posted below as a free preview. Click the Paypal button on this page to buy a signed copy from the author. Plus, you can buy a copy of Legends, Secrets and Mysteries of Asheville using the same link. Same price applies. BUY BOTH FOR $35 + $7 shipping/handling ($42 total).
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Most everyone who encounters Asheville through personal exploration understands this place is different. It may have something to do with Asheville being located in the world’s oldest mountains. The surrounding peaks are steeped in mystery and beckon to the hearts of eclectic, creative souls. There’s also a high concentration of quartz in the mountains. Quartz is known for electromagnetic properties, which may also help explain thismysterious pull—some define it as an energy vortex.
Or maybe it’s because Asheville is on a geographical alignment with a pattern of weird and unexplainable things. Joshua P. Warren thinks so. He’s an Asheville native who has devoted his life’s work to investigating the weird, strange and paranormal. He wrote his first book, Joshua Warren’s Museum of Mystery and Suspense, when he was fourteen. He’s gone on to write many books, including Haunted Asheville and How to Hunt Ghosts. He founded L.E.M.U.R. Paranormal investigations in 1995, and that same year, the Grove Park Inn resort hired him to investigate the inn’s resident ghost, known as “the Pink Lady.”
He’s also the president of his multimedia productions company, Shadowbox Enterprises, and the owner of Haunted Asheville Ghost Tours, and in 2011, he established the Asheville Mystery Museum, located in the basement of Asheville’s Masonic Temple. He published his first novel, The Evil in Asheville, in 2000 and hosts the Speaking of Strange syndicated radio show.
Sitting at the bar at Olive or Twist, across from the Masonic Temple, Warren revealed something that makes so much sense when considering why Asheville is such a weird, eccentric and quirky place:
If you start with Asheville and you draw a line going east, you pass through the Brown Mountain area, where you have the Brown Mountain Lights. Then you pass the area where you have the Devil’s Tramping Ground, this big barren circle where nobody knows why nothing will grow there. If you keep drawing that line, you’ll hit the coast of North Carolina, where so many ships have sunk they call it the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Draw that line off the coast and you hit Roanoke Island, the very first English settlement, where they arrived in 1590. All of them vanished, so it’s now known as the “Lost Colony.” Keep drawing that line out and you’ll hit the island of Bermuda at the top point of the so-called Bermuda Triangle. So it’s like we are part of a vast alignment of strangeness here. Some people would consider this the jewel of the crown. It seems to be part of a geometric pattern.
Warren has cultivated an international reputation as a paranormal expert, and as such, radio stations from all over the world interview him frequently. He’s become even more aware of Asheville’s allure by the reaction he receives when he tells program hosts where he’s from. “Right off the bat, they’ll say, ‘Oh wow, that’s one of the most haunted, spookiest, weird places,’ and they also consider it a wealthy, higher-class place now, so it seems like it’s been a combination of wealthy people coming here, bringing resources and looking for entertainment, and some sort of shift that took place around the 1990s of people expecting a new phase of spiritualism connected to the mountains here.”
In my own lifetime, when I was allowed to start coming down here on field trips and that kind of thing, most of this town seemed pretty dead. There wasn’t much happening in that period of the 1980s. A lot of the area was pretty run-down. I would say it was sometime around the time I started writing Haunted Asheville, which was around the early to mid-1990s, when all of these New Age shops started to appear, and you had people like James Redfield, author of the Celestine Prophesy, going on CBS News and calling Asheville the “New Age Capital of the World.” Once that happened, it seemed like the ball was irrevocably set in motion, and more and more of these workshops began appearing and more Bohemian street performers started showing up and it has just continued to exponentially grow until now.
When it comes to Asheville, Warren says it’s the people who make the place so eclectic and different:
You have people who are dressed in combinations from different cultures—some of them ancient, some of them unknown. Each has their own interpretation of philosophy and spiritualism, and most are more than happy to share it with you for better or for worse. Of wizard, warlock, witch, mystic and mystifier, and they are strewn randomly about the city, and we can’t forget this is Beer City now and so I think, as usual, alcohol is just the right fuel for some of the profound wisdom that you hear espoused by these prophets on a late night.
You don’t know if you are going to run into a bartender who knows all about quantum physics or a vagabond who can play the banjo like you’ve never seen in your life, or if you’re going to meet someone who is absolutely demented and warped out of their mind. You never know what you’re going to get. That’s the weirdest thing. When people say Asheville’s weird, that’s what they are usually thinking. All of the paranormal stuff is quite normal compared to that.
Deep, Slow Energy
The energy in Asheville and surrounding mountains is “very deep and slow and strengthening,” as described by Byron Ballard. She also cautions that it demands profound respect:
There’s always new energy moving into this area. I am blessed when I am sitting at my computer table at home to look out over the French Broad River and know I am looking at the third-oldest river in the world, situated in the oldest mountains in the world. I tell folks all the time thinking that it’s a New Age capital—that it’s not all going to be lovely and glowing like Portland. That’s not what the energy is here. The energy here requires you to come into relationship with the land, and if you don’t do that or can’t do that, Asheville spits you out. That’s a part of Asheville we don’t talk about much. It is welcoming here because it’s a tourist town, so there’s kind of a surface welcome to everyone—“Sure, c’mon in”—but to actually be part of here requires a kind of quietness of spirit to connect on a deeper level.
Ballard, a native, comes from a long line of ancestors who made their home in the Western North Carolina mountains. She’s a Wiccan High Priestess, author and workshop leader. About six years ago, she was one of eight founders who created the Mother Grove Goddess Temple in Asheville, and she later established a business as “Asheville’s Village Witch.”
She grew up knowing that members of her family had special skills and talents and that she, as a female member of the family, would also receive some sort of gift. Today, she considers herself a “forensic folklorist” and is invested in collecting mountain spells and preserving “hillfolk hoodoo,” a form of Appalachian folk magic. She’s the author of several books, including Staubs & Ditchwater: An Intro to HillFolks’ Hoodoo. She noted:
I come from a family that has for at least four or five generations back been called witches, but what that meant was not a religious thing at all because they were also good Methodists. My great-grandfather was one of the founders of the Methodist Church locally, and my grandmother sang in the choir at Haywood Street Methodist. But they had a set of abilities and skills. There were people in my family who could do hands-on healing, and my grandmother had precognitive dreams. She would wake up knowing what the dream had meant, but she never told anyone what the dream was because she was afraid if she did it would never come to her again.
Ballard’s knitting needles softly click, providing a cadence to her melodic voice as she recalled a childhood steeped in love for the mountains, the abundant varieties of plants and wildlife and mythology. She took four years of Latin in high school and became the statewide expert in mythology when she was a teenager. She lived for a time in London and also in Texas when she was in graduate school, but she soon came home to the place she loves.
Dr. Milton Ready, a retired UNCA history professor, has witnessed the evolution of Asheville and chronicled its uniqueness in a variety of articles and books, including Remembering Asheville. Currently dividing his time between Landrum, South Carolina, and Wolf Laurel, North Carolina, he recently drove into Asheville on a brutally cold January day to discuss how Asheville has become known as one of the most interesting places on
“I have a name for Asheville—it’s the ‘Granola Ghetto,’” Ready said. “I use that term a lot. It’s not as freaky as it once was in the ’90s, but that freaky sort of culture—the Goth culture—is one of the keys to Asheville’s charm and salability. I’ve had so many tell me that when they got off the plane and went into downtown Asheville, they would just hang around and that they never wanted to leave. Of course, it’s thirty-five minutes from skiing and hiking, with all the mountains around, and people think it’s a charming and manageable city.”
In his article, “How Asheville Came to Be the Most Interesting Small City in America,” Ready talks about how Asheville organically morphed into a place of peace, love and understanding following a long renaissance in the 1980s. He says city leaders worked to revitalize downtown around “streetscapes, a downtown health adventure, a state-of-the-art theatre, museum, an urban trail, a restored Grove Arcade and a protected historic district.”
Ready wrote, “For them, Asheville once again would become the cultural, artistic, crafts, literary commercial, and political center of western North Carolina it had been in the 1920s, a tourist heaven but assuredly not the new freak capital of the nation. Asheville’s visionaries did not foresee a born-again hippie culture that resembled that of the 1960s, only with more pierced body parts and less political angst.”
He’s enjoyed watching Asheville evolve over the years and said, “I think it’s a wonderful street show.” Change, however, is constant, and Asheville will continue to expand and grapple with new joys and new headaches along the way.
“The old Asheville was a fun city, unpolluted, un-congested, with no traffic problems. This is the new Asheville. I do think Asheville is at another one of those turning points. Affordable housing is one of the keys to the future,” said Ready. “The Vanderbilts, the Coxes and the Groves are gone in Asheville. Now you have middle-class, a little older, semi-retired people coming here, and Asheville’s future is tied more to them than the schemers and dreamers who built giant hotels and grand houses.”
Younger people are also flocking to town, as today’s Asheville attracts a hipper crowd along with young families looking for a great community in which to raise their kids.
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