Welcome to Shangri La

Carol H’s Review:  Ethel’s gutsy verve, Julie Andrews’ Sound of Music sweeping mountain vistas, and Hannibal Lector’s ominous basement hideaway–what’s next?  Can’t wait to discover what creative musings bubble up from this eclectic cauldron of thought.

Our first night in our new town was distinguished by the midnight arrival of the local police.  My husband and I had settled into one of those long-term stay motels on the edge of town, just off the freeway to the south of city proper, waiting for the dust to settle with the snarled purchase of our desired property.  It was not exactly a storybook introduction to Asheville.

Funk and Funky

We felt as though we had landed on the set of Duck Dynasty.  We quickly became familiar with the cast of characters inhabiting this crossroads way station in the mountains of western North Carolina.  Most of our fellow inhabitants did their socializing and smoking in the parking lot, allowing for daily interactions as we passed through the tobacco cloud looking for the car.  The parking lot gang was a friendly gathering, greeting us each day with smiles and inquiries as to our well-being. They were a collection of people who lacked that “we’re on vacation” vibe.  Some looked as though they lived in their vehicles, others looked worn with life’s travels.  This motel was a layover for all of us, a short-term lease on a lengthier journey.  The stories of those journeys we could only guess.  We could not identify who called the police on whom in the middle of the night, but the screaming and pounding ceased immediately upon their arrival.  We hoped that venturing out into the city would shake off the motel-off-the-freeway blues.  We wandered around downtown and haunted our would-be neighborhood in fun and funky West Asheville. 

Mountains !

 I immediately became confused by the roadways and compass points.  I am of the urban culture of north/south and east/west and grids of streets that go in these precise directions.  The first thing I noticed about the new town’s streets was that straight lines do not exist.  Though Asheville isn’t a large city, I could easily get lost here.  The hilly roadways felt dizzyingly vertical.  My antiquated GPS often appeared as if it wanted to send me off the side of a cliff!   Arriving in Shangri La and still having to find the grocery store is like being halfway to heaven when someone yanks you downward by the ankles!  Once again, which way is downtown?  The answer to this one left me stupefied because in West Asheville, people can point in two different directions and both will be correct.  You just have to find your way to a bridge and cross it, I was told. There’s a river.  It does not travel in a straight line.  I bought a street map and became, Buddhist-like, one with it. Taking a deep breath, I realigned my consciousness into a curvilinear orientation.

When it came time to choose a house, I sent my husband to Asheville without me.  I know, I know….what foolishness.  I had a list of a few “must haves” and so did he.  On top of my wish list was proximity to the bus line.  His top priority was a basement for his wood shop.  I kept working in Houston as he toured our future town with a realtor.  He found it!  A cute little bungalow in the perfect location (that is, near the top of a real hill with no bodies of water in sight).  Pictures arrived via text.  Inside, outside, all around the town.  Perfect. Perfect.  Perfect. Chosen, offer accepted, closing date set.  My husband returned and we packed up our belongings, ready to start this adventure.  Our joyous anticipation came to a screeching halt.  Issues with the property lines meant that the actual purchase of this enchanting cottage had been stalled.  We started looking at other houses online, but I was emotionally attached to this one, even though, mind you, I had never seen it. We left Houston with the acquisition of our Asheville home in limbo.  After a bit of sweating and moaning (not the good kind) on both sides, sellers and buyers were finally able to come together to close the deal.

Mad Wife Room

On closing day, I got my first look.  Small, so small.  But still cute.  The back yard a charmer, the kitchen was the best we, that is he, saw in our price range.  The basement.  When I first walked down those steep, narrow stairs, painted blood red, my heart sank.  It was clean and dry, but in the laundry section, the floor had also once been painted red.  It was now blotched with red paint around a drain in the floor.  I started calling it The Silence of the Lambs Basement. There was an old shower head over that drain, right in the middle of the room.  And a refrigerator. I was afraid to look inside.  One small room was built next to the laundry with dark paneling on the walls, inside and out.  The door had a latch on the outside.  That latch made my skin crawl.  Why on earth would you put a latch on the outside of a room—only to keep someone or something safely inside. Mr. Rochester’s mad-wife room?  Or was the mad person on the outside, victim within?  Good thing we could see the mountains from our front porch.

Our new house/chalet/casita was built in 1945.  Though some things, like the heat pump and air conditioner, windows, hideous bathroom fixtures and kitchen outlets were clearly updated, it maintained the character of a 1940’s cottage:  tiny closets, inadequate kitchen cupboards, woefully few grounded outlets, plumbing haphazardly patched since the end of WWII and an ancient front door that would not open!  So, some improvements could be done with the place.  We had it painted top to bottom, replaced the Roosevelt-era plumbing and then moved in with one pot, a brand-new bed (just delivered) and a few travel-weary plants.  Our belongings arrived a week later.

I suddenly shifted into space-policing mode, in that we had so little space and I was determined to keep some in the home for walking about.  I began to question each item that my husband unpacked and brought up from the basement.  No clutter, no clutter!  I agonized about what was needed on a daily basis, what was needed on a seasonal basis, what could be donated to Goodwill.  Goodwill was going to be a lot happier than my husband.  Sentiment be damned—donate Grandma’s china.  If there’s no room for it in the kitchen, it will never be used.  If it is never used, why keep it in a box in the basement?  “Because we can” was the answer.  He thinks I don’t see him when he sneaks up more barware to cram into the already overloaded kitchen cupboards. 

Setting up computers, stereo, stuff that gets plugged in became an issue.  None of the outlets were grounded except those in the kitchen and bathroom.  Clearly something had to be done.  We were stringing extension cords from the little office room to the littler bathroom.  If I wanted to sit at the dining room table with my computer, I had to run a cord into the kitchen.  I feared someone would trip and hit their head on the treacherously close fixtures. I feared it would be me.  A list was slowly being created for future projects, for convenience and safety and for twenty-first century living. 

Then our son arrived, post-college.  We let him have the mad-wife room in the basement as a private space. We could even lock him in should the need arise.  We three all had different priorities when it came to the enhancements to the house that would be the most useful.  My husband set up his woodshop in the basement, my son arranged his belongings in the mad-wife room (we are still thinking about removing the latch) and I rented a desk in a co-operative work space downtown.  Things started to settle down and the improvements list started growing.  The checking off of items has been maddeningly slow.  I finally convinced my basement dwellers that perhaps the radon remediation system would be an ideal project to expedite.  The air quality down there is now clear, I’m happy to say, enough for a skin-loving psycho with a knife to safely perfect his craft.

Shortly after settling in, we began to look for ways to enjoy our new surroundings.  We walked.  That is why we moved to West Asheville. The nearby shops and restaurants beckoned seductively.  The neighborhoods, with their hills and charming old houses, enchantingly called out to be explored.  Our neighborhood has no sidewalks, so we walked in the street.  We would move over when we heard or saw cars coming our way.  Shockingly, the drivers of these cars would lift a hand from the steering wheel with an unfamiliar gesture.  “What was that?” my husband said as we watched a vehicle pass us. “I think….I think that may have been a friendly wave,”  I hesitantly offered.  So it seemed.  Everyone that passed us lifted a hand off the steering wheel, not separating any one finger from the others.  It was shocking yet downright friendly-feeling.  Without thought or planning we adopted what we have come to call the Asheville wave. 


We ventured downtown for festivals and to sample the numerous restaurants and breweries.  We drove into the mountains, along the Blue Ridge Parkway and stopped to hike or just gawk at the spectacular views.  All summer long, we explored our new home town.  We put off continuous updating of the house (which I finally dubbed The Hobbit House) until the season we would be spending more time in it.  We had that “I’m on vacation” vibe and we didn’t want anything as mundane as calling electricians to get in the way of our enjoyment.  Perhaps our new town is not the Shangri-La we had envisioned.  Garbage cans still need to be rolled to the curb, cheapest downtown parking scouted out, grocery prices cussed over.  But there are mountains and cool air and we are happy to have made this journey. Even if we can’t get in through the front door.

Stay weird my friends,


Carol H is a fellow writer on the journey.  We bonded over the rocks on the counter at Fractals Coffee Shop.  I was beaming as I read her review!  Her editing helped make the story more concise and not as weird as it could have been.  In a good way.


  1. Front doors be damned! Who needs the darn things!! Ha ha ha

  2. Rita A Bouwman

    Really enjoyed reading about your adventure! it’s the first time I’ve read anything of yours, since we had our poetry club in sixth grade!

    • Oh, love your comment Rita. Now everyone will know about poetry club. I think I still have some of the poems I wrote!

  3. OMG! What could be better for a starved blog reader than another dose of dear Ethel complete with a pithy quote from none other than Carol H! My life is complete (for now). More please. Soon. Sooner.
    Seriously, your voice is extraordinary. I love reading your perspective.
    Regarding the matter of getting around Asheville, this is a town with a stretch of highway that is signed as 240 West and 26 East – going in the same direction! Can the Twilight Zone top that? Don’t think it’s you. The highways and streets are designed late night in breweries just before closing time.
    Did I ask for more? Now?

  4. This one made me laugh out loud several times.

    I’m mostly from here, but my husband is from Alaska, which is also a place of towns, albeit very tiny towns, on grids. One of my highlight moments with him was the first time we pulled up to a five-way intersection. “What the hell ass is this shit?!” The look on his face!

    I always told folks that I grew up in a place where one could literally walk uphill, both ways to school. 🙂

    • Traffic circles, roundabouts, weird-ass intersections that come at you in all directions! Let’s take a moment to wonder what type of drugs the architects of these motorways were using when they came up with these fiascoes!

  5. That was a fun read!
    “…I think that may have been a friendly wave………no one finger separated from the others……” lol!
    Fresh, cool air…………sigh…………

    • We have an airport. It brings people here where there is cool air. Shouldn’t you be one of them dearest sister/friend?

  6. Anne Piervincenzi

    Cheryl, you are truly a breath of fresh air! ???????

  7. 20 years ago when I moved here, thought I lost my mind with the roads, One road with three names. The weird thing was the locals didn’t see a problem. welcome to Asheville Ethel !!!

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