Beginnings happen somehow. That's part of what it means to be a beginning, and after awhile, it doesn't matter how it happened -- just that it did.
In journalism, we're told beginnings are all we have, and the worst beginnings are endings too. They're where people stop reading. And you don't just begin once. Every sentence, it seems, must be some kind of beginning, leading to the next, arresting the gaze, which on the internet strays so easily. So they say.
I've been a journalist for seven years -- long enough to have some anxiety about relentless beginnings. Long enough to believe there are other ways to tell stories.
I'm going to tell you a story now that I heard from a friend. I could have picked any story so long as I chose. So long as I started.
And then I'll tell you what I'm starting.
Nancy Alenier moved to Marshall, North Carolina, where I have lived for just over a year, from Atlanta in 1976. She and her partner had impressive jobs working in mental health and animal research, respectively, and they had been living in a homestead community on the north side of town. All the land is paved over now, and they must have sensed that change coming. That's why they left.
"We were members of the first wave of hippie transplants," she told me.
You'll find these members everywhere still. The photographer Rob Amberg moved here in 1973, and he described the urge to transplant in "The Sodom Laurel Album," which you should read if you were interested enough in Madison County to read this far.
"People were beginning to move into the mountains -- refugees from the 1960s, employees of the federal anti-poverty programs, people with money, retirees ... and wanderers like me. Within a couple of years I found four other natives of Montgomery County, Maryland, living within five miles of me, all of us seeking some indefinable connection with a place we knew little about."
Nancy and her man found a place on Hickory Flats, out past Walnut. The road breaks off the main drag to Hot Springs and traverses a narrow creek valley before sharply climbing. It's not as remote as Madison County gets, but it's certainly not central.
They took a day to get settled into the house, and another day to go into Marshall and open bank accounts and run errands.
On the third day, they drove into Asheville to stock up on supplies. There was no bypass then, and they took the route along the river. The two-lane highway is crammed between a rock face and the water, and if you look through the trees on the opposite side, you can spot the train tracks, skirting cargo up the bank against a backdrop of forest. In Madison County, the old roads are built alongside the rivers and creeks. That's the only place to find two cars' breadth of flat land.
There's no sign marking the transition from Buncombe to Madison County, at least not today. I looked. The road is so windy, and the rocks protrude into the shoulder, and there's just nowhere to put a two-legged sign, the sort the DOT uses to mark this transition.
But E.Y. Ponder knew where the county line was. At that point, he'd been sheriff of Madison County for decades, first elected in 1950, unseated in 1966, and reelected in 1970.
Nancy was cruising toward him on her way back from Asheville, but she didn't know it. All she saw was a figure in the center of the narrow road.
"This little old man in a navy blue suit (had) a fucking rifle pointed at our car," Nancy said. "He looks in our car, and he looks around, and he says, 'Y'all just moved up on Hickory Flats. You can go on.'"
Three days was all it took for E.Y. to match their faces with their address -- and who knows what other details of their lives.
Nancy found out later he was looking for an escaped inmate. There's a prison not far away in Buncombe County.
I heard this story a few weeks ago, and I've been retelling it ever since for different reasons. Sometimes because it's impressive. Other times because it's creepy that E.Y. would have that much insight into peoples' private lives. And sometimes because it's such a contrast to contemporary policing, which seems impersonal.
It's ambiguous, and that's why I like it. Is E.Y. the hero or the antagonist? Is he a paternalistic figure or a lunatic with a rifle? Is he cunning and wise, or is he invasive? I certainly won't pretend to know.
This story is life. There are no good guys. There are no bad guys. Everyone is both. This blog, about the historic jail my fiancee and I bought with three partners, will often traverse the territory of supposed good guys and bad guys, lawmen and criminals. But if these stories stand for anything, they stand for ambiguity, for the complexity of life, for the richness of experience that drives us to seek and exalt the stories of others.
I left my job at the daily newspaper in Asheville recently to focus on the stories of the jail. They're not about me. My era at the jail is a tiny sliver so far. The cornerstone was laid in 1903. We've owned the building for about a year.
I can't help but tell you these stories the way I hear them. I have no pretension to authority. I only know I don't know anything. Even Nancy is new to Madison County, not having been born here, not having had family here for generations.
This page is a chronicle of research I'm conducting and stories I hear as I seek to create a small multimedia exhibit for the building as we renovate it. It's not a history. It's not an authoritative account. It's not without bias and complication. It's an exploration, and it has begun. I hope you'll come along.