Feb 3, 2020
When I was 18, I bought a Willys Jeep for $300, and it had big tires on it and it was made for the beach. But I drove it to North Carolina and moved to the mountains of Asheville. Asheville, North Carolina. And I lived in this house that was almost on top of a mountain, so it was up a dirt road, about five, six miles or more, actually. It was nice, it had grapes and it had a little stream that ran down and fed a pond, or a lake, a little lake. That little branch also ran down the street that I lived on. It was only, like, two inches of water coming down this little stream, it was a little, tiny thing. It went all the way down to another house that was a beautiful log cabin, and the lady that moved in there with her husband wanted a beautiful, big grass lawn, like perfect turf and everything. So they did, they fixed this house up and made it beautiful.
And then there was Mr. Garrett, who owned a big hog farm and pig farm and cows and all, and he had a wonderful place. Lots of stinky horse manure and everything that you get when you’re at a farm. Really nicely run farm. He had part of his leg missing from an accident, so he was already a disaster. And then on down there was another guy named Wells who I had never met before, and he had his leg cut off in a disaster, too, a natural disaster. These people, these really were all my neighbors. They all had disasters on this road. And they were poor, they didn’t have any money, they were dirt-poor. Farmers, they had their little allotments for tobacco, and when they didn’t have that, they couldn’t pay their taxes. And the people from New York were coming in and taking their property.
So this is what was happening. I had friends at Mars Hill College, which is pretty famous, and I drove to Mars Hill to spend a weekend. It was this Friday night, Saturday morning when I woke up, and like, branches everywhere. Trees and branches, everything was covered with debris. I said, oh my God. Well, we’ll see what happens, you know? I get in the car and I drive to Marshall, North Carolina, where the only big bridge goes across the French Broad River. The French Broad River is the only river that runs from west to east over the continental divide. So I get into Marshall and it’s like a police state. The police are everywhere, the buildings have mud, like, water and mud mix going through them, and the glass is all broken and their stuff is floating outside. The school building second floor is covered with water, it’s up to the third floor. It’s a little island, this school, that’s right by the bridge.
And I look, and I start talking to the National Guard. I said “I really need to get through, my friend’s up at this mountain home and I don’t know if she’s all right. I don’t think she can even get out or anything, she’s not healthy, she’s got heart trouble.” So they say, “well, if you can get through the bridge here, we’ll let you go.” It was covered with water that much. I mean, it was like 80 foot in the air, and the water was all the way up to the top.
“We know the bridge is safe, but you can take your Jeep over, it’s okay, if it’s an emergency you can go back. I don’t know if you can get any further up over the next river, because nobody’s there to check. You’ll be the first one. If you do get up there and it’s bad, let us know when you come back.”
So I took my risk and I went over this big bridge, no problem. And I went down the road, the old Sandy Mush, the old back way. It’s called Sandy Mush Road, and I got to the main bridge that goes across the Sandy Mush River there, and there was eye beams that were about this high off the ground, so they were about four-foot, three-foot thick. They were just bent over by the water, just … and I’m looking, and the water’s just rushing by on this meadow and everything, there’s no road left, and I’m trying to think, can I get across this river? I said no, no, forget it.
So I go back all the way through Marshall and I go all the way around to Asheville, along the main bridge in Asheville, and that’s barely open. I go to Old Leicester Highway, which is where I lived, up this Old Leicester Highway to Earlys Mountain Road and go all the way through to Big Sandy where I live, from Little Sandy to Big Sandy. So this was already 300 miles I drove, just to get up to this house. So you look at a place like the size of New York or Manhattan and the five boroughs, this area is that big. And there’s hardly any people in it. At least when I was there.
When disasters happen, you don’t think about it because you don’t hear about it, because there’s only a few people. It’s no big deal. I get to this bridge, and there’s this guy that I’d never met with a leg missing, Charlie Wells, he’s waiting by the bridge in his car. I go up to Charlie and I say, oh, what’s up here? He goes, “Well, you’re not getting across here, I don’t think.” I said, “Is there any way around?” He knew where I lived, he knew where I was already, because I’m the New Yorker up there on the mountain that he lives on, so he knows and he’s seen me all the time.
He goes, “No, I think you might be able to make it across, you got to go all the way back down to Asheville and go around to Canton and come back the other way.” So I said, ah, I’ll think about it, let me see what happens. In the meantime, we start talking, I ask him how he lost his leg. He said “30 years ago, I was here at this bridge and the same thing happened. Some car got stuck, and it went over and I saved half the people in the car, and the other half died, washed away. And in the process of doing that, my leg got cut off.” And he said, “Last night I was here, and another vehicle got caught on the same bridge, and I crawled out with my one leg out of my thing and drug myself over and I saved another person.”
This guy was, like, really religious. He was really Baptist and stuff, and he didn’t really like me, I’m from New York. He knows where I hung out, and he didn’t like the people I hung out with.
We left it like that, and I drove around and went the other way. And there’s another stream that ran across it, a little, tiny branch that was an inch wide. Well, where I had to cross it, it was already as wide as this room. It was two foot deep, and I just pushed real hard and went through it and went up to the driveway where I lived, it was about 10 or 15 minutes past that. And I went down, the washer, the driveway was washed away, the house I stayed in was still there, and the lady’s house in the back was still there. She was okay, she was yelling at me across…So here I am, I’m talking to her, and it’s amazing and I went down this thing, this road, and going down the road, that whole branch had gotten four times wider than this, washed away the house that people were in with the green side, went through and destroyed the farm, destroyed the whole neighborhood.
Out of 300 bridges in Buncombe County, there was only two left. And those two I both went over. Charlie Wells caught me a week later and talked about religion and being a life-saver. He’s telling me, “Oh, thank you so much for stopping and helping that lady out up the mountain. I don’t like who you’re hanging out with down there.” I said “Well, they’re okay, they help people that are in need.”
That wasn’t the last disaster in this town, and Charlie actually went and became friends with him, and they started an organization that helped the poor people that were losing their farms and all that around there.