Highway 19

by Brian Hart

If, as John Gardner says, all stories have one of two plots (someone goes on a journey; a stranger comes to town), then I have two stories to tell. A couple of years ago, I was the someone, and I was the stranger—two unidentifiable nouns wrapped up in one person—packing up all my stuff, leaving my good friends behind, and headed north for a place where I knew no one.

Brian Hart

Brian Hart at the reading at Posana’s Café by Tommy Hays and Rick Chess in February

Before making the decision to move, I had spent five years writing. When I got home from my line cook job each night, I would pour myself a glass of sweet tea, turn off all the lights, put on my headphones, and write. It was a comfortable routine. I read books about writing as a way to educate myself about the craft. I wrote a novel (the traditional first-novel-that-will-never-be-published). I wrote a few short stories. I wrote about my days at work, my co-workers, and my friends, all of whom called me Hart. If I wrote enough, I’d eventually “make it.” I’d make it out of the kitchen’s greasy heat, make it out of my small, second-story apartment downtown, and most important, make it out of Americus – a town so dead to me, that even the mid-spring dogwoods and azaleas looked as if they were trapped in a dusty photograph. I despised living in a place that was washed out. After 22 years, at age 31, I had forgotten how to see, how to experience anything at all, and that loss is the death of a writer. Familiarity bred a whole litter of contempts, and those bastards had me by the throat.

Despite the push of Americus, deciding to move to Asheville was still a risk. I had no job. I had no guarantees that I would be accepted to college after two previous failed attempts. I didn’t even know where to buy groceries. I had saved money to make everything easier at first, but it wouldn’t last forever. And besides, what if the belief I had in myself as a writer was nothing more than a delusion? I moved to Asheville to write, and if I wasn’t a writer, then I really was another someone, another stranger, and I didn’t have the friends of Americus to fall back on. Telephones and emails are convenient, but nothing says “I’m here for you” like a hug, a smile, and a pair of caring eyes.

But I did get accepted to UNC Asheville. I found enough employment to keep me afloat. And I found Ingles. (Though how could I not?) I’m still the someone on a journey, but I’m not the stranger anymore, at least not here, thanks to the many people who have accepted me as I am and encouraged me to keep growing as a writer and as a person.

When I stand on my back porch here in Asheville, I can see Patton Avenue through the trees. It is also known as Highway 19. I have yet to follow it farther south than the on-ramp for Interstate 40, but I know that if I were to stay on 19 long enough, it would eventually lead me to a small town in south Georgia called Americus. I still visit there a few times a year to reconnect with those friends who believed in me before I believed in myself. They still recognize me; they still call me Hart; and they still believe in me. But to them, Brian is a stranger.

Sometimes, the writer creates the place. Sometimes, the place creates the writer. And sometimes, for the very lucky, the writer finds a place where he belongs, a place that welcomes strangers and is not afraid to discover what interesting things he might be carrying with him. I have been lucky enough to find that place. But every time I’m on my back porch, watching cars and trucks headed south, I can’t help but think of the place and the people there who made me into the person now comfortable here.

Brian Hart was born in Princeton, New Jersey, raised in Americus, Georgia, and in 2008 moved to Asheville, where he is pursuing a Literature/Creative Writing degree at UNC Asheville. He writes poetry, short stories, and hopefully, one day, novels-that-will-be-published. One of his poems and two of his photographs were published in the 2011 edition of Headwaters—UNC Asheville’s creative arts magazine. He received the Spring 2010 Jim Topp and Paula Grillot Scholarship in Poetry from UNC Asheville, and is currently an editorial intern with Pixiq, a division of Lark Books. He has been the intern for The Great Smokies Review since January 2010, but his tenure will soon (sadly) come to an end when he graduates in May. He thanks the Review for the opportunity to write, for putting up with his comma obsession, and mostly, for allowing him to take part in this great publication. It’s been a fun ride.