ASHEVILLE, N.C. — When Steve Sorrells got out of a Louisiana rehab clinic where he'd fought his crystal meth habit, his counselor had a final bit of advice: Find a new city to live in. Check out Asheville, N.C.
And that's exactly where Mr. Sorrells went. Ironically, this mountain city of misty vistas lies just beneath the canyons where meth manufacturing is on the rise, and where moonshiners and revenuers once scrapped it out with mash barrels and axes.
Today, the city has a hippie aura, with tie-dye shops, the Earth Guild moving in where Woolworth's used to be, and the Mellow Mushroom restaurant hosting "Totally Trippy Trivia Night!" But despite the mini-Seattle feel, this gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains is a new and unusual sanctuary for hundreds of current and former drug addicts fighting to break free of their histories.
"In the past few months, I've met a dozen people just like me who have just moved here," says Sorrells, a former Atlanta business owner who struggled for years before beating his addiction in 2003.
Experts say these new enclaves of ex-addicts are signs of America's increasing sympathy for its growing legions of people strugglingwith, or recovering from, addiction. In fact, estimates now put the recovering-addict population at between seven and 14 percent of all US males - enough for dozens of Ashevilles.
Still, stigmas - in these conservative mountains as elsewhere - remain. And with recovering addicts come more of the plain down and out, flocking here in large numbers and congregating on street corners and in the tiny, busy Pritchard Park.
"The big secret in the drug-addiction world is that if addicts can find alternatives to drugs, they typically do so. And moving to a new community that offers rich nondrug alternatives makes it easier to start over," says Gene Heyman, a drug and addiction researcher at Harvard Medical School. "On the other hand, from the community's perspective, you have people coming in who have many problems - and that can create conflicts and concern."
Today, Asheville is one of a handful of boroughs from St. Paul, Minn., to Manhattan that top the destination lists of ex-addicts wary of returning to the siren calls of their former haunts. These cities tend to be gritty, but artsy, places where the harsher realities of city life are on display alongside art openings and late-night cafes. Here in Asheville, there's also a strong religious backbone, a growing number of available service jobs, and a broad community of recovery support groups and counselors. What's more, the cost of living is relatively low, with lots of free things to do - from fairs to hikes in the Pisgah Forest.
"For people recovering from the trauma that accompanies these syndromes, Asheville has become a place where they can get their life back," says Sam Sutker, a logistics coordinator at the Asheville-based Voices for Recovery organization. "There's an underlay of support that goes from the personal to the metaphysical: It's a hip city, yet we have the oldest mountains in the world and the third-oldest river. The fact is, people have been coming here for healing for a long time."
They come on a hunch or a recommendation. Ryan Dieterich has been here two weeks, and he already feels like a new man. He's staying in a modest dorm room at the Western Carolina Rescue Mission, one of several groups that are flourishing here, catering to ex-addicts.
For him, as for many, Asheville has become a crucial reprieve, a halfway house between addiction and lives back home. One lanky man in a starched work-shirt says he came to sober up. "I needed to get 400 miles away from home," he says.
Beyond a sense of purpose, outsiders have brought new economic promise for a city that was reeling from job losses in the late '80s and early '90s. Many ex-addicts work as janitors or clerks in the booming tourist industry. Most attend church regularly and go to a variety of support groups - Asheville has dozens. And though some leave, many stay. Sorrells works with several other recovered addicts at a shop where the owners know of their pasts.
"The workforce is getting over the idea that being a recovering addict is a bad thing," says David Rosenker, vice president of treatment at the Caron Foundation in Wernersville, Pa. "Many people who go to treatment come back a better employee than they were before. They have a great work ethic and they do very, very well."
Today, police don't arrest people for vagrancy as much as they once did and there's an acceptance of the city's new profile as a destination for all kinds of people, including those fleeing their pasts.
"If you want to go to jail, they'll still put you in jail, but it's not like it used to be," says Danny McKinney, an out-of-work general contractor at Pritchard Park.
Of course, not all ex-addicts can move to the mountains. "It's a great concept: Go through treatment and then go to a different community. But that's not an option for many people," says Mr. Heyman.
What's more, the thought of people with drug issues flocking to this once-quiet and straitlaced city doesn't appeal to everyone."You worry about people with drug problems moving in," says Nancy Perez, listening to a religious broadcast. "But I also understand: In my own way, I came back to Asheville to get my life together, and if other people can pull their bootstraps up here, then that's a good thing."
Today, Sorrells earns a fraction of what he did in Atlanta. But he has trouble remembering a time in his life when each day promised so much. In a strange way, he says, he's thankful for what his addiction yielded: A peek at the possibilities and pursuits of a happy, drug-free life.
"Before I got treatment, I was proud and arrogant," he says. "But finally I had lost so much of my life that I became humble enough to start taking other people's advice. That's partly how I came to Asheville. Since moving here, I have a whole different way of looking at the world."