Mickey Mahaffey is on a journey.
The same journey we are all on...a journey to find our true selves and to craft a life worth living. Mickey once lived a typical American life; son, brother, husband, father, friend.
Mickey Mahaffey was born and raised in Hendersonville North Carolina.
Once a successful all-conference high school football and all-state track athelete, Mickey attended college on a track scholarship and running would be a central theme in his life for years to come.
Mickey's love of running was soon superseded by another calling....the call to preach. He transferred to another college to study to become a Baptist preacher and graduated with a degree and a longing to preach the gospel and make an impact on the world.
After graduation he preached throughout Western North Carolina.
"For the next fifteen years I was an itinerant preacher and teacher loosely affiliated with various independent ministries. I continued to study the Greek translation of the Bible with great intensity, believing that if I dug deep enough, I could uncover the original truth of God’s word. I worked as a house painter to pay my way -- refusing to take money for the work of helping people -- and taught and preached nearly every night of the week. By the time I was 25 years old I’d preached the fundamentalist, Christian message from pulpits throughout the USA and in hospitals, rest homes, prisons, summer camps, Sunday-school classes, prayer meetings, living rooms, bars and street corners. "
Mickey soon married, became a father (three times), was a successful business owner of both a construction company and a seafood distributing company; owned a nice home, owned nice cars...... He was "seemingly" the typical American success story. Respected by his peers, with a mission in life and a loving family.
Then life changed.
Maintaing the "status quo" and meeting the expecations of his family, his business and his preaching duties took it's toll. It seemed he was always running to-and-fro to take care of business, to preach, to tend to his house. He had less and less time for hiw wife and kids, less and less time for himself.
Mickey found himself dealing with an undefined anger. Mickey's anger turned inward but also was directed toward his wife and children. He preached about the peace and joy of the Christian life but his own life was anything but peaceful and joyful.
His descended into a deep canyon of internal strife which seemed to have no bottom.
Health problems, business challenges, marital problems ending in divorce eventually landed Mickey Mahaffey in a mental hospital and repeated stays in psychiatric wards left Mickey a broken man with a broken spirit.
His relationsihps with his wife and children were broken, seeminly beyond repair.....his businesses failed.....he'd lost his way with seemingly no path to regaining his sense of direction in life. It seemed he had entered an unknown wilderness with no idea where to find his way, to find the mental and emotional provisions to sustain himself.
Writing about his stays in psychiatric hospitals, Mahaffey recalls: "After thirty-nine years, my life is an abysmal failure. I’ve destroyed two marriages and distressed the lives of my children, Stephanie, Andy and Jake. My business is bankrupt. The fruit of all my religious seeking, teaching and preaching has withered on the vine.
Slowly, the sedatives douse the flames of my rage and turn my muscles to mush. My jaws relax and I feel the soreness from clinching my teeth like a bear trap. My muscles twitch and sensations of exhaustion pulse through my arms and legs as I drift in and out of consciousness. I sink into the bed like I’m slipping on an icy slope, near to plunging into the abyss. I plead for the angel of death to please carry me to my grave and lay me down for my eternal rest, the final solution for my troubled brain. Death seems like the only recourse. I’ve caused enough destruction."
In spite of his utter despair, there was still a splinter of hope in Mickey Mahaffey, but he realized that his hospital stays had done little to heal his wounded spirit and that healing was going to take more than medicine or "therapy".
Mickey determined that the only way to heal and to find a meaningful life was to peel away all of life's trappings and return to the raw core; to build a life from the ground up.
His new life began with the sale of his home, his car, his possessions.
Soon he was "a free man"; free from the burden of possessions and responsibilities, free from the hectic life of trying to get ahead, free from the expectations of family and friends.
But what was to be done with this newfound freedom and the emotional baggage he still bore.
Mickey began the life of an itenerant traveler, sleeping on the ground in a small wooded area in and around the mountain town of Asheville North Carolina. Mickey defined himself as "home free" and lived the typical homeless life, where the important issues of the day were acquiring food, wood for a fire, and a dry and safe place to bed down for the night.
Mickey decribed his new existence in an interview for local newspaper Mountain Xpress in 1998: "The difference is that most homeless people don't have a choice: We do. We've just chosen to live what I believe is a very natural way of life -- which is walking and living simply"
But Mickey's life was far from a life of leisure. In addition to the daily needs to secure food and shelter for the night, Mickey took on new responsibilites which extended beyond his own safety and security. The former preacher soon found a new mission, a new calling, a new field of service.
Soon Mickey found himself speaking out on issues related to the environment and the homeless. He began attending City Council meetings and asking questions of the elected officials. He became an outspoken advocate for the marginalized citizenry of Asheville. He spoke out boldly on environmental issues, air quality, public transportation, police brutality, the litter problems in Asheville.
He wrote empassioned letters to the editor of local newspapers about the plight of the homeless: "They are human beings. They have names. They laugh for joy and cry when in pain just like everybody else. Sadly, many of them have been kicked around like mongrel dogs from the time they were delivered from their mothers' wombs. Many suffer from chronic pain, depression, schizophrenia and a host of other mental/physical illnesses. A significant number are military veterans plagued by posttraumatic stress disorder."
At the encouragement of friends, Mahaffey ran a successful campaign for mayor ; not successful in the sense of becoming elected, but very successful in raising issues no other candidate was willing to discuss. His platform stated his intention to "build people’s power to make change on a local level through participatory democracy".
Mahaffey who had once been arrested for loitering on a city park bench, was now regularly invited into the office of the police chief and the mayor to offer perspectives on city problems from the point of view of those living on the streets. Mahaffey would soon be appointed to the Asheville Transit Board.
From running track to running successful businesses, to running for mayor; Mickey Mahaffey had experienced the heights and depths of a life journey which was just beginning.
While gratified by his newfound respect from his peers, local journalists, and civic leaders, Mickey Mahaffey's wounds were still deep and his healing had only begun. While living in forest encampments by night and on the streets of Asheville by day, there was still an uneasiness and feeling of a need to be somewhere else. The call to roam grew stronger and stronger.
Mickey sensed that his healing lay in living close to the land...the earth...the raw essence of life, but he felt he still had much to learn and staying too long in one place just didn't seemed to suit Mahaffey.
In 1995, Mahaffey began walking. Not just strolling the streets of Asheville, but walks into the high mountains around Asheville NC, (which is situated at the intersection of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Great Smoky Mountains. )
While he felt a sense of accomplishment and "calling" on the streets of Asheville, he also felt a need to travel, to experience life outside of the constraints of American culture.
Soon Mickey embarked on longer walks.
The former cross-country runner soon became a cross-country walker. Walks to the coast of North Carolina and up the coast into the northeast.
Not long after his run for mayor, Mickey laced up his hiking shoes and began a walk west.
He headed out on foot for the Central American country of Honduras. His journey carried him through the famed Sierra Madre mountains Northern Mexico, where he first encountered the physical beauty of the Copper Canyons, the Barrancas del Cobre. The contrast of the harsh terrain and natural beauty resonated with something inside of Mickey.
The Copper Canyons are wider and deeper than the Grand Canyons of the US. The Copper Canyon (Spanish: Barranca del Cobre) is a group of canyons consisting of 6 distinct canyons in the Sierra Tarahumara in the southwestern part of the state of Chihuahua in Mexico. The overall canyon system was formed by six rivers which drain the western side of the Sierra Tarahumara (a part of the Sierra Madre Occidental). All six rivers merge into the Rio Fuerte and empty into the Sea of Cortez. The walls of the canyon are a copper/green color which is where the name originates
Mickey felt pulled to descend into these canyons and explore the vast depths of this stark but beautiful landscape. There was something foreign yet familiar about these canyons, something which beckoned him to go futher and deeper.....and to linger.
There was a stillness in these rugged cliffs that resonated deep within Mickey Mahaffey. Honduras would have to wait as Mickey did what he'd been doing since he first bedded down on the ground in the woods around Asheville; he followed his heart.
As he journeyed further down into the remote depths of the canyon and along the Urique River valley, he encountered an indigenous group of Mexican "Indians", the Tarahumara (or Raramuri) as they refer to themselves.
In the depths of the canyons Mickey Mahaffey found himself among a people who lived simple lives as subsistience farmers, living close to the earth. They were a vibrant and thoughtful people who seemed to possess joy and contement in spite of their strenous and meager exsitence.
The Raramuri are self-dependent, hard-working people. They are also very much depedendent upon each other to help out in times of need, to sustain themselves, their families and their villages. Most Raramuri live apart from each other tending to their own farms, but come together to assist each other on a regular basis. They also hold regular Tesquinadas, or drinking parties, where the normal social mores are shed and music, laughter, and merriment are exhibited by the normal quiet and staid Raramuri.
Mickey "found himself" amongst the Raramuri people in more ways than one......he found his soul .....he found peace....he found fulfillment in a simple life living with these hard working indigenous farmers.
The Raramuri are a proud people who are very friendly, but very reserved. Their isolation borders on wariness when it comes to outsiders.
The Raramuri and their neighbors grew to respect Mahaffey for his honesty and openness and his desire to work, to serve, to live the simple life.
Mickey spent most of his time in the canyons in a remote area along the Urique River gorge. His made an encampment on a hillside above the Urique River which runs along the canyon floor.
The Raramuri are famed for their long distance running ability and it is ironic that Mahaffey finally stopped his "internal running" after encountering these fleet-footed mountain dwellers.
(The best selling book "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall focuses on the running prowess of the Tarahumara people).
Easter is a very special time for the Raramuri of the Copper Canyon. The week long celebration of Semana Santa is their most important religeous celebration. This ritual also marks the beginning of the agricultural season.
Mickey Mahaffey is a singular American explorer, a fearless saunterer across our modern-day dilemmas of faith and faithlessness, who has written a deeply personal and poetic memoir of his extraordinary life. Once a legendary Appalachian kid preacher and star athlete, Mahaffey's fall from grace led to him to an agonizing period on the streets, insane asylums, among shattered families and the dark woods of outcasts, until he began a journey of healing, literally walking himself back to a state of redemption. From the Blue Ridge of North Carolina, the hip streets of Asheville, to the remote canyons of the Sierra Madre in Mexico, Whispers in My Blood unfolds a spellbinding chronicle of a quest for forgiveness, love and renewal. ------- Jeff Biggers, American writer, editor, journalist, and critic