In western North Carolina’s Appalachian mountains, there is a small city that looks like the east coast but feels like the west coast. It’s Asheville, a dot of blue in a sea of red, with restaurants full of foodie delights, locally crafted beers, and hipster waiters—all looking disturbingly similar with their shaved heads and carefully coiffed bushy beards.
We left the trailer at our Georgia campground and drove to Asheville for an overnight at a bed and breakfast—a birthday present for me. It seemed like the height of decadence—taking a vacation from our never-ending vacation road trip. But after six months living primarily in campgrounds, it was oh-so-very-sweet to have a night in a city, with a bathtub to boot.
Asheville is unique. Surrounded by the wooded, gentle peaks of the Appalachians, it’s an art deco town nestled in a valley created by the French Broad River (love the name). Long touted for its healthy mountain air, Asheville was a center for tuberculosis (then commonly known as consumption) treatment in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and a draw for a wide variety of alternative style folks in the past few decades. It’s one of those places that attract the wealthy, talented, and quirky. It’s the town where Thomas Wolfe grew up, Zelda Fitzgerald perished in a fire, and the Vanderbilts built a Gilded Age estate. And, its fifty years of economic hard times after the Depression meant that there was little new development downtown, which resulted in largely untouched architecture since early last century. An unintended but wonderful consequence that gave the town a time-capsule feel.
The Asheville area has a schizophrenic quality. Hendersonville, on one side, was home to the back-to-the-land Mother Earth News, while, in the other direction, Montreat, a beautiful, but eerily perfect-seeming woodsy enclave, was home to Christian religious retreats and Billy Graham. In 2009, Asheville elected a “post-theist” city councilman and then sought to remove him based on North Carolina’s prohibition of atheists in elected offices (they eventually abandoned the effort). The odd mix of people seems to work and keeps things interesting.
We spent our first afternoon exploring some of the area around Asheville, including taking a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway. A true throwback, it is a roadway started by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s that winds for hundreds of miles high through the mountains, with no clutter of signs or buildings and with limited access, sometimes without an exit for thirty miles or so.
In the afternoon, we settled into our B&B, which used to be a convalescent home for tuberculosis patients. It was in a huge old house, with several outbuildings and, most importantly, within walking distance of downtown.
We spent most of our time walking around and eating.
The most bizarre spectacle was the pubcycle. We could hear loud laughter and music before it appeared. Then a contraption rounded the corner and headed up the street—an open-sided vehicle with six people on each side, facing each other across a bar, all while propelling themselves down the street by pedaling. Unfortunately, I did not get a good picture, but these will give you some idea of this party-while-you-burn-calories vehicle.
It was fun to be in the city at night.
The temperature dropped when the sun went down and our walk back to the B&B was pretty chilly. But we got to indulge in our first hot baths in six months. What a luxury. The next morning, we had a group breakfast in the ornate dining room and I further indulged in a sauna before we left.
We had intended to do more sightseeing and hiking that day, but it was frigid outside. So we decided to drive back to Georgia by a scenic route through the mountains. Big mistake. We drove onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and headed up to over 5000 feet in elevation. Unfortunately, that was high enough to be well into the cloud cover. In all my years of driving, it was the worst visibility that I’ve ever experienced. We could hardly see the road right in front of us. After creeping along for about ten miles, and continuing to climb, we decided to turn around and head down into the valley.
Two days was not nearly enough time to explore the area. We did not even get near the Biltmore Estate, did not take any hikes, and did not have time to visit the homemade potato chip store. We will be back.