Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Southern Crossing: Asheville-Knoxville

Asheville, North Carolina marks the beginning of the Great Smoky Mountains, which means that the terrain changes enormously in a small area, a landscape filled with the unexpected. Similarly unexpected: Asheville is a bastion of hippy liberalism in the Appalachians which (until this election!) tended to be thoroughly in the conservative camp. Asheville is a very walkable, pleasant city filled to the brim with art-deco architecture, touches of environmentalism, and lots of art and culture. And yet, right outside the city limits are the foothills of the Great Smokies and all of the Appalachian charm (and poverty) a person could ever want to see.

That Sunday Emma and I got up and left Bon Paul and Sharky's, heading to an adorable breakfast restaurant down the street, where they made their own granola and the coffee was strong and sweet. We then undertook a walking tour of downtown Asheville.

Art deco architecture in the heart of Appalachia

I was keeping count of Priuses (Priuii?) during the trip, and never did I see so many in one place as in Asheville. In the picture below, I didn't even mean to shoot the Prius. It just happened to be driving by.

You've got to be pretty liberal to fund a zero-emissions vehicle program for your city police force

We spent the morning and early afternoon exploring. There were art galleries to see, vintage shops to browse through. We were tempted by an upscale southern food restaurant (the first we'd seen) but saved our money. Instead, we opted to spend some time in a fantastic craft center where we learned about traditional Appalachian crafts like basket weaving. Then we made our way to Sandy Bottom, a tiny town about 20 minutes outside Asheville in the Great Smoky Foothills. We had seen a brochure for horseback rides and decided that this idea, while a bit out of our price range, was just too good to pass up.

The drive out to Sandy Bottom was almost worth the money we spent on the horseback ride. The road wound through green hills, cows grazing, ramshackle cottages and disintegrating barns picturesque against the blue sky. We were the only visitors on the 4 PM ride.

Horses graze in Sandy Bottom

We went out, just the two of us with a grizzled old farmhand who had lived in Sandy Bottom all his life-- in fact when we reached a particularly high ridge he pointed out the small white house in which he had grown up. Throughout our 45 minute ride we rode up and down steep cliffs and rolling hills with fantastic views of the Smokies, and he kept up a friendly patter in his fantastic West North Carlonian accent. He told us about the strangest rides he had guided, about growing up near Asheville and his love for horses. He explained the presence of old school buses on the farm's extensive property (the awesome answer: the owner buys them and puts them out so that the goats have somewhere to go when it rains.) He asked about our lives, teased me because my stirrups were too long and kept coming loose, teased Emma for not talking much. And yet when we left we realized we had never asked his name.

The beautiful view from a Sandy Bottom ridge

We arrived back at the barn sore and for some reason--the authentic, comfortable feel of the ride, the refreshing warm air, or the scenery-- wonderfully fulfilled. And so the next question presented itself: what to do for dinner? And, more importantly, what about St. Patricks' Day?

We had forgotten during the reide that the holiday had arrived. Some of the guests at Bon Paul and Sharky's had mentioned that an Irish Pub downtown called The Green Man would be hosting a party with live traditional Irish music, an event that sounded right up our alley. So after dinner at a tasty, reasonable restaurant with an amphibious name (I can't seem to remember it now... something like The Dancing Frog?) we moved the night to The Green Man. It was an ideal setting for St. Patrick's Day festivities (besides, say, Dublin). The crowd was raucous and excited, the beer (brewed in several varieties in the pub basement) flowed freely, and music was fantastic. A few enthusiastic souls got up to do some approximation of Irish step dance. Emma and I struck up a conversation with the group of twenty-somethings next to us: they were incredibly friendly and toward the end of the evening were laughing and joking with us as if we had known them a long time. And I tried my hand at a game of darts, stopping to show our new friends the route I took during my brief trip to Ireland in 2007.

Enjoying the music at the Green Man

We couldn't stay out too late, as the next day was to be a long and spectacular one. We hoped to get all the way from Asheville to Nashville (Tennessee) the next day, stopping along the way in Great Smokey Mountains National Park and Knoxville, TN. So we got up quite early to make the initial trek, planning to hit the park just as dawn broke. As we did, we drove through the only remaining Cherokee reservation in North Carolina after the trail of tears. Cherokee, NC is a little blip of a town. We stopped at Tribal Grounds coffee house (har har) for morning fuel, and I took the opportunity to pick up a set of promotional postcards for a local art show featuring portraits of local Cherokee people. I still have a few of them up in my room. Those are the kinds of interesting tidbits I like to serve as souvenirs.

We hit the Park just about exactly at sunrise, which made for stunning views as we wound through the thick woods, full of towering rhododendron bushes. For now they were prickly with green buds-- in a few weeks the woods would be in full, astonishing bloom.

The most lovely thing about driving through the Smokies at dawn was that we experienced sunrise several times over. We would crest a peak and see the sun coming mellow over the horizon, then dip down again and descend into twilight, and over and over, until we came to an overlook over the whole park. There, Emma set off to do a little hiking while I (with my lame ankle) enjoyed the view.

Smoky Mountain Scenery

After a few hours we drove out of the park, through several low-season tourist towns like Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, TN. Given enough time I would have loved to explore these towns: they are basically all road-side attractions, filled with wacky museums and off-kilter monuments. Unfortunately we only had time to stop at a delicious pancake house in Sevierville. We felt that if we didn't we would be missing out on some sort of essential cultural experience: we counted more than 15 pancake houses in one small downtown area!

Sated, we set off. Destination: Nashville.

One of the oddest monuments in the US: the Sunsphere, built for a world's fair in Knoxville. There's not much else to see in the city, although it was nice enough when we drove through.

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