Saturday, November 8, 2008

Southern Crossing Part 1: Charlottesville-Asheville

So, I've made a decision. I've been attached for a long time to the idea of this blog having a strict chronology. That means that nothing gets posted out of order, and two trips aren't recounted at the same time in alternate posts. I suppose I wasn't even that strict about chronology in the past (there are some interesting loops that happened when I commented about my current adventures in China, discussed things that had happened weeks or months earlier, and then didn't get back to those current adventures until several weeks or months after that.)

I've been putting off blogging about the road trip I took in March through the American southeast, and because of that I haven't written at all about my preparations for the Around-the-World trip on which I will embark in January. So I'm making an executive decision (that's easy to do, since I am the one and only contributor to this blog.) I will intersperse discussion of the road trip with preparations and hopefully my readers will be smart enough to follow along.

Which brings me to: the road trip. March 2008, spring of my senior year of college. I was in the throes of writing my senior thesis (using research completed during the time I spent in China, see February-July 2007 in this blog.) It hadn't yet started to soak up all of my free time like some deranged academic sponge, but I certainly needed a break. I enlisted a close friend, Emma, to go on a trip. Any trip, an adventure.

For months we had planning phone calls which got us nowhere. There were so many options for adventure. Where could we go? Germany? Costa Rica? Hungary? The limiting factors were time and physicality. I had a whopping 21 days off for spring break but needed to use the first 10 for thesis work. Emma had taken the year off from college and was working--planning ahead allowed her to get all 11 days of our trip off. However, I had fallen and severely injured my ankle in December, and although the fracture was healed the multiple sprains were still a big problem and I generally walked using a big black boot reminiscent of Darth Vader's foot. We reluctantly axed Europe, where I would be unable to walk the 7-8 hours necessary to truly explore a city. When we thought about it, neither of us had spent much time (for me, not counting Florida, none) south of the Mason-Dixon line. Additionally, I had friends in Tennessee and Georgia and Emma had them in Virginia and North Carolina. After much discussion we traced a challenging but doable route that would take us south from Philadelphia through Virginia, western North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and eastern North Carolina.

So: after 10 grueling days of thesis work, I took a train south from Hartford to Philadelphia, where Emma met me with her trusty Honda Accord. It was a beautiful early spring day, and we were both excited to get to even warmer weather as we headed south. That day was comprised mostly of driving, and driving, and then driving some more (That day, including the train ride from Connecticut I spent time in 7 states.) We stopped briefly in Frederick, Maryland, whose bricked streets were reminiscent of Philadelphia, for lunch at a cute cafe. We traversed countless pastures, acres of cropland, skirted the outside of industrial cities, before finally arriving in Charlottesville, VA. We had a bit of trouble locating our hostel, which was described on the traveling website HostelWorld as "a yellow clapboard house." We unnecessary trespassed in the yards of several wrong yellow houses before finally realizing our mistake: in Virginia, there can be two or more roads with the same name but with a different suffix-- Brick Lane, Brick Road, Brick Avenue, etc. We found this to be extremely confusing.

Although we initially had ambitions to go out to a bar or restaurant, we ultimately opted to stay in and conserve energy for the long day the next day. And long it was, but equally wonderful. After a snack at an adorable old-fashioned donut shop, we spent the morning exploring Charlottesville, which is a college town that hugs UVA tightly. A free shuttle bus loops around the downtown, and we took advantage of it in order to explore an adorable (if scarily gentrified) line of cafes, bookstores, toy stores, and boutiques, followed by the UVA campus and its surroundings.

Classic Southern architecture at University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville

The free shuttle

The restaurants and stores around UVA were brashly pro-University life but had their own charm. Emma bought a "UVA Cheerleading" shirt for fun and I tried hot fried apples, which were buttery and strange but delicious. We bought sandwiches to each outside in the sunshine outside of this coffeeshop, with an amusing sign:

(If you can't read, it says "Is Caffeine a Nootropic drug? You tell me. While you're at it, please tell me what a nootropic drug is.")

We left Charlottesville to drive part of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which wends its way across the top of the Appalachian mountains from Charlottesville to Asheville, North Carolina (our next stop.) Emma didn't want to drive the whole way on the Parkway, as the speed limit was low and the road were winding. But we did spend a good chunk of time on the Parkway, stopping regularly to admire the beautiful views.

Wouldn't you stop, too?

About halfway down the Shenandoah Valley, we got hungry. It was raining lightly as we drove down the switchbacks that led us into Vesuvius, Virginia, a tiny town with all the ramshackle, half-broke-down Appalachian charm I (the elite northeastern girl) was expecting. We ate at Gertie's General Store, which had basic essentials (flour, bread, extra ammo, cigarettes) on one side and also sold fantastic pulled pork. Really. I made an effort to eat barbecue in each state we visited, and this was some of the best. The walls were signed with the names of people from all the world who came through the town while walking the Appalachian Trail.

Signs at Gertie's. I guess we're really in the south now.

About 3/4 of the way down the Parkway, we exited to visit one of the most exalted places in all of Roadside America: Foamhenge. This ten-ish year old roadside attraction was developed by an artist and left to slowly degrade, which it has-- much like the real Stonehenge! Foamhenge is in a tiny town called Natural Bridge, Virginia, which supposedly also houses a rock formation to rival the Grand Canyon, although we couldn't find it. Instead, we walked up the hill in light rain to Foamhenge, which was utterly empty, the red clay soil sticking in amazing amounts to our shoes.

Foamhenge, in all its glory

Just outside of Foamhenge, FoaMerlin casts a spell. There was quite a bit of FoaMerlin silliness to be had.

On the way back to the highway, we also found our way to this roadside attraction, a house shaped like a coffee pot. Complete with a handle and everything! I had seen it on a website which lists roadside attractions by state and had compiled a list, which we attempted to complete as we drove from state to state.

After driving briefly through Tennessee, we reached Asheville, which sits in far west North Carolina, very late at night. We settled into our hostel Bon Paul and Sharkey's (as quirky as its name) and got ready for a great couple of days in North Carolina.

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