North America | United States of America (USA) | Southern States | North Carolina | Asheville and Black Mountain – New Town
The Biltmore Estate was lovely, let’s set that out from the start. It’s the biggest private residence in America, situated in lovely forested terrain, filled with rare and exquisite furnishings, and blah and blah and blah blah blah.
It was boring. And really expensive. I can respect the effort that goes into a Chippendale tray-top table or an intimately detailed mural on the ceiling of a mahogany-filled library as much as the next guy, but haven’t I seen all this stuff somewhere before? Maybe it’s my forced indoctrination into Modern Design that makes me this way, but seeing another mansion done up to look like an 18th century chateau gives me the same sort of feeling that a multi-million dollar Schwarzenneger movie does: impressive to look at, but can’t you come up with anything *new*?
I spent a lot more time in the gardens — a loosely used term here, since the Estate covers dozens of square miles of land, much of which was landscaped en masse by Central Park’s own Frederick Law Olmstead. It’s a little peculiar to walk through an entire landscaped *forest*, where the huge hemlocks and oaks are originals, but are draped with planted and tended ivy, and woven through with gentle footpaths of uniform width. Peculiar, but lovely as well, sort of like an exhuberantly American interpretation of a Japanese tea garden, complete with a huge man-made pond for boating and strolling ringed with gazebos and viewing platforms. I imagine if you had more money than God, you could do worse than spend it here.
Biltmore largely built Asheville then. Unlike most other southern cities, Asheville wasn’t much of anything until the late 1800’s, when the railroad finally pushed up through the tortuous Blue Ridge and turned the small regional center into a fashionable mountain retreat. Then the Vanderbilts showed up, designed an estate, and put half of WNC to work building it. Asheville exploded.
One of the great side effects of this sudden influx of money is that much of what’s currently visible in Asheville was built in the 1920’s and 30’s — in other words, Art Deco.
Dozens of stunning Art Deco office buildings, storefronts, churches and government buildings were the last thing I expected to find in a mountain town in North Carolina, but there they are. There’s more here than in any other city in the south. Architecture students regularly travel to Asheville on study or pilgrimage, perhaps wandering the city as I did that second afternoon, slightly drunk from the free wine samples at the Biltmore’s winery, snapping pictures of exhuberant facades and details, feeling like I’d wandered into Shangri-La on accident.
I’d spent the night before in a thoroughly depressing motel on the western outskirts of town. My neighbors were a young couple — very young — the boy in mohawk and duffle bag, the girl not possibly over 17 years old. We’d picked it for the same reason, probably: it was the cheapest bed in town, now that Asheville’s one and only hostel is shut down. They were a little more creative than I in their money-saving techniques, though, and tried to sneak two friends into their room by having them circle back through the hemlocks behind the parking lot. The flat-faced manager had probably seen this tried a dozen times before, and was standing right there in the lot as they emerged from the trees, with a stern “You can just turn around and go right back up that hill,” on her lips. I found myself wondering how many cheap motels in America had this exact same mini-drama going on at that very moment. More than 50 I bet, though how much more I couldn’t say.
Solo travel can be a very depressing deal, especially in the U.S., where every service that caters to the traveler does its best to make one feel anonymous. A cheap motel room in Asheville is largely interchangable with one in any other town in the country, as is the coffee shop on the corner and the chain fast-food joint in the strip mall across the street. Anonymous surroundings convince me that I too lack a unique identity — am I also interchangable with the inhabitants of those Motel 6’s and Super 8’s in Boise or Sarasota?
The best cure for this sort of thinking is to seek out whatever’s unique about where you are. Not always an easy venture. Asheville, fortunately, has built it’s recent reputation on being singular and distinguishable, so finding reminders that I was here and not somewhere else didn’t require more than five minutes of driving.
Here’s something Asheville has that most towns its size don’t: at least a dozen different live music acts going on every night. The town’s only 100,000 people or so, so that’s a pretty steep ratio. I picked something at random from the local free paper, she turned out to be a bubbly lesbian folk singer named Catie Curtis from Boston. She was tall, wore retro glasses, told little stories about writing songs in hotel rooms in Amsterdam, and sang about a lover holding the steering wheel for her while she took off her jacket, or the church burning down in her hometown in Maine (“Well the church went DOWN….and it didn’t go GENT-LY…”)
It’s a great way to dispel anonymity — live music always has been for me, even if it’s not entirely my scene. They were charming songs, of course, and lots of adorable couples snuggled and cooed and dedicated songs to each other. One girl even got invited up in the middle of a song to sing the final few verses, which she of course knew by heart. Asheville takes its folk music seriously, and I was later informed by two different friends that Catie Curtis is a big deal in the folk world (“You got to see her *live*? Oh you are so *lucky*!!”).
Michi finally showed up the next evening — we met at a food co-op with tables out front — and promptly ran into a friend of hers working out in Cherokee who happened to be in town for the night. We got some dinner, cast around for some more live music, and ended up stumbling on a 50+ person drum circle in a small triangular park in the center of town. You could hear it from three blocks away, and a good fraction of the town was out to dance, or join in, or watch, or make up impromptu songs to sing along, as one beaming woman in long blond hair did, arms outstretched, spinning slowly in the cool evening air.
“Asheville has one of the largest Wicca communities in the country,” Michi’s friend informed me, and watching the seriousness with which most of the participants here seemed to take this ritual, I could believe him entirely. If you’re going to seek spiritual fulfillment in nature, you could do far worse than around here, in a place where every scrap of forest feels crammed with active, watchful life. Even towns feel a touch precarious here, as if a few years of neglect might find them reclaimed by the trees and ferns and rhododendron plants.