Welcome to Asheville, North Carolina! If you’re American, my guess is that you already know about this city, at least by reputation. However, for my readers abroad, I’m going to start at the beginning, because there’s a lot of regional context that is needed to explain why Asheville is special.
Appalachia & The Great Smoky Mountains
Asheville is nestled deep in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains. Even though I’ve lived in relatively close proximity to this mountain range for the majority of my life, I often forget about it. These sleepy, green giants don’t exactly scream for attention the way the Rockies, or the Alps, or the Himalayas do, but make no mistake: this region has some formidable topography. Don’t believe me? Try driving across the North Carolina / Tennessee border at night. It can be a stressful drive. I know because I’ve done it like 6 times in the past few months, once in torrential rain. Anyway, even if you’re not passing through the region to escape into nature, it’s hard to avoid feeling a bit overwhelmed by your surroundings. On a summer night, if you hike out to a bluff in the middle of these mountains to look around, you will see fireflies lighting up the rolling, leafy mountain tops like Christmas lights, putting the stars in the sky to shame. And in the mornings, you will awake to a landscape that is perpetually shrouded in mist, hence this region being called the “Smokies.”
While the Smokies are definitely well known, they are actually just a small subset of the Appalachia Mountains, which run up the spine of the greater Appalachia region. The entire region is full of natural beauty, but in the southernmost stretches of Appalachia, there is a large pocket that takes on a very distinct, “smoky” ambience. These are the Great Smoky Mountains. You can see them outlined in the dark blue on the map above, whereas the lighter blue encircle greater Appalachia. You can interact with this map if you want to get a better feel for things.
Now let’s put the natural beauty of the area aside for a moment. If you’re looking in from the outside, Appalachia might not be a particularly attractive region of America to visit from a social perspective. This is the sticks. These are the backwaters of every State that it touches (except for West Virginia of course, which is completely engulfed by this region, and therefore often regarded as being “the sticks” of the whole country). If you’re wondering what that says about the ~25 million people who live across this region, let me just tell you that this is Trump country. The implications of this vary depending on who you ask, and it all feels a lot more nefarious now that Trump is actually in power… but the non-partisan punchline is that things here haven’t changed much. And this part of the country hardly enters the thoughts of most Americans. This is “fly-over” country, and I think think the ubiquitous elitism of even that phrase has a lot to do with what got Trump elected in the first place. In recent decades, this has been an economically depressed part of the country. The presiding sentiment across this region definitely seems to be that America is moving on without them, forgetting about them, and that hurts. I think that, when you really drill down to the core of things, the 2016 election hinged on that emotion. And that is very valid. ANYWAY, enough politics.
For all the geopolitical baggage encapsulated by America’s regional divides, Appalachia holds a very unique regional lore that stretches back hundreds of years. Think log cabins in the wilderness and blue grass music. It’s got some very cool stuff going on, which leads me to Asheville.
So Asheville is surrounded by some pretty strong personalities. There aren’t many cities in this neighborhood that are frequent travel destinations, but Asheville is special.
Tucked away in almost the exact center of the Smoky Mountains, this city an artsy, crunchy, progressive safe-haven, full of art galleries, beer breweries, wilderness exploration outfitters, and organic grocery stores. It’s pretty much the dream! Many people who come here do so as a stop-over before excursions into Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but the city itself is becoming a destination in its own rite. Hence our visit.
It’s worth noting that Asheville is quite a small city. As of 2016, the population was less than 90,000, which is TINY! Asheville definitely feels small, but I was surprised to learn just how small it truly is. And yet, it manages to house 11 universities, as well both soccer and baseball (minor league) teams. It’s reputation is also felt very strongly across the region, particularly when it comes to politics. North Carolina is an extremely conservative state, so you can always count on the events happening within Asheville’s city limits to be focused heavily on the struggle between red and blue. For example, in 2009 a group of citizens challenged the legitimacy of a member of city council on the grounds that the North Carolina Constitution forbids atheists from holding public office. His term was upheld and anybody watching the news that day rolled their eyes.
In this article, we’re going to cover a few major Asheville bullet points. And then, in subsequent articles, we’ll drill down into a few Asheville’s more specific attractions. If you read this series start to finish, I promise you’ll be in for a few surprises.
Here’s something that might feel a little out of place here in the heart of Appalachia: did you know that Asheville has one of the highest concentrations of Art Deco architecture in the U.S.? In fact, Asheville’s Downtown area is chock-full of buildings that will fascinate architecture nerds for generations to come. Styles include Romanesque Revival, Neoclassical, Spanish Renaissance, Beaux Arts, and Gothic. But the defining style that defines this modest city scape is Art Deco. This is a memento of a very different time in Ashevillian history.
Let’s rewind about 100 years. The early 1900s were a great time to be in Asheville. It was a boom town. In addition to being a frequent haunt for some of the great American luminaries like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, it was also home to the Vanderbilts (as well as their lavish Biltmore Estate, which we will get to in a later article). But the roaring ‘20s came to a particularly brutal end here with the start of the Great Depression. Asheville’s biggest banks all folded, and the city quickly found itself—translated to today’s dollars—about $111 million in debt. As America moved out of the Great Depression and into WWII, while many cities were beginning to build skyscrapers, Asheville went against the grain and remained committed to paying down this debt instead spending more money. As a result, much of the pre-Depression architecture was allowed to live into the modern era. And now, it’s just part of Asheville’s personality. Here’s a map of the Downtown area where this type of architecture is most prevalent:
So when I first arrived in Downtown Asheville, most of what I just told you went straight over my head. To me it was just some old buildings. The real story was the Indie-Hippie-Appalachia culture swirling around in the spaces between these old buildings. Book stores. Cafés. Restaurants. Street musicians. Bakeries. Smoke shops. Community gardens. More restaurants. Things were happening! A LOT of people were out walking, which—for my non-American readers—is not typical of this region of America. To walk and be outside is normal in cities like New York and San Francisco, but in Middle America people always drive their cars and the streets are like a ghost town. But not in Asheville. People were out an about. There was energy. It was bustling.
We came to Asheville on a random 3-day weekend and there were multiple festivals happening around the city simultaneously that Saturday. (But people were still out and about on the other 2 days). Pictured below, in addition to an assortment of my favorite photos from around Downtown are shots from a Vegan festival (of course) and from a street festival with 2 music stages. The woman pictured in the header of this article was randomly walking through the crowd on stilts and in costume. I don’t want to be judge-mental—I’m sure she has a healthy perspective on her weird hobby, or maybe she was commissioned by somebody to do this—but she looked freaking creepy. But I had a great time taking pictures of her over the crowd.
River Arts District
I think the thing about Asheville that surprised me the most was the art scene. Asheville’s art scene is off the hook. In one of the next articles, I’m going to give you a heavy dose of Asheville’s street art (this was actually my favorite street art article to date) but aside from all of that, Asheville has a well established community of artists and galleries that seems to be doing very well for itself. Walking around Downtown it’s not hard to find one of these galleries, but if you’d rather go straight to the nucleus, set your GPS to the River Arts District. Here’s a map for you…
On the banks of the French Broad River, in an area of decaying, abandoned factories and warehouses, a vibrant arts district has popped up like a plant growing through a crack in a concrete slab. Indeed, most of these abandoned industrial structures have been converted into studios and galleries, and the crazy part is that most of them are open to the public all day everyday.
In the pictures below, I went from looking suspiciously up at run-down industrial buildings from the street level, to standing in their basements about 40 seconds later. These spaces were all relentlessly artistic, and mostly not quite as “restored” as I would have imagined. The lack of insulation or climate control seems like these would make for pretty terrible offices, but there is a large community of artists that actively work out of these warehouses.
Walk a little further and you’ll see that a few cafés have opened up, along with a few restaurants, a few apartments, a relator’s office, a dentist—all the usual suspects when it comes to gentrification. The River Arts District is still mostly warehouses and vacant lots, but give it a few years. The clock is ticking before Urban Outfitters opens up a location here.
So, if you’re going to visit Asheville’s River Arts District, when is the best time to come?
Great question! From May to December, on the 2nd Saturday of each month, the galleries and studios here all come together for an event called “A Closer Look.” During this event galleries will run exhibits, invite artists, etc, and tons of Ashevillians will come to explore and socialize. There is also the bi-annual “Studio Stroll,” which is a lot like what I just said… but more. The dates on that vary so you’ll just have to Google it. But even if none of the above is happening during your visit to Asheville, you should still check this neighborhood out. I did, and this is some of what I saw…
Blue Ridge Parkway
Of course, 50% of what makes Asheville special isn’t so much what’s actually happening in the city, as it is where the city is located. Asheville is literally smack-dab in the middle of the Great Smoky Mountains. Its airport is pretty tiny, so most people that come in and out of this city do so via car. Any way you slice it, driving in and out of Asheville is going to be a spectacularly scenic drive, but there is one road that stands out above all the rest as the most beautiful. I’m talking about the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is widely said to be the most beautiful drive in America. That feels like a bold statement to me… but I can definitely see how it would be close to the top of the list. This road is a portal to another, much greener, much foggier dimension. Of all the small, winding mountain roads that snake their way through the Smoky Mountains, this is the longest and most eventful, which is why it has earned itself such a reputation. Here it is on the map for you if you’re curious:
We actually did not set off with the intention of driving the Blue Ridge Parkway. Originally, the plan was just to find a place to watch the sun set over the city of Asheville. This place is surrounded by mountains on all sides, I figured that there MUST be a decent look-out point with great views of the city somewhere. But after some Googling, I was coming up short. The most promising lead that I had been able to find was a small leafy corridor called Town Mountain Road. I did the math and figured there HAD to be somewhere along this road were I could take that magic sunset picture of Asheville from above. So, roughly an hour before sunset, we set out in search of the perfect spot.
Long story short, we actually found a few perfect spots that looked like they would have had incredible views… but they were all on private property, hence out of our reach. We drove around up on this mountain for quite a while hoping to find some sort of public lookout or elevated clearing whose view was not impeded by trees, but no such luck. Finally, in a wealthy mountain-top neighborhood that seemed to have a dozens of amazing lookout points (none of them accessible to us), we came across a house that was having a sunset potluck outside. Time was running short, so I decided to make a bold move. We parked the car and I walked up this driveway towards the people. “Mommy, who is that strange man walking toward us!” I quickly found myself speaking to the owner of the house, a guy named Dave. He seemed a bit weirded out by my dropping in, but was happy to show me where he thought a good lookout point would be on the map. His recommendation was a place called “Craggy Dome,” which was 30 minutes further into the mountains. Odds were slim that we would be able to see Asheville from there, but seeing the Smokies at sunset would be better than nothing, so we took his advice. Shoutout to Dave!
This is where we got onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s a gorgeous drive. We pulled off a couple of times before we got to Craggy Dome and the took the following photos, but time was running dangerously low now, so we didn’t stay in any of these places for long.
Fast forward through 20 minutes of speedy mountain driving, and my Google Maps app was showing that we were very close to arrival. But then, we turned a corner and drove full-speed into a cloud. By the time we got to Craggy Dome, the cloud had only gotten thicker. We stood around for a while at the top of the mountain waiting for the fog to blow away (this tactic of just waiting around worked for me once in Indonesia, so I still had hope), but it never did. I took a few fun photographs of passing headlights through the fog, and then we headed back down through a foggy, Smoky Mountain dusk.
So remember, SMOKY is the operative word in the “Great Smoky Mountains.” I was a little bummed, but it was an adventure and a great way to tell you about the Blue Ridge Parkway. Oh well.
Consider that your introduction to Asheville and the surrounding area! Up next we’ll be exploring some of what is actually in the city of Asheville, from donuts to street art to the largest private home in America. I bet most of you will be surprised at how much there is in this tiny city. I know I definitely was.
Track of the day comes from one of my favorite crunchy bands. Farmhouse was a great album btw.
Yeah, I said it.