Chicago >> Yes, Asheville, N.C., is just a little too far for a long weekend’s road trip. It’s a good 10 hours of driving from Chicago, longer if you have human needs to satisfy en route. Plus you lose an hour getting there as you slip into Eastern time.
Lock the house and start the ignition around 7 a.m., and you’ll be in Asheville, give or take, by 9 that night. That’s close to one full day of your trip spent on the journey, with another day still to be sacrificed on the back end.
But it’s good to leave a place wanting more of it, and this college-hippie-mountain-music-brewer-artist-grandee town achieved that in the three full days our schedule allowed. We saw black bear cubs, live, by the side of the road on the Blue Ridge Parkway, a ship-size public sculpture by a MacArthur “genius grant” winner that breathed in and out, and the big old country house that everybody in Asheville visits, for good reason.
One of those good reasons to visit Biltmore, the absolutely massive old estate built by the Vanderbilt brand of 19th-century rapacious capitalism? Everybody, once in a lifetime, should witness a family house where the guest rooms are lined up like hotel suites and the basement poolside changing cubicles are nicer than your own home’s guest room.
Honestly, if we hadn’t planned this trip during the winter pandemic doldrums, and if we had known we’d be half-vaccinated by the time we left, in early April, we probably would have flown. But by the time we thought of pivoting, rental-car scarcity and costly plane tickets kept us on the road.
And my wife and I enjoy a good road trip: the podcasts (“West Cork,” this time), the pit stops and the way the miles roll by like life, slowly in the moment and then, with the steady application of foot to gas pedal, suddenly they are in the rear view. We treat ourselves, inevitably, to cheddar cheese Combos, a food we eat only on road trips, just as Food Network is a channel we watch only in hotel rooms. We read many of the signs out loud to one another, even though it is a thing our kids make fun of us for doing.
Road-weary and now expert on an Irish murder case we’d never before heard of, we pulled into the Asheville area on a crisp Saturday night. Once again, Louise had landed a charming Airbnb place, a modern country cottage about 15 miles north of town. (Pro tip to the young: You can marry for wealth, you can marry for wit, but it is not unwise to marry for good Airbnb skills.)
In between the cottage and Asheville proper is Weaverville, smaller and more rustic, but still with a relatively hopping main street — like you imagine Asheville used to be. We grabbed a Cow Tipper pizza (steak tips, balsamic and assorted veggies) and salad from Blue Mountain Pizza and drove back to the cottage to eat and plan.
OUR FIRST full day took us on a hike into the Blue Ridge Mountains. The stunning Blue Ridge Parkway, an epic scenic road through the mountainous mid-South that is not directly connected to interstates, is worth its own long vacation, although it is not for folks who fear landing in a headline that incorporates the verb “plunge.”
We set out for the Craggy Gardens trail, but a barricade blocked the final few miles, so we parked where everybody else did and worked our quads on a gentle hike that ended at the hilltop parking lot our car was denied access to. We were just ahead of the big spring blooming, alas, but the vistas at the crest of our walk were spectacular. While Asheville’s may be old, low mountains by the standards of their peers, we are from Illinois and therefore easily impressed by any elevation.
In town that afternoon and evening, we cruised the shops in the thriving and mostly open downtown. A thing about Asheville’s downtown business district: It is remarkably free of the major chains that have wormed into thriving downtown districts elsewhere.
So our local shopping highlight was the Woolworth Walk, a repurposed old Woolworth’s where the soda fountain looked and functioned as in the old days, but the display booths of local artists surrounded it.
We had wine, local beer and the Southern specialty pimento cheese (a spiced cheddar cheese-based spread) with artisanal potato chips from the shop around the corner at the 5 Walnut wine bar. We had coffee from the European patisserie up the street.
And dinner was at Rhubarb, on the open-air part of their patio, to indulge in chef John Fleer’s dishes built carefully from area ingredients — and to try to ignore the earnest Christian rock that proselytizers were singing, for hours on end that Sunday, our server told us, as they also waved “Jesus” flags in the public plaza across the way.
That this was the live music we heard in one of the core cities for my core musical taste, Americana/alt-country, was sad, of course, but the pandemic still had storied music venues like the Orange Peel weeks away from letting patrons back in. It was nice to at least walk by it, look at the posters for past shows and imagine.
WE HAD toted our bikes along because that’s a thing you can do on a road trip. (There are bike rental services located in Asheville for those who can’t bring their own.) So our visit to Biltmore, Asheville’s leading tourist attraction, included enough pedaling around the grounds to appreciate the sweep of vision by George Vanderbilt, architect Richard Morris Hunt and their landscape guy, Frederick Law Olmsted (known for Central Park in New York City and many of Chicago’s great green spaces).
There’s a stunning full-size portrait of Olmsted emerging from greenery that Vanderbilt elected to hang in a family gathering room, testament to the faith Vanderbilt put in the vision of his experts. Greater testament might be that it’s still vibrant as a place to visit today, this hyper-estate transformed into a sort of Gilded Age theme park.
Indeed, the best advice we read for the fairly pricey ticket (we paid $64 each, which included the house tour) was to treat it like going to Disneyland: Plan on spending the whole day, and just try to relax and roll with the place, from big house to winery to beautifully sculpted gardens. Heck, it even lets you pretend that gross economic inequality was a thing of bygone times.
OUR FINAL day centered on art stuff, including the art of the India pale ale. On the Blue Ridge Parkway outside of town, the Southern Highland Craft Guild, a longstanding high-end shop and gallery showcasing artisans from the nine states of the region, dazzles with its pottery, textiles, jewelry and woodwork.
And just outside passes the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, where we took our sandwiches and walked for a bit, although we did not quite achieve the sea.
It is probably unfair to say Asheville has a “brewery district” because craft beer venues seem to outnumber convenience stores. But we picked an area with two highly regarded brewers and stopped in at Burial and Green Man to enjoy the sunny Monday on their patios. Don’t tell the tax authorities, but some of Burial’s spectacular Surf Wax IPA may have been transported back to Illinois.
A little farther out from downtown, the city’s old riverside warehouses have been converted into a very funky arts and restaurant district. We were late in the day and early in the pandemic recovery to get the full sense of the offerings, but that is another reason to return to Asheville.