Subscribers to the 12MC Twitter site likely noticed that I’d been on vacation recently and probably already understood that it foreshadowed another travelogue. You’ll be happy with the next several articles if you like those.
I was in Western North Carolina using Asheville as my base of operations for the week. I wasn’t sure exactly what to call the region. Was it Western North Carolina, or merely Western Carolina? There was a Western Carolina University in Cullowhee and a Western Carolina Regional Airport in Andrews, both in North Carolina, although the name seemed to shortchange people who lived in Western South Carolina. Ultimately I decided to name this travel series "Western North Carolina" because it seemed to be more precise as well as the more common usage even though it offered an overabundance of cardinal directions in my mind. Either way I didn’t get too concerned.
First we had to get down to Asheville, though. I didn’t take the most logical or direct route. That would be anathema to any dedicated county counter worth his mettle. We headed first to Chapel Hill for an overnight stop. My wife had a connection to the University of North Carolina and this was her first trip back there in nearly twenty years. That’s how I sold a concept that would set-up a county counting adventure far away from Interstate Highways on the second day of the drive down to Asheville.
Chapel Hill remained as nice as it had a couple of decades ago so everyone seemed to enjoy the detour. I even noticed an interesting sundial outside of UNC’s Morehead Planetarium (map) that would have been a perfect addition to my remarkable sundials article had I known about it earlier.
What I Didn’t See
Biltmore House by Karl Palutke (cc)
We headed to Asheville after Chapel Hill. Surprisingly, or maybe not surprisingly, I spent several days in town and never caught a glimpse of its most famous attraction. I guess a random one-time reader who landed on this page through a search engine query might be surprised, even shocked with my decision. How could someone travel all the way to Asheville and completely avoid the Biltmore Estate — the largest home in the United States — constructed by George Vanderbilt in the 1890’s? Most of the regulars, however, probably knew that 12MC often disregarded the obvious sites for those more esoteric. Plus I’d already seen a bunch of large estates on my recent trip to Newport, Rhode Island. I didn’t need to see another house, not even the biggest one (map)
A tip of the hat goes to Loyal Reader Rhodent who suggested I focus my attention elsewhere. He offered sage advice that led to lesser-known attractions like…
Western North Carolina Nature Center
When I saw the phrase "nature center" I cringed a little because I thought it might be like the little nature center near my home. I expected the typical couple of rooms with turtles, snakes and a few dusty taxidermy birds, and maybe a short walking trail through the trees. The Western North Carolina Nature Center was actually more of a small zoo (map). It featured all the familiar fauna one would expect from the local area tucked into an expansive wooded hillside. The kids loved it. I will also add that the white-tail deer there were the luckiest ones alive. Imagine having shelter, regular feedings and a peaceful place to stay during hunting season!
I began each morning with a walk through a different section of Asheville. The city offered a compact inner-core and I became familiar with its basic layout quickly. Asheville centered on Pack Square Park (map) and radiated out in all directions from there. A larger share of what I’d lovingly call itinerant hippies congregated throughout downtown, certainly more than what I’d expected for a city of its size. They seemed harmless enough, as if the only real "danger" might involve an unexpected drum circle or getting tangled in a web of white guy dreadlocks, or perhaps catching a vague waft of smoke of questionable origin. I’m quite immune to panhandlers and buskers thanks to years of living and working in a highly urbanized environment so I just went about my walks.
Much of my wandering involved the South Slope area, named that way because it occupied a downhill slope immediately south of downtown. What the designation lacked in originality it made up for in accuracy. It was also an area of great transition and clearly hit a tipping point towards gentrification recently. The craft breweries came first and continued to arrive. A couple of years ago this was little more than several rows of small, grimy warehouses and blue-collar businesses in various states of disrepair. Some of those elements remained and I took great delight in finding the original remnants prior to their transformation. And certainly they will transform. Soon. I saw construction everywhere; loft apartments, boutiques and more breweries on the way.
I also enjoyed exploring the neighborhoods just north of downtown like Historic Montford and the areas around Charlotte Street (map) with beautiful homes from the turn of the last century up through the 1930’s. It reminded me a lot of my own neighborhood before people started bulldozing historic homes to replace them with McMansions. Hopefully Asheville has better zoning laws to protect its vintage character.
Asheville provided a great central hub to the natural beauty of the Appalachian Mountains with abundant hiking, climbing, swimming, and rafting. We would pursue all of those activities in due course. However I can’t deny that an immense concentration of breweries springing from the hillsides attracted my attention too. I like to visit breweries although I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll have an entire article devoted to Asheville breweries coming soon.
Twelve Mile Circle is just getting started on this Western North Carolina trip report. Hopefully there will be something for everyone whether casual tourists, outdoor enthusiasts, hardcore geo-geeks or whatever. In the meantime, feel free to view my public photo album if you simply can’t wait to see where this is all heading.
Western North Carolina articles:
One of the reasons I enjoyed the various marathon series offered by Mainly Marathons — other than the fact that I didn’t have to run them — was that they provided an opportunity to see parts of the country not normally encountered by casual tourists. I’ve done this twice now, first with the Dustbowl Series and now with the Riverboat Series. I chauffeured a runner from one obscure locale to another, and in return I could tweak the path to count new counties, capture geo-oddities, and experience undiluted Americana. I called that a fair bargain.
Graceland, well Graceland, certainly wasn’t an obscure destination lacking for tourism. I would have gone out of my way to visit Graceland eventually anyway so maybe it wasn’t the best example to begin this article. However it was the complete embodiment of Americana so it had to rise to the top of my list. The Cult of Elvis always fascinated me so Graceland (map) required my careful, respectful attention.
How could I possible choose a single photograph to represent such an astonishing cultural touchstone? Every single item, from the house itself to its outlandish furnishings of the Jungle Room, to the walls of platinum records, to the customized jet airplane with gold bathroom fixtures, simply everything shouted Elvis Presley. I selected the jumpsuits although feel free to scroll back-and-forth for other images. One exhibit included an entire series of jumpsuits and it was fascinating to observe when they first appeared in the early 1970’s as very simple designs, and progressed over the years with Elvis adding ever-increasing amounts of elaborate decorative elements including capes, rhinestones, embroidery and cowboy-sized belt buckles.
Travel Tip: arrive at Graceland just as it opens for the day and purchase Platinum tickets instead of VIP, then board the shuttle for the mansion grounds as the very first activity. This costs about half the price of VIP and an early arrival practically guaranteeing "front of the line" access offered by the VIP tour.
Of course I consulted 12MC’s Complete Index map before I left on my grand adventure. Doesn’t everyone? I wanted to see if I’d written about oddities along my expected path and whether they might merit a personal visit. I noticed a reference to Low Clearance, an article posted in February 2011. The story was all about extremely low overpasses, the kind that might rip the top off of a box truck like a can opener. One such example happened to be found in Henning, Tennessee and I would be driving directly past it (map). Typically I wouldn’t go out of my way just to see an 8’0″ (2.44 m) railroad trestle underpass, however this one involved a measly 30-second detour so why not?
I tweeted the photograph later that day as a victory salute, prompting an even more impressive return tweet from @mapman85 of a better example near Greenfield, Ohio: 7’5″!
I titled this photo, "Random creature made from tires outside of Dumas, Arkansas" (street view) and that pretty much described it. This wasn’t the best of photos although not so bad considering that it was captured from a moving automobile with a mobile phone; notice the side-view mirror in the lower left corner.
I never could understand what an oversized rubber humanoid had to do with a TV Repair business although that didn’t really matter either. That was the kind of whacky non sequitur I’d come to expect in these out-of-the-way places. Some guy wanted a giant tire sculpture in his front yard, and darn it, that’s what he was going to build right there.
Do people still get TV’s repaired anymore? Maybe he had a lot of time on his hands.
Two legendary highways intersected in Clarksdale, Mississippi (map). US Highway 61 ran north-south. We drove it from Vicksburg to Memphis through the heart of the flat, empty floodplain of the Mississippi Delta. This was the storied "Blues Highway," probably second only to Route 66 for its revered place in American nostalgia and culture (e.g., Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited).
US Highway 49 — while not as well known culturally as US 61 — also ran through the Delta. It would have crossed familiar territory to classic Blues musicians such as Big Joe Williams and Howlin’ Wolf who sang about it.
The Clarksdale, Mississippi intersection of these two storied highways came to be known as the Crossroads, and sometimes the Devil’s Crossroads. Legends pointed here as the place where bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in return for his musical skills, as supposedly referenced in his 1936 recording of "Cross Roads Blues." Of course that assumed one believed in such things, and if so, understanding that there were multiple Delta locations all laying claim to the actual Devil’s Crossroads. Tourism, you know.
Like the Tire Man, this Giant Mailbox didn’t seem to serve any purpose other than standing by the roadside whimsically and entertain passersby. One can appreciate the sense of scale by comparing it to the flagpole and the stop sign. We stumbled upon it unexpectedly as we drove up US Highway 65 in northeastern Louisiana. Well done Ben Burnside of Franklin Plantation, Newellton, Louisiana (street view).
Rest Stop Sundial
I suppose I became sensitized to sundials when I wrote Remarkable Sundials last year. We stopped at an otherwise unremarkable wayside along Interstate 40 in Tennessee as we returned home. I spotted a sculpture with a familiar shape from the corner of my eye, walked over to investigate it, and figured it to be a sundial of a sort (satellite view). I searched for it on the Intertubes when I returned home. It was a work called "Marking Time" by Preston Farabow installed in 2007.
A press release from the Tennessee Arts Commission provided all of the particulars, and noted that it "incorporates markers representing all 95 counties of the state." A county-counting sundial? That practically defined perfection in the Twelve Mile Circle universe.
The Riverboat Adventure articles:
I’ve had a bit of a sundial fixation since stumbling across the dueling Dodge City railroad time zone sundials during Kansas Mountain Time. I don’t think I’ll reach a point where I’m compelled to compile a list and go out of my way to visit them (as I do with lighthouses, fortifications and breweries), however I’d probably take a look if I found myself in the vicinity of a particularly remarkable specimen.
There are people infinitely more interested in sundials, and I certainly understand their passion for an esoteric topic considering my similar tendencies related to other objects. I found a couple of organizations where like-minded individuals can share their discoveries and promote their hobby, the North American Sundial Society (mentioned in the earlier article) and the British Sundial Society. There are other societies in different parts of the world although I didn’t have an opportunity to visit their sites. I also learned a new word: Gnomon. It has nothing to do with gnomes. It’s the part of a sundial that casts a shadow.
The world’s largest sundial is probably in Jaipur, India. I won’t focus much attention on it because Google Sightseeing already discussed it. Feel free to check it out if you’re interested. I’ll wait until you come back.
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I discovered a particularly elegant example in Redding, California. A bridge shaped in the manner of a sundial spans the Sacramento River, joining the north and south campuses of the Turtle Bay Exploration Park. The operative word is "shaped" like a sundial since it’s not actually functional. As the North American Sundial Society explains,
When is a bridge not a bridge? When it’s almost a sundial. The 217 foot high suspension span called Sundial Bridge wants to be a sundial, and has come very close. The suspension pylon is aligned true north, but unfortunately performs as an inaccurate gnomon with an inclination of 49 deg (for bridge functionality) rather than for the 40.6 deg latitude of the site.
If we moved the bridge due-north to make it functional, changing its location to 49° latitude without changing the longitude (map) it would serve a bridge between the United States and Canada at O Avenue, a spot mentioned previously in Big Zero. I love life’s little coincidences.
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Maybe I just like the name. Carefree Sundial sounds, well, so very carefree. The dial is found in a town of the same name outside of Phoenix, Arizona. Carefree is one of those upscale planned communities that sprouted from the desert for the benefit of snowbirds and retirees in the 1950’s. Residents live along Nonchalant Avenue, Never Mind Trail, Happy Hollow Drive, Lazy Lane, Dream Street, Ho Road, Hum Road, and Ho Hum Drive.
A shopping center within the development includes a large sundial centerpiece to accent a partial roundabout. From the North American Sundial Society, again:
A 90 ft. diameter horizontal dial with a large reflecting pool beneath the gnomon designed by John Yellott. The hour markers are 4 ft. diameter concrete circles. The dial is designed to show solar time corrected for the time zone offset. Thus the hour markers have been moved ahead of the solar time position. The hour lines are separated by alternating dark and light colored stones. The gnomon itself is 4 ft. wide, 62 ft. long and the tip is 35 ft. high. A pilot dial at a scale of 1/4 in. = 1ft. is at the South end of the large dial. It is constructed of gold-anodized aluminum with time lines at 10 minute intervals.
Actually Carefree seems a bit schizophrenic. Other roads within the community include Bloody Basin Road, Long Rifle Road and Sidewinder Road. Imagine living at the corner of Nonchalant and Bloody Basin (like this guy). It’s an odd juxtaposition.
Falcon Square Sundial
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I found this beauty listed as a Dial of the Month by the British Sundial Society. This is Falcon Square in Inverness, Scotland.
Four scaphe dials are located around the base of a 27-foot Mercat Cross in Falcon Square, Inverness. The obelisk is topped by a bronze unicorn, and decorated with four flying falcons. The dials are robustly designed by Emma Lavender, and show BST with declination lines marked by their zodiac symbols.
Got that? The small sundials are located on the base. I enjoyed the unicorn even more, though. It’s not everyday that one has an opportunity to view a unicorn high atop a column unless one lives in Scotland, where the royal unicorn is a symbol of the Scottish monarchy. We need more unicorn sundials.
Museum Puspa Iptek Bandung, Indonesia
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This single object explains why the vast preponderance of 12MC content focuses on English-speaking locations. It’s not because I don’t care about the rest of the world because I most certainly do, it’s because my comprehension of any language other than English falls terribly short of any level of usefulness. Google offered a very tantalizing option: thebiggestsundial.com only to lead me to a site written primarily in an Indonesian language. "The biggest sundial" seemed really specific and sounded like it was going to be English-friendly. I could recognize only a couple of words: "Sundial (Jam Matahari) adalah seperangkat alat yang digunakan sebagai petunjuk waktu semu lokal (local apparent time) dengan memanfaatkan MATAHARI yang menghasilkan bayang-bayang sebuah gnomon (batang atau lempengan yang bayang-bayangnya digunakan sebagai petunjuk waktu)."
Let me see: sundial… local apparent time… gnomon… and it went downhill from there.
Google Translate helped with basic meanings. It was still ridiculously difficult to uncover the actual location of the sundial. Eventually I found it but only because several visitors had posted on foursquare. The sundial was incorporated into the design of a building that houses the Puspa Iptek museum, a facility that focuses on science and technology.
Best Product I’ve Seen in a Long Time
I wish, I so wish I lived on the 51st latitude, north. Then I could purchase the Sundial Glass. I could combine my neurotic fixation on punctuality with my abundant appreciation of craft beers into one convenient package.
It’s an over-sized pint glass. It’s a sundial. It actually tells time! Unfortunately it was designed for Brighton, England although the website does explain that it will work anywhere along the same basic latitude. Kyle, the Basement Geographer, in British Columbia might be able to use it. Me? I’m out of luck until someone invents one for 39° north.