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:
- Part 1 (Asheville)
- Part 2 (Blue Ridge Parkway Loop)
- Part 3 (Cherokee Loop)
- Part 4 (Beer Tourism)
- Part 5 (Exclamation Point)
- Part 6 (County Counting Adventures)