At a mom-and-pop bbq joint some 75 miles east of Atlanta we charted our course.
We had just arrived from Savannah, a nearly four-hour drive from the southeast.
We parked ourselves at two lunch counter stools in front of a window facing an Athens, GA sidewalk. The restaurant was small enough that, on busy days, a line forms out the door and stretches halfway to the University of Georgia.
The interior walls were plastered with autographed photos of past UGA athletes and upcoming team schedules.
At the rear of the place, which can be more accurately described as a cafeteria, was a display case full of homemade southern comfort food. The walls of the tin serving trays buckled under the weight of overflowing mac and cheese, collard greens, potato salad, mashed potatoes, wild rice, cole slaw, and baked beans.
In the back, a middle-aged couple tended to a stable of smoked, slow-cooked, dry-rubbed, and sauced-up meats; tender, juicy, and artfully charred. Wanna-be vegetarians, we willingly tossed aside our herbivorous morals into a pile of sustenance-stripped pork bones and drumsticks.
It was a no-brainer for us to order the sampler plate — in its own right a great smoky mountain of beans, mac and cheese, grilled chicken breast, pulled pork, ribs, and kielbasa. As we razed the mountain, we pulled up and pored over a map displayed on my mobile phone.
“We can either take this route straight north through the Smokies, this one that goes right along the foothills, or this one which is the most direct but skirts pretty much all of the range,” I said pointing to various points on the screen with a saucy finger.
“Let’s go straight through the mountains,” Bridget said between wiping bbq from her face and hands.
The tallest mountain peak in New England is in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and that designation befalls Mount Washington — an often grueling but always gratifying hike. In fact Mount Washington is the tallest peak east of the Mississippi River and north of the Smokies.
As we drove due north out of Georgia, the elevated terrain grew increasingly craggy and pointed. Before long, it felt like we were driving due up. That is to say, we encountered our first true, formidable mountain. We climbed steadily and at a modest speed, like the initial incline of a towering roller coaster. Up ahead the road simply kept going. Whenever it seemed we neared the summit, the road would merely bend through a mountain pass, or be interrupted by dense fog that rolled down neighboring slopes with the appearance of an avalanche. Outside, the vegetation grew increasingly alpine.
The ascents and descents we encountered made the White Mountains, and even Mount Washington, seem like speed bumps.
We wound through sparse hilltowns that, from our view, consisted of little more than roadside stops for coffee, antiques (sometimes both under one roof), and the occasional restaurant. Populations for these places number, at most, in the hundreds.
On paper the drive from Athens to our destination of Asheville, North Carolina is roughly three hours. On the road amongst the jagged summits, time felt as endless as the seemingly infinite expanse of the Smokies themselves.
Though due to time constraints we were unable to actually set foot in the mountains, our visibility provided enough stimulation and evoked plenty of sentimentality. The Smokies elicit notions of untamed ruggedness, a feeling of liberation in the heart of the wilderness; a true pioneering spirit, juxtaposed by the regality and majesty of the Blue Ridge to the north, or the stateliness of the White Mountains further beyond them. Between here and Virginia, after all, is where Americans channeled that spirit into blazing trails westward to the frontier.
Onward and upward we continued until late-afternoon when we meandered into Asheville.
There’s a certain element to some cities that are attracting more and more young adults and it extends beyond affordability.
A pattern has emerged among cities that are small or medium-sized, have an industrial or manufacturing-type history, have endured the spiraling of these industries, and have given way to economical living that initially attracts artists and other creatives. In New England, think of Portland, ME; Portsmouth, NH; Salem, MA; Northampton, MA; and even, on the larger end of the spectrum, Boston.
These types of cities are experiencing a renaissance and Asheville, NC is no exception.
Situated where the Smokies meet the Blue Ridge, Asheville is home to a particular breed of American that has stamped a sort of hillbilly grittiness on the city. That is to say, locals appear and act independent, untrammeled, and self-reliant.
Combined with a penchant for homemade and homegrown food, drink, and craft, and a deeply rooted aversion to corporate interests and mainstream enterprises, Asheville has drawn a number of people searching for a low cost of living and a high return of fulfillment.
As a consequence of this collective temperament and outlook, Asheville has gained a reputation as a sanctuary for artists and brewers alike.
With just an afternoon and an evening to drink it all in, we set out on foot and enjoyed innumerable eateries, unkempt houses, specialty shops, and droves of residents, all of which and whom in some way upheld the city’s recently adopted motto: UnChain AVL.
If we hadn’t been looking so intently at our surroundings, we could’ve easily missed it. Sitting across from and in between gravelly parking lots was a brick warehouse with garage doors up allowing passersby to peer inside at its stores. The signage above the doors read, in slim and black capital letters “LEXINGTON GLASSWORKS.”
Upon a second and keener look inside from the street, we were drawn in closer like crows to a cornfield.
An airy showroom was set up just beyond the threshold. On tables, pedestals, shelves, and hanging on wires suspended from the ceiling was a trove of vibrant and dynamic pieces of blown glass.
The colors were explosive, vivid, and so varied it looked as though the entire gallery was being shown through a prism.
Cups, plates, bowls, vases, pitchers, decanters, ornaments, wine glasses, and decorative orbs were on full display. Pendants, fixtures, and chandeliers hung freely from above.
Each item boasted a unique design. Some were made of colored material, others were painted, some opaque, and some transparent ; some were bedazzled with glassy beads that had been smelted on, some were left purposefully impure and imperfect with bubbles built inside; some were blown into distinctive shapes and likenesses of animals, some were wrapped in or fused with completely different types of glass.
It was like we were walking around an exhibit of modern art, crammed into a single exhibit hall.
But then we noticed that the showroom extended further back, and beyond that were archetypal Ashevillian features.
It was really just one additional room but with dual functionality. To the right was a workspace and viewing area where the glassblowers honed and utilized their craft while onlookers were treated to an interactive art show.
A massive, metallic kiln was set up against the wall and in front of that were workstations where the artists could roll, spin, stretch, cut, mold, and combine their works. Two round ports called “glory holes,” one sealed shut and the other illuminated by a fiery orange hue, were where the pieces were inserted and baked at unfathomable temperatures.
Various tools that resembled a dentist’s teeth cleaning equipment, only massive, were strewn about. A precautionary wooden railing was set up to keep the spectators at a safe distance but within full view of the commotion.
To the left was a small bar with four or five local beers on tap and just a handful of stools for patrons to take a load off. Occupying a fraction of the adjacent wall was Lexington Glassworks shirts, hats, and other swag.
On days when the establishment’s artists are firing up pieces of glass, spectators could wash down a frosty brew while watching the forging of art and listening to the artists give a step-by-step explanation of what they were doing, and how and why they were doing it.
We first caught sight of the UnChain AVL mantra when we initially parked our car in town and noticed shops and boutiques displaying signs of it in their windows.
The impetus of the signs, we were told by our informative bartenders at both Lexington Avenue Brewery and Urban Orchard Cider Company, was the ultimately successful attempt for the clothing store Anthropologie to open a location downtown.
Civic-minded residents undertook a guerilla campaign against Anthropologie, signaling a warning to corporate chains, big-box stores, and their supporters, that their absence from Asheville keeps the city unsullied while promoting local goods.
Indeed the UnChain AVL slogan signifies the pulse of the city while another, Keep Asheville Weird, signifies its soul.
Asheville, like a number of other progressive municipalities, prides itself on its oddities, irregularities, and general weirdness.
The most effective way of engaging with Asheville’s self-aggrandized weirdness is with its people.
Asheville’s motley population of locals and visitors stems, in part, from its location. It lies within the borders of North Carolina. In recent history, the North Carolina majority has had a conservative bent when it comes to presidential elections but at the state-level it’s been more liberal leaning.
Geographically, Asheville’s location is in the country’s regional south. Latitudinally, Asheville is as far west as the western border of West Virginia.
North Carolina’s population and economic hubs (Charlotte, Raleigh) are more centrally located in the state, leaving Asheville as somewhat of an outlier in a more rural environment.
And Asheville is nestled in the heart of Appalachia, a culture distinctly original and made possible by generations of westward movement, remote living, and the area’s omnipotence of gritty backcountry living.
Throw in a University of North Carolina satellite campus along with several additional institutions, and you can start to get a sense of Asheville’s lifeblood.
The city sits on the edge of artistic, cultural, and educational innovations while remaining steadfastly attached to its roots. It’s like a dirty martini made with moonshine.
People of these backgrounds and more joined us as patrons for one of Asheville’s greatest pastimes: drinking.
(Not to mention, beer in Asheville is a billion dollar contributor to the local economy).
The beers and ciders we imbibed at Lexington Avenue Brewery, Asheville Brewing Company, and Urban Orchard Cider were fresh and delicious. As the craft alcohol industry continues to teem here in Massachusetts, tasting the similarities and differences between the northern and southern varieties quickly becomes a tasting exercise that even the most unrefined palate can enjoy.
The usual beer flavor notes come through in varying degrees of potency; malt, hops, pine, citrus, or even lack thereof.
For beer in Asheville, the most tastebud tickling brew I enjoyed was called the Fire Escape Pale Ale, infused with jalapeno pepper, from Asheville Brewing Company. I’ve sipped a similar concoction from Ballast Point but this local version was much sharper. The initial swallow evoked the zest of a blonde ale, light and pale in color with juicy notes and a subtle sweetness.
Once down the hatch, the ale notes receded while an almost numbing sensation crept up. The spice was present but not overwhelming. The fiery sensation lasted long enough to enjoy it without becoming overwhelming, and turned the entire profile into something more zesty and complete. These divisions of flavor was as if the beer itself was the stagehand of a theatrical production notifying the taster of Act 1, intermission, and Act 2.
I enjoyed the Ballast Point version but mostly for its novelty. Its peppery flavor was more intense, rendering it good to enjoy maybe once in awhile. But Asheville Brewing’s rendition was something of which I could enjoy multiple in a single sitting.
Urban Orchard offered the greatest selection of ciders I’ve ever tasted. Going well beyond the typical dry and crisp characteristics, Urban Orchard mixed and melded cider flavors the likes of which had never graced my tongue.
Like Asheville Brewing, they had a jalapeno cider. But they also introduced such additives as vanilla, lavender, ginger, berries, pineapple, peach, and cucumber.
If the right cider is the result of a delicate dance between ingredients, Urban Orchard is the master choreographer.
My quick stint in the AVL opened my eyes to its unmatched brand of weirdness but I hardly saw the depth of it. If the regal mountain beauty, homemade products, and priceless people watching isn’t enough to make you want to visit, a brief examination of Asheville’s numerous subcultures is enough to pique the interest of anyone with a pulse.
There’s so much to drink in, both literally and figuratively, but despite taking to the town for less than 12 hours I feel like I experienced much of what makes Asheville an inclusive, Appalachian sanctuary.
Every facet of Asheville is like a colorful bead of blown glass, or an aromatic ingredient in a beer or a cider together composing an extraordinary piece of art or pint of drink conceived high in the mountains; the city is elaborate, complex, colorful and perfectly imperfect.
Its unchained and it’s weird. Locals and tourists alike should strive to keep it that way.f