Applachian Interlude

All those things that people say about the South–the terrible food, the accents, the double-wide trailers, the poor dentistry–are misconceptions, if not downright mendacity.  Although, having recently visited Appalachia, it’s pretty easy to see the source of the tropes.

Lifelongnewyorker, along with Mr. NYer and the Abandoned One,  just spent a week in Western North Carolina (yes, they upper-case the “W”), aka the Southern Highlands or Southern Appalachia.

We drove to the Atlanta airport last week and stopped just long enough for the Abandoned One to load his gear and jump into the car.  Then we headed north through Georgia and into North Carolina.

It rained most of the way, but no matter.  We stopped at a roadside farmers’ market in Georgia where no fewer than six different varieties of ripe peaches were for sale, and ordered some pulled pork BBQ sandwiches from the nearby stand.  We didn’t buy the peaches, figuring “hey, it’s high summer … there will be more ahead.”

We did not realize that the roadside stands in North Carolina would offer other specialities.  Yes, these include the ubiquitous “boiled p-nuts” found throughout the South.  I have yet to figure out why anyone thinks it’s a good idea to boil peanuts, or what they offer that unboiled peanuts don’t.  Along the roadside here you can also buy fresh pork rinds (surely an oxymoron), jellies, eggs, chicks, quails and goats.

This part of North Carolina is an intensely odd mixture of the urbane and the backwoods, the hip and the heavenly, the affluent and the poor.  It’s also nature-rich.

We began our trip with three nights in Asheville, at a lovely non-chain hotel called the Princess Anne.  A single trip to downtown confirmed the town’s rep as a center of highland hipness.  The old downtown, its 1920s-era buildings filled with restaurants, bars, yoga studios and bookstores, was peopled by 20-somethings with the tattoos, body piercings, ironic facial hair and retro-avant garde fashion sense that screams “here there be hipsters.”  Alongside these native denizens strolled grey-haired couples, he in khakis, she in white capris and a nice pastel shirt, sensible shoes, and money in their pockets.

All the urbanity and hipness in the world can’t stop religion, though.  So I held back my surprise at seeing a full-page ad proving that the United States was founded as a Christian nation dependent on Jesus Christ in the Asheville paper one morning.  The proof?  A dozen or so quotes, taken out of context, from notables from Thomas Paine (oh, the richness of that!) through John Adams and Abe Lincoln right up to Theodore Roosevelt.

That theme was repeated farther west, where local churches rented billboards proclaiming that the United States was founded on the 10 Commandments, and then thoughtfully laid an image of said commandments, inscribed on tablets, atop an American flag.

If you go north, west or south from Asheville, and you’re not in a Baptist church parking lot, you’re in either a national forest, a national park or a state park.  The Blue Ridge Parkway passes through town.  It’s an island of civilization in the midst of a natural garden.

And what an island of civilization:  Asheville is not just a haven of hipness, it’s a foodie’s town.  We had our choice of restaurants, vegan and non-vegan, and dined happily.

And while there we did what you must do while in Asheville: visit Biltmore, the largest private home in the United States (250 rooms), built by George Vanderbilt, grandson of Staten Island’s own Cornelius.

As I said, it’s virtually impossible to visit Asheville without a stop at Biltmore.  It’s more impossible to be a student of American history and not visit.  So many threads get woven together at Biltmore.  The first two generations of Vanderbilts built an empire (shipping and railroads) and accumulated two fortunes.  The next generation began to spend it.  So at once you have the legacy of one of the country’s first and greatest tycoons, the taint of robber-barony, the excesses made possible by an official government policy of laissez-faire (these were pre-income tax fortunes), and the untold stories of ruthless competition and worker exploitation that lay behind the fortunes.

On the other hand, there’s this incredible vision and talent that came together to create the estate: Richard Morris Hunt, the architect, travels with his client to Europe doing research on castles and villas before designing the French-style château; Frederick Law Olmsted is brought in to design the landscape and the gardens.  Vanderbilt bought a mountain top and tens of thousands of acres of forest.  He eventually hired Gifford Pinchot, who believed in managing forests for sustainability (i.e. not just for this current generation), to manage his forest.  In some ways, this Vanderbilt’s effort contributed to the creation eventually of the National Forest Service.

You walk through these gardens and these rooms–filled with European antiquities, Renoirs, family portraits by John Singer Sergent, porcelain, silk wallcoverings, gilded walls, fireplaces in every room, a dining room that soars seven stories up to the rooftop–and you realize that this wasn’t even the richest guy in America at the time.  But at least we have it now.

Sort of.  Biltmore is still owned by descendants of the Vanderbilts.  Their ancestors built an empire of steam; they’ve built an empire of tourism that wants to be a lifestyle empire a la Martha Stewart.  Your admission ticket buys you access to the house, garden and estate.  During your garden visit, you can shop at the nursery.  Inside the house, you can buy the audio tour or one of several “behind the scenes” guided tours.  The stables have been converted to a series of eateries and giftshops.  Drive a little further along and you come to Antler Village, with yet more restaurants, an outdoor center where you can rent bikes, arrange a rafting trip on the French Broad River (it runs through the estate), a kayak on the same, or visit an establishment called the “Biltmore Legacy.”  Part museum, part high-end gift shop, here you can learn yet more about the family enterprise and order the china, fabrics and furniture that constitute the Biltmore lifestyle.

You don’t have to be a Vanderbilt, I guess.

Anyway, after having our fill of refinement, we sought out a bit of wilderness with a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway, a stop at the Folk Art Center, and another fine dinner before setting out to the West.

And here’s the amazing thing.  Travel twenty miles to the west and you’re in a different world. Between the Pisgah National Forest, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and the Nantahala National Forest, most of the western part of the state is protected and natural.  It’s a land of unbelievable lushness, with scores of rivers, hundreds of waterfalls, thousands of miles of trails, and more nature than is, well, natural east of the Mississippi.

As you would expect, there are lots of vacation homes and hotels to support tourism, which is undoubtedly the area’s chief industry these days.  And yet, and yet, well … there’s plenty of evidence of an older–and impoverished–culture lying pretty near the surface.

We rented a cabin in Bryson City, a site we chose because of its proximity to a number of nature destinations AND because as a somewhat major town we figured we’d be able to find decent food.

The first night we ate at a Mexican restaurant with the charm of a bus station, and service to match (the check came along with the entrée), but the food was very good.  Little did we know how quickly downhill it would go from there.

Happy and full, we walked to the other end of the strip mall that housed the Mexican place to Fred’s, a local supermarket.  There we found several varieties of salt pork and fat back for sale, boxes of  lard but not a single tub of butter (margarine is the spread of choice), a brick of something called “liver mush,” a three-foot long tube of meat which I mistook at first for salami but then realized was ground beef, and the most anemic and paltry selection of produce that has ever been assembled in a grocery store.

Our meals in Bryson City were best when we ordered the local specialty, buffalo burger.   But after a day hiking in the woods, tubing a river, kayaking or ziplining, it filled you up, even if every menu choice was grilled or fried, and nary a fresh vegetable was to be seen.

The lowpoint came after a day in the national park.  We passed through Cherokee, the chief town in the Cherokee reservation — a tiny parcel of land that these American Indians managed to hold onto despite the presidency of Andrew Jackson and the immense popular will of the (white) American people to take it all away.  Not all Cherokee traveled the Trail of Tears; some stayed here, but no doubt shed a few tears of their own.

The homes are rusted out trailers or run-down cabins with washers on the porches.  The main drag is lined with souvenir shops, and old motels from the 50s may now be out of business, but their names (e.g. The Warrior, complete with neon moving hatchet) can still make you wince.

Billboards told us that there were Indian casinos, including a Harrah’s, but these must have been tucked up parklike roads.  We didn’t see them.  We’d had a long day in the park, with a couple of hikes, and were hungry.  We knew Bryson City didn’t offer much, so when we saw the sign for Paul’s, a non-chain restaurant with a wide porch, we figured it looked promising.  The sign noted that it was “Indian-owned” and we fell, hook line and white guilt sinker.

We checked the menu–that night’s specials included rabbit’s leg.  This we took as a sure sign of authenticity, so we sat at a table on the porch.

Let’s just say it went downhill from there.  The Abandoned One came back from the bathroom with the surprising news that this place had a higher health score than any place even in Asheville, where the highest we’d seen was a 98.5 rating.  Paul’s had a 102.5, which we thought odd, because we had assumed it was a 100-point scale.

They served no alcohol. In retrospect I suspect that was the first sign.  Or perhaps it was the notation on the back of the menu, “Menu designed by Sysco.”  Food was also designed by Sysco–packaged dressings, imitation bacon bits in the salad that I’m sure were outlawed by the FDA in 1972, barbecued ribs that had never seen a grill.

Midway through the meal, a mangy sad-looking dog appeared on the porch and settled next to our table. Eventually the proprietor came out and attempted to shoo him away.  Frankly, we’re kind of surprised they didn’t take out a shotgun and shoot him.

The dog gone, we soldiered through the meal.  As I gamely took another bite, I glanced at the floor.  There, next to my chair, was a large toenail clipping.

‘Nuff said.  Probably too much.

Lest you think this was not a great vacation, well, that’s not the case.  We hiked, we tubed, we rode horses (our wrangler, who spoke only to me on the two-hour ride, also reached into his pocket every so often for his can of chaw), we rode the class II and III rapids of the Nantahala on inflatable kayaks called Duckies, and we went zip-lining.

We didn’t see many squirrels.  Long since stewed, I suppose.


One Response

  1. …don’t even need photos to go with this one, Maureen…you nearly gave a sensaround presentation.

    I have a friend who lives in Asheville and loves it. He’s from that area so isn’t able to describe it the way you have..except for the religion aspect. He’s sent newspaper clippings of preachers whose faith made them immune to the venom of poisonous snakes…handling them at revivals. Of course…the article he sent was about the one who apparently was NOT as immune as he’d hoped, a rather public and immediate grim descent after having been bitten at in the midst of a demo.

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