Between the Smokies & Infinite Stairs: Appalachian North Carolina 2017

Saturday, Feb. 11

It was only a day after a huge snowstorm (15+ inches and six HOURS of shoveling/plowing !!) that we were on our way to the Hartford airport for a trip to North Carolina. I’d been to Virginia Beach & Hilton Head, SC, but NOT North Carolina, and DEFINITELY never to anywhere near Appalachia. Pat’s cousin Tyler met us at the airport, and we all boarded together.

We flew into Charlotte, which is on the S.C./N.C. border, and Pat’s aunt and uncle picked us up. Before completing the two hour drive to the Asheville area, we stopped at a Fatz restaurant, which is basically, um, like a Friendly’s? If their food was slightly better and also super southern? For the record, Fatz are only found in the Southeastern U.S. and their specialty is something called Calabash chicken.

What is Calabash? It’s specially seasoned fried chicken a la Calabash, N.C. (not a gourd, as my first Google search informed me). There was also a lot of shrimp.

Pat and I first ordered fried pickles, our favorite app besides spinach and artichoke dip, which we pretty much order everywhere because we like, have to know if they’re any good. The fried pickles were decent, and came on a bed of fried potato strings (spiralized potato?). Interesting.

I ordered a Calabash chicken wrap which came with a sweet, sweet sauce and Monterrey Jack cheese and no tomatoes just like I wanted. The chicken was really good, but Tyler, Pat and I kinda all looked at each other and decided that was the last time we were ordering fried chicken on this trip. Tyler ordered a Spartanburger, which I not-too-long-afterward figured out was a play on Spartanburg, a town in N.C.

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Oh, and I neglected to mention that everyone has a Southern accent and yes, it’s exactly as you imagine it.

“Y’all enjoy…”

From there, our tummies full, it was a decent hour and a half ride back to Mills River, a community just outside Asheville. It’s difficult to describe if you’ve never been to an area with both extremely flat areas, rolling hills, and abrupt mountains, but the landscape is rather dramatic. The mountains are gigantic (they’re called the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are the outermost edge of the Smokies), and look like someone pitched a tent with fuzzy green heavy felt.

Beneath them: farms. Flat, flat, flat, farms. No lakes. No rivers. Just farms.

In Mills River, the houses are precariously built into the steep mountainside so that you sometimes see more foundation than house. This way, you can step outside and onto your deck which perches 50 feet above the forest floor, which isn’t exactly a floor but a steep slope downward into the woods. But the views? Unbelievable.

The only thing more dramatic than the views are the driveways. They often either go straight up or into an S-Curve, or they go straight down. The word is precarious. But the houses are gorgeous…not unlike some of the luxury homes around Patrick’s neighborhood in Florida or something you might find in Vermont. North Carolina definitely reminded me of Vermont.

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Wat. Why

After loving the views for a while and getting settled, Tyler, Patrick, and I decided to go into Asheville proper after stopping in to an hors d’oeuvres and cocktail hour at one of the neighbors’. We needed dinner and drinks, so at first we drove about fifteen minutes to a plaza where there was a place called 32 Degrees Ice Bar. We thought, well cool, we’ll get parkas and have cold drinks! No problem.

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Disclaimer: not an actual ice bar

The problem was that as soon as we arrived, we could see that it wasn’t actually an ice bar, and so, with our hands still on the door, we “noped” out of there. For anyone trying to find a drink in Asheville, 32 Degrees Ice Bar is not as it is advertised.

So, with no other options, we drove into the city. Asheville boasts UNC, so it was full of small shops, restaurants, bars, and young people. This particular night, there was a Fantasia music concert at the local performance venue, so every garage was full and every parking space on the road taken. Finally, after circling Asheville’s three streets (seriously…there are three) for about twenty minutes, we finally found pay-for-your-space parking on Lexington Ave., which was still not too far out because Asheville is even tinier than Hartford and has the same number of tall buildings.

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Welcome to Hart…Ashe! ford?… ville

We took a few places into account as we walked, and Tyler mentioned he wanted to go back to the Skybar, a rooftop bar he’d been to before. Pat and I thought this was a great idea and circled the block a bit trying to find it. Turns out, we kept passing by because it was sort of hidden, so we went inside and discovered a well-dressed man playing piano in the lobby of what looked like (and I was totally correct) used to be a 1920s-era hotel.

Note: In fact, most of the city is historic, most of the buildings dating from 1840 to early 1900s, including many well-preserved and still-in-use art deco buildings from the roaring twenties. It’s a very walkable city and beautiful and artsy. Anyway, the Sky Bar is housed in what is considered the Flatiron building, due to its triangular shape (just like the one in NYC!). 

The well-dressed man playing the piano dressed like he was out of a Gatsby party stopped playing and asked us for our IDs. Well, okay, spell broken. But then! He gestured for us to step inside an elevator not entirely unlike the one in Titanic and closed the metal gate. Up, up, and up we went, leaving six bewildered guys behind that were too slow to get in. Pat joked that I had a crush on the well-dressed piano-playing elevator guy, which like, yeah he was handsome, but also it felt like we had stepped back in time.

We got off at the top floor (there’s three balconies at this bar) and stepped out onto a tiny, triangular platform, where we were told that the waitress would come find us. We browsed the menu and browsed the skyline — it was amazing! Tyler lamented that if night hadn’t already fallen, we’d have been able to see the mountains from there. Ah well…

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Stock photo that shows you everything I can’t

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I first ordered a pineapple/strawberry margarita, while Tyler got a cosmo and Pat got a blueberry mojito. After the first round, Tyler and Pat both got the pineapple/strawberry margaritas and I got a whiskey sour. The platform by that time was starting to fill up with drunkies, some of which were stumbling around, celebrating birthdays and taking pictures, so we decided to take ourselves back to Lexington Ave. to a bar/brewery/restaurant called LaB, or Lexington Ave. Brewery (get it?). We got drunker. I ordered some kind of whiskey concoction, and Pat and Tyler also ordered drinks. We got tacos and nachos for all of us, and started talking about dating — specifically, dating after a breakup (referring to Tyler, who just got out of a six-year ish relationship).lexington-avenue-brewery-front.jpg

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Eventually, we made our way back home, and before we could say goodnight, we all ended up in our adjoining bathroom to “have a teeth brushing party” (as Tyler put it). He had a bedroom on one side of the bathroom and we had one on the other side. As we were finishing up, Tyler got a fit of the giggles because he found acorns stockpiled under his pillows. I hunted around our room and found one stashed in the closet, along with suspicious dark pellets in the bed. A squirrel? Mouse? Hmmm… whatever it was, there was no smell and it was probably either in and out or long gone.

Finally, after checking our closet 10 more times to make SURE there were no squirrels, we all went to sleep.

Sunday, February 12

It was shaping up to be one of the nicest days of the week so Tyler, Pat and I decided it would be BILTMORE DAY! The Biltmore was built by George Vanderbilt in 1895 as a sweeping estate not unlike Blenheim Palace, and it’s the largest privately owned home in America. Also cool: it’s still owned by the family! There are many, many acres of rolling countryside to drive through once you get your tickets. Then, you park in a lot (there’s a bunch of ’em) depending on where you’re directed and take a shuttle bus to the actual house. From there, you can explore the grounds, go horseback riding, visit the gardens, tour the house, go to the zoo, take a hike (or bike or jog…), go to the winery, stay at the hotel… there’s a lot. For those of you that have been to the Newport Mansions, the Biltmore is just another “little mountain escape” summer home like those other little summer homes, and all in the same family!

We decided on a simple tour of the house, which we were warned may take hours.

And hours it did indeed take.

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First Impressions: Opulence.

 Signs and velvet stanchions directed us and wound us through the rooms like some kind of labyrinth. There were dining rooms, billiard rooms, gardens, libraries, bedrooms, smoking rooms, kitchens, gymnasiums, swimming pool, servants’ quarters, balconies overlooking the grounds, spiral staircases, oriental rugs, renaissance murals, velvet wallpaper, four-poster beds… anything that you can imagine coming from the early 1900s rich tycoons, there it was.

While the mansion was chock full of people who wanted to tour it, there were many acres of landscape that allowed the public to fish, walk, hike, bike, jog, or just hang out. I even spotted some people on horseback enjoying a ride over the hills, probably just as Vanderbilt would have enjoyed as he hunted on his grounds.

Once our tour was done, we explored the gardens a little bit but were getting hungry–the walkthrough took about three hours! So we stopped at a Texas Roadhouse on the way home. The day was no longer warm and had turned even grayer and a bit rainy, and being in the mountains, we were getting used to the sounds of blasting wind. We called it an early evening — I had a class assignment to do before Monday and we had such a late lunch that we weren’t hungry for dinner. Tyler’s parents were going out anyway, so I sat in the downstairs comfy couch and worked. Tyler and Pat watched a hockey game upstairs and when that was done, they joined me downstairs and we hung out until it was time to sleep.

Monday, February 13

What to do on a Monday? We decided the best idea would be to try zip-lining through the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’d done one before, but Pat hadn’t. We got dressed, mentally prepared, checked out nearby places, drove to the nearest one a few miles away and were disappointed to see it was closed for renovations. We googled some more. Most of them were “closed for the winter,” to reopen in March or April.

Bummer.

Luckily, it was now lunch time and we were close to the main drag, so we picked a hole-in-the-wall local Mexican restaurant, called El Que Pasa, which turned out to be the correct choice for delicious Mexican, since the menu was almost black from the amount of food options (hundreds!). I got fajitas, as I always do, and loved them. The food was fresh and there was lots of it. I recommend.

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We took our leftovers and thought about options for the day. Catch a movie? Go back to Skybar? We decided on walking through downtown Asheville again.

During the day, all the little shops are open. The interesting thing about Asheville is that, for whatever reason, the stores are an eclectic mix of local artists’ jewelry, furniture, knickknacks, paintings, photographs and more, specialty shops, bookstores, and vendors. There was an outdoor artists’ market. There are several larger buildings that house many artists in one place, such as the Kress Emporium (two floors of STUFF), and the Grove arcade, built in the 1920s and which housed one of the first indoor shopping malls. It still looks beautiful inside, and it still hosts shopping in the form of — you guessed it — locally owned clothing, furniture, art, and food. While it’s not as gigantic as some of today’s shopping malls, it is well-preserved and much more beautiful inside. I was disappointed that those spiral staircases were blocked off. There were more room spaces on the higher floors, but they were either vacant or privately owned.

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Inside the Grove Arcade and later, Kress Emporium, Patrick and I were looking for a lamp for our home. Not just any lamp, but a table lamp, good for a side table. We saw Tiffany-inspired, beautiful stained glass lamps for a good $400 or more, mechanical-looking lamps, Victorian-inspired lamps, and any other lamp you can think of. In Kress, however, we found the one we wanted: it was shaped like a starburst and had little lights at each point. There are many imitations, but this one was special. It could be hung or sit on its own on a table. It’s a statement piece and light all in one. The little arms can be moved. There are many LIKE it, but this one was ours. So we bought it, and shipped it home.

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We got fresh ice cream at Kilwin’s, which also had put out its Valentine’s Day treats. Pat and I joked about Valentine’s Day and potential engagement. We ate delicious ice cream even though it was cold, and talked to the working staff about where we were from.

Tyler’s parents had a friend from West Hartford (yes, CT!) visiting, and he wanted to make us dinner when we got home. I was skeptical because this dinner included lamb, which I had only eaten once and thought it was oily and disgusting.

However: these were lamb filets, marinated in a bag of onions, salt, pepper, garlic, rosemary, oil, and a ton of other stuff that looked like the leftover stuff you have when you’re done chopping vegetables and herbs for stew. It was a bag of meat and soggy plant matter. The filets went on the grill and oh, my, they smelled good.

There was also spinach, cooked in fresh garlic and butter on the stove and with pinons thrown in — yummy! They taste like pine trees.

And finally, there was a homemade Caesar salad, with romaine and Parmesan and croutons, but with whole anchovies chucked in there and a dressing made from lemon juice, raw egg, anchovy, oil, and vinegar. Hmmm. I was okay with it until I found an anchovy in my bowl, long brown and slimy, like a worm. I put the salad aside after that and focused on trying the lamb and spinach.

Which. Were. Amazing.

Lamb, for those of you that don’t know, is like a more flavorful and less dry version of steak. Perhaps it was what our friend John used to marinate, but I thought it was absolutely delicious. It didn’t taste strange and had the same texture as steak. And the spinach? Buttery and flavorful. I ate that stuff down. John advised me never to buy leg o’ lamb if I am inclined to do it myself, because that’s the nasty part of the lamb. I think I’ll stay away from the rack and stick with filets. Even now, I can still smell the sizzling deliciousness that is lamb. One day, I’ll cook us some.

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After dinner, I finished reading my articles for class, as I had a discussion board post that needed to be in by Tuesday night. Tyler and Pat went downstairs to watch another hockey game, and I stayed upstairs once I was done reading to watch the Purina dog show with Aunt Debbie and Uncle Michael. We drank wine, watched the dogs compete (I had lots of questions, like, why does one aspire to be a dog breeder? Why are purebred dogs so expensive? How do these stingy judges really pick one dog over another? How does one, or rather, why does one WANT to become the judge? Isn’t everyone intimidated by the clear favorites?).

The German Shepherd won. As she should have.

Tuesday, February 14

A happy Valentine’s Day to Pat and myself commenced with preparation for a day hike at Chimney Rock, about 45 minutes away from the housing complex. Aunt Debbie, Uncle Michael, Tyler, Patrick and I dressed in comfy hiking clothes and Pat packed his backpack full of water and snacks. I wore my bright red tunic hoodie, because really, it was Valentine’s Day. And we were OFF!

We drove first to have lunch at Black Mountain, a little touristy and artsy downtown where not much was open except the little cafe called Veranda (where we were going to eat) on Cherry Street. Veranda is fabulous food, and the menu includes starters of different soups, which are house-made fresh every day. The other specialty is a variety of sandwiches and salads. I got the Greek Chicken Gyro, which was giant and delicious, and Patrick got the Asian chicken wrap, which was also great. The cafe was dog-friendly and also employees’ babies friendly, as one of the waitresses had her infant with her, passing him/her around to her coworkers.

After a quick walk around downtown to see if any of the little artsy shops were open, we headed back to the car to drive to Chimney Rock. Off to the winding roads that swerved up…around…down…back again in switchback fashion through the mountains, whipping past isolated houses on the mountaintop and churches. I recently discovered that I get carsick if I so much as browse my phone or text while the passenger in a car, so my phone was tucked away. I still felt my stomach flip a few times as we swept back and forth and curved around the bend and past the rivers and through the forests and up and down mountains. I was carsick a bunch of times on this trip, actually, but not severely enough to have to pull over. Even thinking about this drive is making my stomach turn threateningly.

We sped past farms, breweries, airports, and more farms before following the Broad River (which dumps into Lake Lure, under Chimney Rock) to the entrance of the State Park. Then, we drove and wound some more past the ticket booth up part of the mountain that Chimney Rock sticks out of. I was surprised that we were driving so far up the mountain, thinking our hike would entail hiking the mountain, but Uncle Michael assured me that, oh, don’t worry, there will be plenty more hiking once we find the parking lot.

We found the gift shop first and used the bathrooms there because, as everyone knows and Tyler likes to make fun of me, I drink about 5 liters of water a day and 5 glasses at a meal alone, so I also have to use the loo a lot. And Pat, well, he has his own problems. We make fun of him separately.

Post-bathroom break and mosey through the gift shop, we took the paved pathway to the start of Outcroppings Trail, which led past a gneiss cave (we ducked in; no bats). Tyler said that he thought we were en route to the Subway. I thought, oh goody, we can get lunch here. But no, the “Subway” is actually just a part of the trail where you have to crawl through a short tunnel in the mountain. Funny!

And then we got to the Infinite Stairs. Winding, wooden staircases bolted into the mountain with metal handrails. They wound. They zig-zagged. They kept going forever. Me, having been working out regularly for about a month and doing plyometrics, thought, well I’ll just take a jog up these stairs! Stairmaster woooo! So I did. Step, step, step step, landing. Step, step, step, step, landing. Catch your breath. Wait for Tyler and Pat. Step, step, step step, landing. Only 15 more flights!

We took a break to see the view (so far) at Pulpit Rock, so-named I assume because it resembles a pulpit? We stopped and had a water break and admired the view. But guess what? We still weren’t at the top of Chimney Rock.

Step, Step, Step, Step, Step, Landing. Step, Step, Step, Step, Step, Landing. And then… at long last, the next set of stairs led through open air to the top of Chimney Rock, where an American flag proudly billowed (is there any other way for a flag to billow?). 50 more stairs and a landing later, and Pat and I were gasping at the top of Chimney Rock, across the valley to Lake Lure in one direction and across the valley between a gorge (and toward Asheville) in the other. Rolling, abrupt mountains continued for many miles and it was a clear day, just perfect. We sat and cuddled and admired the view while Aunt Debbie got Valentine’s Day pictures of us.

When we were tired of water and tired of taking pictures of the view, we looked back at the mountain we’d just ascended.

And guess. What.

Yes!

There were even. More. STAIRS.

Exclamation Point Trail climbed around the side of the mountain and out of sight. Luckily, my enthusiasm for hiking was contagious and all of our party agreed to continue climbing the mountain. Besides the initial stairs, the trails here were narrow and in some places, nonexistent. Stone turned to dirt turned to wood turned to dirt again. We had switchbacks to the top.

I got there first.

It’s called Exclamation Point for all of the obvious reasons. Oh, and there’s an interesting rock feature called Devil’s head, also for obvious reasons.

If you’re looking for a good cardio and leg workout and don’t mind a lot of stairs in exchange for the priceless reward of an incredible view, you can hike to a number of different overlooks and, for the more ambitious, you can hike to the top of the mountain. There are some other recreational trails too, which circle the lower part of the mountain, for less strenuous and dangerous adventure.

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We drove back to the house and Tyler, Patrick and I decided to have dinner at a cider brewery (Cidery?) because we all love cider AND because there were several in the area. Only 10 minutes away in Mills River was Bold Rock, but when we got to the doors, we saw there was a sign that the place was closed for its Valentine’s Day Gala – thing.

Oh. Okay.

We drove a little further, into Hendersonville. Tyler let us know that we’d be coming back the next day to have dinner. We figured we’d try Flat Rock Cider Works, but when we parked in front of it, we saw that it, too was dark, and the sign on the window read that it was closed weekly Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.

Well, SHIT!

The main strip in Hendersonville is very similar to the one my friends and I often explore in one of our local Connecticut towns: buildings close together, tons of shops, restaurants, and bars, and side streets that cross through the main drag. Hendersonville was established in 1838 and is the county seat of NC, so there’s a big library and courthouse. Fun fact: many of its buildings don’t have indoor toilets and still have outhouses. It also boasts quite a few antique shops, which I would have loved to explore if not for the fact that, by dinnertime, everything’s closed.

We walked a ways looking at options for dinner and settled on an Irish Pub called Hannah Flanagan’s. A fun tidbit about Flanagan’s is that they have an ongoing challenge called the Order of the Beer, in which you must:

  • Drink one of each of the 90+ beers on the beer list

Once done, you get your name put on a plaque and a cool t-shirt. As you probably expect, Pat and I ordered ciders because I prefer it to beer and Pat doesn’t like it at all.

We got fried pickles, burgers, and pot pies. Did I mention we order fried pickles wherever we go? Oh, and Flanagan’s had jalapenos mixed with the pickles! It was awesome.

On the way home, Tyler brought us to Mills River Creamery for farm-fresh ice cream. And that was it! Valentine’s Day came to a close.

Wednesday, February 15

Wednesday was our last day in North Carolina. After taking a couple mile walk up and down the mountain neighborhood and picking out the houses we liked, Pat and I helped Tyler build a big birdcage for Skittles, Aunt Debbie’s Sun Conure, and we decided to go see an early afternoon movie before getting dinner in Hendersonville. We had been wanting to see The Space Between Us, the story of a baby born on Mars by accident who wishes to visit Earth, but due to his, er, mass and lack of experience in a place with more gravity, it is deadly for him. While there, he falls in love with his rough n’ tough walls-up foster girl pen pal, and searches for his biological father. I really liked that his love interest is from Colorado, since it allowed them to explore ~all~ the southwest things, like the Grand Canyon. Time is of the essence, too, since they are also on the run from Mars kid’s parental astronauts. I loved it. It was a corny teen flick,  but it delved a little deeper than your average movie, and since Pat and I love 1) Space and 2) Science Fiction and 3) The Southwest, it was great.

We had dinner at West First, a wood-fired pizza grill. We all tried different pizzas and Pat got a calzone, had some drinks and relaxed. West First’s pizzas were fresh and loaded with ingredients; they were pretty unique pizzas too, with standard ones like margherita and white pizza and some unusual ones like roasted salmon, potato, and BBQ chicken. They were delicious, and we headed home tired and full. Pat and I finished cleaning up– I showered and did my hair, and we got ready for bed early since we had to hit the road for the two-hour drive to Charlotte airport at like 5 a.m. It was a calm ending to a great trip.

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