North Carolina

Independence through Independents – Asheville, NC

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Our NYC2NOLA road trip this summer did not quite go as planned thanks to hurricanes, detours and nearly derailed idealism. Luckily, we found Asheville…

north carolina road & cloudsThe purpose of the road trip was to learn as much about parts of the U.S. as possible – we wanted to focus on getting to know the local cultures that exist from New York to New Orleans and nearly everywhere in between.  This came as reaction to the ubiquitous big box culture we run in to each time we’re back in the States that depresses us to no end.

My dad and I used to go exploring in the woods in my home town in the suburbs of Chicago, and we had  plenty of forest preserves and wilderness to choose from. Now, in one particular area, there are two strip malls next to each other, each with one of the top two competitors in each market. One has a Starbucks, the other has a Caribou Coffee. A Barnes & Nobles, (there was) a Borders. Competing grocery stores and tanning salons. But always two of the same thing.

Near my high school growing up, a forested area stood untouched for years, and no one ever gave it a second thought. It’s now been converted into just another subdivision with nonsensical winding roads like Birch, Ash and Cedar named after the trees that used to stand in its place.

fast food chain restaurants USAWe have taken three major road trips in the U.S.: from New York to Chicago, through the Southwest in 2010 and NYC2NOLA 2011, have visited 25 states in total together, and have seen this familiar pattern unfold in each location. With the exception of our pre-planned destination cities like New York City, Philadelphia, Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans, it was a challenge to find much along any main roads that didn’t look remarkably similar to wherever it was we had just come from. The romantic notion of the colorful back roads was hard to find in real life. Instead of pulling up to diners with friendly older waitresses named Dotty or Doris, we became familiar with the menus at Cracker Barrel and the Waffle House, relied on McDonalds for coffee (paid with our souls for that, we think) and shopped at Walmart for groceries on more than one occasion.

waffle house menuWe had been very excited to hit the beaches of North Carolina, but Hurricane Irene forced us to flee westward, and to be sure to escape the storm entirely, we crossed into the Blue Ridge Mountains toward Asheville, NC. The town came as a recommendation by many people, so we drove all day away from pounding rain and into the shining sun, only exiting Interstate 40 past 8pm.

sunset in asheville north carolinaThis can’t be it, we thought.

The street we exited onto was one long strip of fast-food restaurants and budget hotel chains. Before we let our hearts sink at the idea we had driven 300 miles to visit yet another Anywhereville, USA town, we decided instead to get some rest and explore the town in the morning.

road trip alabama fast food
There must be something to Asheville, North Carolina, right? We tried to rationalize our friends’ and readers’ advice.

Well everyone had been right – Asheville Rocks!

Asheville was a breath of fresh air like no other. The actual downtown couldn’t be more different to the ring road we came in on. We spent the morning having breakfast at Mexican restaurant that served actual Mexican food items – upscale, organic thoughtful dishes you would see on a menu in Mexico, not Americanized Tex-Mex.
asheville huevos motulenosWe browsed through an independent bookstore after where we held at least twenty books in our hands we wanted to buy. There are local pottery shops, homemade ice cream dealers, yoga centers. It seemed that in Asheville, people’s passions become their work.

asheville book store
Independents = Independence

The town’s slogan, Keep Asheville Weird, really seemed to mean keep Asheville a unique place – an ideal that takes direct action and effort to maintain. This works in stark contrast to the apathy and disconnect that has allowed mega-chains to infiltrate most towns and cities in America.

asheville flowersThe people of Asheville work at creating an environment where locally-owned small shops thrive, so that the owners can live comfortable lives doing what they love. Through these independent shops, the people in Asheville have an independence we have rarely seen in many parts of the U.S. This has inspired us to (at least slightly) retract our doubts that the famous entrepreneurial spirit in America has been entirely muscled out and provided us with a new hope that if enough people want something, they can take action and create independence through independent businesses.

Creativity and re-invention of self

Creativity flows freely in this city as well. In this very walkable city of 69,000 people, there are over 30 galleries to visit, as well as a 1.7 mile ‘Urban Trail’ sculpture walk with sculptures that represent the history, culture and people of Asheville. This young girl drinking from the horse-head fountain is meant to resemble the childhood of Asheville’s older generations who might have drunk from a similar fountain in the same way.

asheville choose independentsAn old-fashioned independent cinema sits right in the downtown, where we also saw talented buskers, organized outdoor music and a great market. Several of the stands at this Sunday morning market were focused heavily on cultural integration and immigration rights, with vendors and locals originally from several African countries, Latin America and Asia all represented.

It seems we are not the only ones who are digging Asheville. The city’s been voted one of Modern Maturity’s “50 Most Alive Places To Be”, while AmericanStyle magazine called it one of “America’s Top 25 Arts Destinations,” and Self magazine labeled it the “Happiest City for Women.”

street in asheville north carolinaWe love that both the ultimate in counter culture recognition, the one and only Rolling Stone magazine named Asheville the New Freak Capital of the U.S. back in 2000 and  the AARP Magazine (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) also recognizes Asheville as one of the ‘Best places to re-invent your life’. Other fun nicknames include America’s Paris of the South, San Francisco of the East, Land of the Sky and new Age Mecca. The one we like the best is another by Self magazine naming Asheville ‘America’s Happiest City‘.

Asheville hasn’t seen the last of the GlobetrotterGirls!


We would love to hear your thoughts about this post / Asheville and also recommendations for more cities like Asheville that we should visit on our next big road trip coming up in the Summer of 2012!



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Polaroid of the week: Little bronze girl at fountain | Asheville, North Carolina

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..polaroid of the week usa north carolina asheville waterfountain girlAsheville, NC is an artistic community, and we managed to see dozens of sculptures around town during our short time in the area. Only afterward we found out that the sculptures were part of the ‘Urban Trail’, an art trail created during the early 1990s to improve the town’s image through the display of public art. Visitors can actually follow the 1.7 mile trail while listening to a self-guided tour that explains the story behind each exhibit, each one representing history, culture and people of Asheville. Along the way, you pass pigs and turkeys, a bronze fiddler, a cat and an eagle. The young girl drinking from the horse-head fountain is supposed to resemble the childhood of Asheville’s older generations who might have drunk from a similar fountain back in the day.

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Great American Road Trip – Asheville, NC and the Appalachian Trail

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We feel so lucky to have been able to avoid the devastation caused by Hurricane Irene, and can’t imagine how difficult it is for everyone in the affected areas at the moment. We also feel pretty lucky to have had the opportunity to discover Asheville, North Carolina, a spot in the Blue Ridge Mountains we otherwise would not have ever visited on this  New York to New Orleans road trip.

asheville street north carolina

‘Keep Asheville Weird’ is the motto of this small but strong city filled with proud independent shops and a population of creative artist types who fight to keep it that way.  Being on the road we pass through countless restaurant and hotel chains, and start to wonder where the individuals have all gone. What a relief it is to find an entire town so focused on keeping things local.

asheville mural

Asheville is also a great base to explore the truly stunning mountains of western North Carolina. Just 30 minutes north is the town of Hot Springs, set smack dab on the Appalachian Trail, which makes its way over 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine. We hiked just a small portion of the trail, and spent some time in town, where there was an eclectic mix of hardcore mountain hikers resting and refueling, groups pumped up for white water rafting which leaves from Hot Springs, and friendly bikers giving their Harleys a break from day cruising through the endless green mountains.

hot springs rafting north carolina

15 minutes south of Asheville is the charming village of Biltmore, purpose-built in the 1890s at the entrance to the Biltmore Estate, still the largest home in America. The village is packed with shopping and independent restaurants, and for the road-trippers out there, a great aspect of a visit to Biltmore is the free parking throughout the entire town!

biltmore buildings north carolina

Tonight we sleep in Charlotte, NC and are ready to explore here tomorrow morning before heading back to the coast, on to Charleston, South Carolina. We would love some advice on what to see and do in Charleston, our next two-day stop, or the following stop in Savannah, Georgia! Tweet us, leave us a comment on our Facebook page or comment here. We will try to do as many of your suggestions as possible and let you know here that day if we took your suggestion!

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Great American Road Trip 2011 – From D.C. to the Blue Ridge Mountains

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As Hurricane Irene approached Washington, DC last night we weren’t sure where we would end up today, but although our plans were completely rearranged, a little serendipity seems to be a great thing!

The original NYC2NOLA road trip plan was to pass through Richmond and Jamestown, Virginia Beach, the Outer Banks and Wilmington, NC and then on to Myrtle Beach before hitting Charleston, SC on Monday. Instead, we headed out of DC and spend the day driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains on our way to Asheville, North Carolina.

Farm in Virginia

Today was one of those deliciously perfect road trip days. The ominous clouds hanging over DC and Alexandria very quickly gave way to sunny skies, just as gentle green hills rolled up on either side of us. We sang to old school classic rap on the satellite radio and stopped off at the classic American roadside restaurant Cracker Barrell, where Dani had uh-mazing Cherry French Toast.

French toast with cherriesDespite passing by the Bristol Motor Speedway, which is hosting a major Nascar race event, there were almost no cars on the road with us as we weaved and curved through the Blue Ridge Mountains, stopping off at viewpoints as they came up along the highway.

Blue Ridge Mountain Road

After driving through three states (Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina), and literally as the sun was setting we pulled in to our hotel outside of Asheville, North Carolina surrounded by 360 degree views of fresh green foothills. We can’t wait to go hiking, explore Asheville and the nearby town of Biltmore tomorrow before heading to Charlotte tomorrow night.

sunset in asheville north carolina

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