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