The Small World of Asheville

Trip Start Feb 10, 2009
Trip End Aug 19, 2009

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Flag of United States  , North Carolina
Monday, June 1, 2009

   Unbeknownst to most people there is a kind of loose network, an informal confederacy if you will, of similar, laid back, somewhat open-minded, liberalish, and generally pretty cool towns scattered across the country. Travelers will often meander from one to another and they tend to have similar ideas and movements and music going on in them. Living in Berkeley you tend to hear a lot of good words from people heading through town about the Boulders, the Seattles, Portlands, Austins, Madisons, Ann Arbors, Burlingtons, Lawrences, and Ashevilles of the country. And generally they sound pretty great. So, even though the motivation for this trip is not to hit up every small liberal hippy-bubble in the country but rather to see all the other cultures this country has to offer, I had been hearing about Asheville, North Carolina so often that I figured I needed to stop by -on my trip. I was not dissappointed.

    After finally leaving Sarasota (which I only ended up doing two days after Laurel left and the ride I caught was with two of her friends) I aimed for heading up the east coast to Asheville, NC. However, the girls I was travelling with raved about an amazing hostel in Georgia that we absolutely had to go to. So, I sucked it up and payed actual cash for a place to sleep for the second time in my trip. Totally worth it. Despite being in the middle of southern Georgia, the Forest Hostel, as it is known, is an amazing haven functioning more as an intentional community than a business. They raise chickens, build all their own structures mostly out of fallen wood harvested off of the 40-something acres they sit on, communally do chores (and by communally I mean guests as well as "staff"), and all of the "rooms" are actually treehouses built up in the trees around the property (one actually looks down on a 40 foot radius mandala/maze they built). It's a pretty sweet place and I'm glad we went. Incidentally, while there I met a woman who was heading straight to Asheville, rather than the east side of NC as my ride was, so I continued the ride up the coast with her, chatting about her yoga teaching practice, her ability to come to accurate personal life decisions via the use of a deciding pendulum, and "Debbie Does Green", her radio show about being a modern life gal living a greener-style life.

    After this set of lively rides I arrived in Asheville to stay with my couchsurf host, a girl named Abby. This gal was a baker by trade, lived in a beautiful house right near the French Broad river in West Asheville, had a huge backyard with a vegetable garden and an area for chickens (the chickens were still growing up in a kiddie pool in the living room. I seem to have been staying with a lot of people with baby chicks in their houses over the span of this trip; this was the third one.), had four amazing housemates who were fond of spending nights out in the back by a bonfire singing sea shanties, and was generally a badass girl to boot. (I found out that their rent for the house was a whopping total of something around $300 per person a month. Coming from the Bay Area where that might not even get you a cardboard box on a crime-ridden street I was happily shocked to see that such a blooming city still had such beautiful areas for so cheap. Apparently most of Asheville is cheap like that, even though it is deep in the throes of gentrification or, more aptly, yuppification and there's no chance prices will stay like this for long.) Anywho, I had previously connected with two other people via Couchsurfing to stay with later, one woman who lived about 30 miles north of town on a farm I wanted to work at and was an artist at a studio in town, and another gal, Havely by name, somewhere else in Asheville proper. It turned out the not only was the artist's studio two blocks away from Abby's place, but Abby's roommate was friends with her and her farmmate had built the yurt that stood in Abby's back yard. Dose number one of small town syndrome.

    The first day I was there we went hiking up the towering Mount Mitchell, the absolutely tallest mountain east of the Mississippi. Maybe I'm a little too much of a west coaster for my own good, but when we got to the top and saw the geological marker reading 6684 ft. I was a little under-impressed. Compared to the Sierras and Mount Whitney these are barely foothills; I don't think you can even find a trail to start hiking up Whitney much lower than 8,000 feet. But, beyond my snobbish west coast pride over the size of our mountains, it was easy to see how absolutely gorgeous these mountains were. I finally understood why there are such an infinite number of songs exalting the Smokies and the Blue Ridge mountains. They deserve it. Such lush, green, serene, rolling hills, I mean mountains. They really do make you want to sit down and stare and maybe even pull out a banjo and start playing. I settled with pulling out my harmonica and giving my best shot at "On top of Old Smokey".
    After a few days of drum circles, art galleries, bike rides around town, and loads of independent book shops (which are my bane when travelling - I spend all my money and all my time in every indie bookshop I find) I wandered my way into a tiny little alleyway having an art fair thing and drifted into a tiny, cute little studio with a bunch of people muddling around talking. Turns out I had wandered in to a raw food cooking workshop where we proceeded to spend an hour learning how to make everything from nut milk to raw crackers to raw bean dips and morning perk-up drinks. Hurray for smalls, hippy towns. Then, ofcourse, we spent far more than an hour schmoozing and enjoying the surprisingly tasty food we had just not-cooked. A gal I was chatting with told me about the Asheville Movement Collective, a group that gets together a couple times a week to take their shoes off, turn on some music, and wordlessly dance for two hours straight - dancing, moving, contact improv dancing ( One of my favorite things in Berkeley had been an incredibly similar weekly dance jam so of course I decided to check out Asheville's version. It was awesome. About 80 people showed up, average age of somewhere around 45, and all I did was dance with strangers for two hours straight. To give you an idea of the atmosphere there, at one point dancing I accidentally bumped into a trio of other people dancing/intertwined on the floor. Instead of being taken aback or ignoring the slight, one of the cute girls I had accidentally bumped twines around me and pulls me into their contact improv dancing tangle. Good way to meet strangers in my book. One nice part is that it's all in a very non-sexual way (or at least not overtly sexual at the moment); not all that surprising given the range of ages of people all mixing and dancing together. Simply contact dancing its own enjoyment's sake. It also turned out that that day the Dance Collective was having a group session to redesign the structure of the organization and how it was planned/volunteered for. They were using some really interesting techniques called Sociocracy and Open Spaces to set up the meeting and the organization, and being the ridiculous volunteer and ex-co-oper that I am, I found it incredibly interesting and learned all about these alternative ways to run a meeting and an organization. (Like having the rule that if you are not interested in a certain part of the conference you are required, not suggested to but required, to leave for something else that interests you more.) More proof that I'm doomed to a life of community activity and organization and volunteering. :-)

    After raving about how great this dancing group was Abby promised to take me to her favorite dance spot in Asheville: a little dive bar (complete with tacky neon Budweiser sign blacked out so that only the letters "dwe" showed, effectively looking like a neon sign saying "dive") that played only 45s. I've got to say, there are few things quite as cool as dancing to music from the 50s and 60s that you've never heard of, spun entirely on LPs. Plus, this one girl, dressed to the nines in classy 50s secretary wear, took a fancy to our group of friends and danced with us for most of the night. Cool girl, talked a bit, didn't see her again. Two days later I head over the next house I'm couchsurfing at, a punker/co-op-esque house that is raising chickens (once again) and slowly dillapidating while the debaucherous residents take little notice. It's residents: Havely (my Couchsurf host), a tall skinny banjo-playing physicist gal, a dancer turned stripper, a dred-locked gal who had been going to Rainbow Gatherings since age 3, a stripper pole, and the girl from the dive bar. Total random coincidence. You've got to love small towns.

    I stayed there for a few days hitting up farmers' markets, live music shows, chatting with an old black man from South Carolina fishing in the river on a sunny afternoon (needless to say, he was awesome), and generally falling in love with Asheville. It is in such a beautiful area, has an amazingly lively arts and music scene, and still has a wonderful small town feel to it. Even though I've spent most of my life growing up in large cities I definitely feel an affinity for small towns and felt really drawn to Asheville while I was there and am sure I will be back some time. But, as the world rolls on, unfortunately halfway through my planned stay my grandmother died

    She was an amazing woman who at age 93 had just moved across the country out to the west coast, so I was looking forward to spending time with her and hearing all the stories of her life after my travels. On a whim I called her one night and managed to talk with her for much longer than she usually likes to stay on the phone. Two days later she died. I can't possibly do justice to a woman like my grandmother by eulogizing her here, but I will say that she was one of the strongest charactered people I have ever known and I am sure that is how she managed to keep going until age 93 and why she passed away exactly how and when she wanted to. She was an impressive woman and I can only hope to learn more about her incredibly rich life through the stories she left behind now that she has passed on.

    That brought an end to my time in North Carolina as I headed out to New Jersey for her funeral. Despite the sad cause, it was still nice to see all my extended family in the midst of all these travels and interactions with no one but strangers. I know I will return to Asheville some day and so despite having to leave prematurely, I'm glad to have at least discovered another solidly good place in this country. 
    Thus concluded my brief stay in North Carolina. Onwards to New York City - not quite the place to be while recovering from a funeral.
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