This is the fifth in a series of seven articles about my 9 month trip through the Southern US.
Thoughts about Asheville, NC after spending a month there.
A little fishbowl of a town
Asheville is a small place, but one with an expertly curated image. It’s a fishbowl with the imitation coral placed artfully in all the right spots–so artfully you might even be fooled to think that the coral was real. There’s a small but charming downtown area that has your usual assortment of bougie restaurants as well as a surprisingly great art museum. In addition, there were a seemingly interminable amount of touristy activities available: you can go ziplining, fly over the smoky mountains in hot air balloon, and even ride a “pubcycle” which is essentially a mobile bar pedal-powered by the 10 or so beer drinkers positioned around the sides while the presumably sober guide steers the lumbering vehicle through downtown. In addition to this, there’s the ridiculously opulent Biltmore estate and the various trails that wind their way through the Smoky Mountains. Let’s just say that Asheville’s visitor’s guide has a bit of heft to it.
It’s surreal to see a palatial chateau–the largest private residence in the US–nestled in the hills of North Carolina, a place whose previous claim to fame was probably that the moonshine had a good kick to it. The Biltmore is nothing short of breathtaking, and it’s a testament to the obscene wealth that the robber barons of the gilded age managed to hoard. As a I toured the grounds and estate I felt conflicted. There was a part of me that felt repulsed by the fact that no one should have this much wealth, but I could also not help but appreciate how tastefully the wealth had been applied. It’s breathtaking, and definitely worth a detour if you find yourself within driving distance.
The neighborhoods in the inner portion of Asheville are quiet, idyllic rows of of brightly colored homes. Everything is quirky in a muted and tasteful way. It’s almost as though someone took a Thomas Kincade painting and decided to dial back the saturation a bit in order to be idyllic but not over the top.
The housing market in Asheville is slim pickings, at least near the center of town. I only found 1-2 homes in my price range where I’d be willing to live.
For a southern city, the weather in Asheville is temperate. I was there in April, and was surprised to find that I needed to scrape ice off my windshield one particularly frosty morning. Most afternoons got into the 70s, but it was nowhere near the kind of heat you’d see elsewhere in the South. As someone seeking out warmer climates and sunnier winters, this was not really a mark in the plus column for me though.
Blue dot in a sea of red
Asheville is a bastion of liberal politics–at least the center of it is. From what I observed, the town’s center seems very blue and the outskirts seem very red. Nearly every other house near the city center has some iteration of the “All are welcome” yard sign (A little ironic considering the wave of gentrification that pushed out many people of color in the 70s). It’s a little white yuppie/hippie haven. Hope you like muesli.
You don’t have to drive more than a mile from the center though to see large pictures of a grinning Trump with the words “Miss me yet?” in bold text underneath. Trump 2024 and “Let’s go Brandon” flags fly proudly here. Priuses give way to 4×4 trucks rather quickly. It didn’t seem like these two parts of town blended much, and I imagine that this is a source of no little tension.
I’ve seen more roadkill in North Carolina and Tennessee than all the places on the rest of my trip combined. Not sure what that means but it’s a weird thing I noticed.
The airbnb that I stayed in was practically a treehouse in the woods, so I didn’t eat out much. From what I saw, Asheville had a reasonable assortment of very good restaurants. The thing is–it’s a pretty small place, so you’re lucky to only have 1-2 of restaurants of any type of cuisine.
Hiking and nature
Perhaps I’m spoiled as a pacific northwesterner, but I found the natural environment of Asheville to be rather bland and monotonous. The main features I’ve seen on most hikes are slow moving creeks and hikes up hills that never get past the tree line. As someone used to climbing up mountains high enough to be able to make it to a grand ridge that seems to divide the world beneath one’s feet, I found it a little underwhelming to get to the top of a hill and to see that nothing had really changed from where I had started. It’s pretty and peaceful but not particularly unique or interesting. I saw a black bear though. That was cool.
A staycation destination
No place is truly disconnected from the world, nor is it completely resistant to change, but the extent to which Asheville has curated their image as a staycation destination, as a place to “get away from it all” surely makes it feel that way. I can’t help but feel a bit stir crazy in places like these. Asheville might be a beautiful fish bowl, but it’s still a fish bowl. It’s a great place to visit, but as a place to live it’s not for me.
I give Asheville, NC three stars.
Previous Stop: Atlanta
Next Stop: Memphis