On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine …

Deserving of a short period of R & C (Rest and Culture) a route north was plotted, the intended target was the ‘hip’ town of Asheville in North Carolina.  It was only eighty or so miles and was an interesting drive on a reasonably quiet Friday afternoon.

Road to Asheville

A quiet drive to an altogether ‘crazy’ town !

I always enjoyed my travels along the State Highways, full of huge trucks and interesting driving skills !  The speed limits are rigorously adhered to – State Troopers in their Dodge Chargers are feared predators -and much lower than we are used to.

Asheville is a large city – the largest in the west of North Carolina – nestling in the hills of the Blue Ridge.  It sits at the confluence of the French Broad River and the Swannanoa river in an area once the tribal lands of the Cherokee.

The arrival of the Spanish in 1540, an expedition by Hernando de Soto, decimated the Native Americans through the introduction of European diseases.  By 1784 the land along the Swannanoa was settled by Col. Davidson who acquired it through his ‘Land Grant’ for military service.  He was ultimately killed by the very Cherokee from whom the land had been pillaged.  By 1790 the town was growing.  It developed through the nineteenth century and grew even larger in the earlier part of the twentieth century when the Arts and Crafts element emerged in both the architecture and the local craft enterprises.

One of the quirkiest of the buildings which is a mecca today – for the rich and famous – was begun in 1912.  The Grove Park Inn is without doubt the least beautiful buildings I have seen, certainly in respect of its stonework, and yet, as a student of architecture, it is hard to view it in any way other than ‘unique’.

Grove Park Inn at Asheville NC

What can you say about the stonework ? It reminds me of a ginger-bread house from a Grimms Fairy Tale !

The granite stone was hauled, by mules, down from Sunset Mountain on which the inn is built, facing westwards to the distant ridges of the Blue mountains.  The astonishing thing about this massive stone edifice was that it was built in less than a year !  In fact it took just 11 months and 27 days in 1912.  Over 400 men worked 10 hour shifts to get it completed and it was furnished with beautiful Arts and Crafts furniture from New York.

Naturally the great and the not-so-good have stayed and the Inn proudly lists all the Presidents who passed through.  We just sat and had a beer on the terrace, in balmy November weather.  That was a good way to slip into the city which has variously been dubbed the ‘Best place for Women’, the ‘Best place to restart your life’ and one of the top seven places to live in the United States.  For me just the fact that Nina Simone went to school there and Dirty Dancing was part filmed around about is sufficient !  We should all be interested in Asheville for another reason, it is the place in which resides the World’s largest archive of weather data at the U.S. National Climatic Data Center (that IS how Centre is correctly spelled … ahem!).

The main purpose apart from taking what we felt was a well deserved rest from stone work, was to attend a concert in the Arts area.  At a small venue called the ‘Grey Eagle’ I got to see, up close and real, Gillian Welsh (along with Dave Rawlins) a great favourite of mine since I was first introduced to her music by Miss Carolina back in 2009.  The crowd was a mixture of all ages and creeds, also of all manner of manners, some attentive and polite, others … well, you know.  The concert was however hijacked – for me at least – by a small insignificant little bearded guy who suddenly produced the most mesmerising voice I have ever heard.  He just left me a-gog !  Hailing from a band called Old Crow Medicine Show, with fiddle and guitar playing abilities to match the best, he stunned me.

The city is famous for its music, street music in particular and the following afternoon we came across another little trio, this time sitting on plastic buckets outside an old Woolworth’s store in one of the main streets.  Words fail me, you needed to be there !!  The banjo playing of the dude in a cowboy hat was, I am reliably informed by ‘she who knows’, top drawer.  The little lady with the demeanour of a wooden puppet and a smile to set warships afloat, was playing a strange steel mandolin type instrument, both were great singers.  The third member was a somewhat ‘thrown together’ gummy looking lady who tapped a desk bell with her foot each time a dollar bill landed in the box.  You should have heard the noise coming from the spoons she held in her hand.  Apparently her name is Abby, Abby the Spoonlady (www.SpoonLadyMusic.Com) and she was making a ‘guest appearance’ with the two members of ‘2 Dollars More’.  We stood and listened and watched the playing and tap dancing for a long while.  Without doubt a trip highlight !

Street artists called $2 More

This trio were truly AWESOME, and then some ! They not only sat and and played with alacrity but they ‘performed’ as well. I can still hear the banjo and mandolin and those darned spoons !

I should say also that it was freezing cold, temperatures plummeted on the Friday night and by late on Saturday afternoon it was seriously cold.  How they sat there all that time and managed to keep their fingers warm enough to pluck as they did is quite remarkable.

I threw my last dollar bill into the hat requesting that in return Missie Mandolin playing Tap Dancer gave me one last rendering of her dancing routine.  She duly obliged, I’m easily pleased !

Doesn't this just say it all ?!  She played the part and played that instrument while he plucked that ol' banjo like you never heard !  Asheville rocks !

Doesn’t this just say it all ?! She played the part and played that instrument while he plucked that ol’ banjo like you never heard ! Asheville rocks !

The Asheville Spoon Lady

Abby the Spoon Lady deserves a frame of her own, she too was quite a star !

Now I have a sister who fancies herself as something of a Spoon player, maybe I should treat her to one of Abby’s classes, she ain’t seen nothing yet !!

I should mention the fabulous food too, but I won’t.  Asheville is renown for its eating and if the noodles and Indian meals I had – both regarded as not ‘real’ Asheville cuisine by my guide – are anything to judge by, it is well worth calling by.  The Arts area is in the old derelict industrial part of the town and the disused buildings lend themselves perfectly as studios and cafes, bars and galleries.  We enjoyed some real beer in a joint called the ‘Wedge’ and as it was alongside the freight railway I was able finally to see close-up, some of the enormous rolling stock that is used over there.

Freight Engines in a triple header

These three huge engines haul the most enormous trains of freight wagons.

Railways criss-cross the States but very little use is made of them by passengers.  Apparently it is far too erratic a service and exhorbitant prices; so much so that air travel dominates medium and long distance travel.  In fact no passenger service is even available on the Norfolk Southern Railway that services Asheville.

The motor-car dominates and has done for a century or so.  The nearby Blue Ridge Parkway is the epitomy of that domination.  It is a 469 mile drive at a maximum speed of 45 mph and sometimes 30 mph.  It wanders through some of the most stunning scenery that the eastern United States has to offer.  Built in the years of the Great Depression to create work and bring prosperity into the poverty stricken hills of the Appalachians, the Parkway links the National Parks of Shenandoah and the Smokies, Virginia to Georgia.  The Blue Ridge is but a small part of that route but is certainly one of the most scenic.  At altitudes higher than any of the great summits of Britain, the road has numerous ‘View points’, pull-ins that allow one to gaze out over lush green valleys or endless hillside forests.  We got to drive a 50 mile section just a few days before ice and snow closed the Parkway for the winter.  Already sheets of ice hung on the wet rock faces and a biting cold wind made getting out of the car a rarity.

Cold Mountain

The Lonesome Pine. The famous Cold Mountain viewed from the Blue Ridge Parkway. So many views like this greet the traveller along this most remarkable of roads.

Frozen Parkway.

The temperatures had already reached freezing and these sheets of ice became a common sight.

The fact that the speed limit is set low means the progress is sufficiently calm to allow sightseeing.  Armed with an in-car water boiler and some excellent vittles we had a very pleasant Sunday morning drive.  Some of the ascents are excruciating and yet intrepid cyclists braved the challenge with frozen breath and icicles for noses !  It is a fabulous road for bikes, motor and peddled and the many trails are a mecca for hikers.

There are visitor facilities at periodic intervals and the Folk Art Center* just outside Asheville is a fascinating place to see traditional crafts of the area.  The crafts industry was revitalised in the Depression to bring desperately needed income to the poor folk who lived in the wild remoteness of the mountains.

I was particularly interested to see blue-print drawings of the arches of tunnels and bridges which were constructed along the route and at the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center* one can see all manner of displays of historic construction and wildlife.  The Brown Bear is the emblem, how much did I want to see one of those magnificent animals ?! Alas …

* I use the local spelling !!

Viewing station on the Parkway

The elevation markers are placed at most over-view points. This road is at an elevation higher than any Welsh mountain !

Asheville and the Blue Ridge Parkway are good enough reasons to visit North Carolina, a State rarely on any U.K. visitors itinerary.  I’d love to walk one of the long distance trails and camp out on the hills – maybe then I’d get to see my Brown Bear !

Following the weekend break a little more wall building up at the Table Rock cabin kept us busy until the next mega-event.  ‘Thanksgiving’ – the biggest of American holidays, was rapidly approaching and I was excited to finally get to see what all the fuss was about !

The fourth Thursday of each November sees families – who often travel hundreds of miles to get together – sit down to a great feast.  Turkey is the main course, they don’t usually eat that as Christmas fayre, and depending on which part of the country the ‘trimmings’ are multi-various.  The Festival became an official  Federal holiday in 1863 when Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father in Heaven”.  Although there are those that believe it was actually George Washington that signed the first proclamation.

The origin of the feast and the religious connotation goes all the way back to 1621 where, in the Plymouth Plantation of Massachusetts, the ‘First Thanksgiving’ was celebrated by the Pilgrims after taking their first harvest in the New World.  Accounts tell of a 3 day feast attended by 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans.

I got to attend a long one day event over three venues and which involved consumption of a large number of calories, much chatter, huge laughter and not a little interrogation !

My hosts have an annual tradition that involves a lazy lengthy breakfast watching the Grand Parade in New York – at least I think that’s were it was ! – on TV, followed by a journey to the Piedmont area where the family of Mrs Mine Host had assembled at the old family homestead.  I’m not altogether sure how many folk were in attendance as they were scattered throughout the house.  Those I sat alongside were such amusing and jolly folk, some from near Asheville, that I barely moved but one chair place in the whole 3 hours !  I wish I was articulate enough to describe accurately the accents, the intonations, the jabber and the crack humour around that table.  How we didn’t all end up with indigestion is a mystery.  Little Mema (the Grandma) was a star and proved she is still sharp in the retort as her sense of humour came to the fore.  That after she had prepared a most memorable feast, aided and abetted by other females of the tribe.  We ate collards (like Spring Greens), amazing macaroni cheese, bean salads, hams and turkey with superb sauces and stuffing.  The desserts left me speechless, the famous coconut cream cake of the host exceeded expectation !  There followed an hour and more of laughter and stories which still makes me chuckle.

As if that wasn’t sufficient we then transposed a short hop to another branch of the family where an evening celebration was planned.  After a fire-pit chat in the cold evening air we went inside the beautifully appointed house of the hosts for another feast of amazing flavours and textures, similar but different to the first and again followed by crazily good puds and hilarity !

By the time the day ended I had eaten my fill, laughed more than a year’s worth of stomach cramp, talked a year’s total of words and met such a gaggle of funny, polite, interesting folk that I’ve probably ever met in one day before.  I have to say there was no mention of any Pilgrims but each meal began with a sincere Blessing, there were no guns or hand on hearts or flag waving, there was just the warmth and joy of extended families sitting down together and jabbering !!  The feast was clearly just a polite way of thanking everyone for turning up !!  Me ‘gusto’ a Southern Thanksgiving hootenanny !!

A few short days of wandering, more wall building, discovery and soon home would be beckoning.  Before the end I was anxious to finish a book I had been loaned to read whilst there, it was a story which captivated and saddened.  It is a story of the death  of a landscape, of an important ecological disaster that slipped by un-noticed, of an eventual awakening and desire to make amends.  It is a story of the death of the huge forest which covered most of the southern States of Georgia, the low country of South Carolina, Florida and parts of Louisiana and Tennessee.  It is a short story which will make up the majority of my last post relating an amazing month spent in the Carolinas.  Stay tuned !!

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