Good god, is it November?
The leaves burn auburn red
The Asheville skies and timber
Are holding on to it
The song streamed from the rental car stereo as I made my way to the airport at 5:00am. It was dark outside, and the city of Asheville was still sleeping, save for a few drivers on I-26. I felt like I was sneaking out in the middle of the night. Like somehow it might miss me in the morning.
When I arrived three days earlier, it was also dark. Leaving from a business seminar in Tennessee close to sunset, my drive through the mountains wasn’t as picturesque as I wanted it to be. I hadn’t been down here in 25 years, which was the last time I visited my grandmother when she lived in South Carolina. Hoping to be treated to a nostalgia-triggered trek through the Smoky Mountains of my youth, instead I received darkness, fog, and rain. There was discontent in the not knowing... but I assumed it was just as beautiful as I remembered.
Pulling up to a charming house with the front porch of my dreams, I texted my Airbnb hosts that I had arrived. As soon as I opened the car door, I smelled it. The air there. Sort of sweet, but also earthy. Like deep earth, with a hint of funk. Descriptive words don’t do it much justice. It is a scent that is imprinted in my memory from so long ago. It permeates this part of the country as nothing specific… but I know exactly where I am when I smell it.
My hosts, Paul and Meg, were immediately lovable. Their HUGE dog and fuzzy orange cat too. They whisked me around a tour of their home and up to my bedroom. After we swapped restaurant recommendations, I headed out for food and drink. Paul encouraged me to walk the mile to downtown. At first, I was a little uneasy as I made my way down the quiet-as-a-pin-drop, barely lit residential streets. But my city girl fears subsided quickly, and I set a path up the hill towards town.
If you think that outstanding Spanish tapas can’t possibly be found in North Carolina, think again. Curate does it right. Shrimp and garlic, pimento peppers with goat cheese, octopus with potato puree - all plate lick worthy. Yeah I ate an entire plate of Iberico ham, but I didn’t judge me for it.
On the way back to the house, I passed a wine bar with big open windows and a New Orleans-type jazz band throwing down a serious jam. Perching myself on the ledge and watching from the outside, I got lost in the moment. Dogs were hangin’ in the bar with their owners, bottles of wine were scattered on the tables, and people were dancing on the sidewalk.
Crawling into a comfy bed an hour later, I noticed three things on my nightstand. 1) a dark chocolate bar (nice touch, Paul and Meg), 2) a note that said “Welcome home!” and 3) a small wooden stick with the inscription “The mountains are calling and I must go.” Delighted by all three in different ways, I slumbered off with them in the back of my mind.
The next morning, I got my first look at Asheville in the daylight. Not to my surprise, it was beautiful. Walked myself down to High Five Coffee, sat on the patio and sipped my usual beverage. I tried to work but my eyes stared blankly at the computer screen. I couldn’t focus on anything. With leaf seeker season coming to an end, the last of the red and yellow foliage held onto the branches of the trees across the street. The sun poked out behind what was predicted to be a cloudy day. In the distance, the mountains were calling. And I wanted to go.
So I did, accompanied by Meg who was happy to go on a journey with me. We drove into the Smokies, and up narrow twisty turny roads. I was only a lil’ bit scared -- Midwest girl is used to driving in the wide open flatland. Gaining some trust that the local girl knew what she was doing, I let go of my knuckle grip on the armrest as she navigated up the mountains.
She took me to some creeks and falls, and through the woods. And then up a vertical hike to a special place, she said, called Devil's Courthouse. I didn't see any devils or courthouses. What I did see was the world above the clouds.
I stood on the tip top of a mountain and looks across the horizon as the sun set. There were a few musicians there, and they were playing to the view. One of them was playing a shruti box. When asked about its deep soothing sound, the player said "It's the notes between the notes." The words floated in the air for a few seconds and I breathed them in. Unintentional poetry.
Later that evening, Meg and Paul and their friends treated me to the best of southern hospitality. And to southern expressions, which had me rolling in laughter all night. My favorite two: I didn’t know my ass from a hole in the ground and ain’t nothin’ like it if ya like it. Ain’t nothin’ like it if ya like it. Was there ever a truer statement?
They took me on a tour of their town, starting with Wicked Weed for sour beer and what they declared to be the best fucking steak tartare on toast in the world. I am here to confirm that it fucking is. Bonus points for serving it on a mess of horseradish aioli. We crawled to a couple of other joints and ended up at Ben’s Tune Up, which I highly recommend for savoring good beer and wonton nachos in an open air/backyard alley kind of environment.
The next morning, I headed out alone. It was a sullen drizzly day but I would make the best of it. Waiting for a table for breakfast at Early Girl, I parked myself on a stoop outside and listened. Conversations ranging from how much was drank last night to validating the shit out of each other to the five stages of grief wafted in my direction. I watched people walk away from the potential of an outstanding meal because it would cost 45 minutes of wait time. I sat there knowing better and remained patient. Waiting... is the notes between the notes.
Between the winsome dining room, the small perfect biscuits, and the corn grit cake with poached eggs (think southern-style benedict), Early Girl was worth the wait. I wasted the next few hours away at a bookstore that also serves champagne -- high five to the genius who created that concept. I ate BBQ for dinner and talked shop with new restaurant industry friends at Luella’s, who sent me to a music venue to end the night watching The Marcus King Band crush the room with their blues/funk/rock prowess.
In a world where so many unspeakably horrific things are happening every day, I was lucky and grateful to spend a couple of days slowing down with the good things in life. It was an odd and new experience to feel so at home in a place. Especially in one so quietly beautiful as Asheville. There was discontent in the not knowing… but I assumed living in a place like this would be nice. Not wanting to leave but resigning that I couldn’t stay, I boarded my flight. I watched the tarmac disappear as we ascended above Appalachia.
Soon after, the big city came into view. The sunrise gleamed over the big lake and sent sparkles across the water. The windows of the skyscraper mountains reflected the gold morning rays. Still waking up, Chicago welcomed me back the way it usually does. I smiled, content in not knowing what the rest of the day would bring.