April 22, 2016

I-40 Eastbound to Asheville

I knew it was going to be a good trip when Destiny, my roommate from sophomore year in college, told me, "I like to eat."

It was a savored moment because I knew exactly what she was saying. There is nothing more frustrating than going on a trip with someone who is delightfully frugal and wants to eat pre-made sandwiches the whole way. And I know they always say they will sit with you if you want to eat at a restaurant, but who really wants to enjoy a meal with the person sitting across from you staring at you while you talk through your food?

We would be eating our way across Tennessee and past the North Carolina border--and I was ecstatic to be going with someone who respected touring food culture as much as myself. It was the number one thing I cared about on my most recent trip to NYC--a list of meal goals, forget the Empire State Building. It was fate that she should post about wanting to take a week-long trip before the end of April, and I had just so happened to allow myself a week between jobs.
I wasn't going to bother asking if there was anyone who could accompany me since spring break had just passed for my student-friends, and my working-friends wouldn't have the annual time needed saved up.

If you'll allow a momentary detour, a little on Destiny--you know how, in my return from hiatus post, I mentioned those people who intimidate you on Facebook? Destiny is one of those people, but also in real life, and I mean this in the most complimentary way possible. I find that when I'm around really strong female role models I get all anxious and tongue-tied as I realize they're intently listening to what I have to say. And she's one of those people, and I think its an excellent challenge to my anxiety to make myself spend more time around such inspiring women.

Mural in the Works in East Nashville
Not only incredibly intelligent and fun-loving, she's a passionate activist for our food and our environment and has done some amazing work with school gardens. She also speaks her mind, in a highly genuine way that you don't see many people do these days--normally when I accuse someone of not having a filter I'm calling them rude, but in Destiny's case, I mean she won't back down for what she believes is right. And we could all strive to be a little more like that.

So without further ado, in honor of National Park Week April 16-24, 2016, lets review my first road trip out east (because everyone goes out west, including me)--to the Great Smoky Mountains. The name comes from the fog hanging over this sub-range of the Appalachians (caused by the vegetation there), and its the most visited National Park in the U.S. (I wonder how I've never been!).

Now, when lots of people think of the mountains they imagine places like the Rockies--extreme elevations and exposed limestone and snow-capped peaks, rugged and fierce. What many fail to realize is that the Appalachians used to be just as large (maybe bigger) and have quadruple the history! They're far older and have been worn down with time by erosion.

However, I'm here to remind you I'm not going to be someone who only shows off my highlights... No need to think my life is better than yours because our dog-friendly road trip took a turn for the worst when we learned that dogs were only allowed on two short paved trails in the front country... i.e. all of our plans for a 4 day backpacking trip through the back country were a little ruined.

We decided to eat at Dick's Last Resort in Gatlinburg to gather our thoughts/regroup after setting up a $17 car camping site. My friend had never been to a restaurant where the waiters insult you, and also happened to have an ex named Dick, so it had to happen. They were also one of the restaurants that had a patio allowing dogs. Somehow we ended up with one of the nicest waiters either of us had ever had and I'm still wondering to this day if he really even worked there, or if the actual waiters thought that would be part of the joke. It turned out that the most insulting part of the service would only be that the food took forever to arrive, and that our giant, demolished margarita was $30...and maybe the indoor server who was crossing the line of sexual harassment rather than settling for insults.

Our server, in his Hawaiian shirt and wiry, long "I'm a local" hair, gave us some trail advice. Just because we couldn't camp overnight on the trails in the main park didn't mean there wasn't plenty of other beautiful mountain scenery to explore. He assured us of a spot he's taken his dog to, and that there would be spots to camp. Our condition had been waterfall.

The following morning we packed up camp, noticed that someone had keyed my back bumper the night before (likely due to my Bernie sticker, we couldn't think of any other reason), and headed out of the main park, down through Gatlinburg, and back up another side of the mountains. Unfortunately it was then we realized we were still heading into another area of back country of the Smokies. Since our waiter had seemed so sure (not to mention we had already driven so far, and restocked our fuel and bought a smaller sleeping bag as Destiny was having trouble figuring out how to make due with the enormous one a friend had loaned her--which we had to go to Sevierville for), we decided to take our chances and trust him.

It was beautiful, quiet, and we finally found a spot to use our Sawyer straw filters a couple of hours in. I believe it was at this stop that a gentleman warned us that not only were there not really any spots fit for camping (which we were starting to believe anyways), he wasn't sure if our dogs would be able to cross a narrow bridge ahead. He also scared us about overnight permits, dogs, etc. since we were technically still in the Smokies, while suggesting we might could sneak but risked being ticketed, stating the rangers rarely gave warnings.

After some discussion, we turned around.

So what do you do when life hands you lemons? You rent a luxury cabin with impeccable views and a hot tub.

Granted, those were our requests, but we were handed so much more--I suppose karma trying to make up for raining on the entire premise of our trip. Since we asked for the cheapest cabin super last minute, it wasn't clean when we went to pick up our keys, so naturally the resort upgraded us. When we saw the pool table, air hockey, and arcade machines we signed ourselves up for a second night (still honoring the price of the cheaper cabin)...we ended up paying a little less than our Airbnb hostel cottage in Asheville.

It was on the second day (when we decided to run to the grocery store to spoil ourselves and take advantage of the dish-stocked kitchen) in which we learned you get intoxicated more quickly in a hot tub due to dehydrating in the heat and dilated blood vessels increasing blood flow. And that is all we will say about that.

Reppin' that Fossil Cove La Brea Brown.
We didn't really want to pay another $17 to camp in the national park, so we decided to camp closer to Asheville. After taking the scenic route out of the park we continued to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway and stop at a few waterfalls along the way...before camping at Lake Powhatan outside Asheville...which ended up being $22...with no lake views...and when you walk down to the lake you find out it's more of a pond. But our leftovers from the cabin cooked up real nice and you couldn't ask for cleaner camp restrooms!

Looking Glass Rock

Mildly disillusioned with our ruined backpacking dreams, dropping the pups off for daycare for our first night in Asheville renewed our spirits because, as Destiny would say, "when the dogs are away, mommas will play."

Now, we'd had delicious food up until this point...crispy chicken flautas with salsa verde and bourbon horchata from Bajo Sexto Taco, the most amazing brunch of donuts, hashbrowns, and crab cakes benedict from Germantown Cafe, and of course, hot fried chicken in East Nashville. (We also drank at the oldest bar in Tennessee, had a guy repeatedly use his best check out my new boots line, and had a good laugh when we got into not-our-Uber-or-even-an-Uber-driver-at-all's car--"Y'all need to go somewhere?" he laughed.)

Oldest Bar in Tennessee

But let me tell you: I drooled over everything I put in my mouth in Asheville, seriously some of the best food in the country (not to mention the variety of breweries!).

As soon as we dropped the dogs off, our stomachs led us to the Latin-wonderland of Chorizo, where our starter was fried plantains with crema (I probably would have been satisfied eating those for the rest of the trip) and chorizo pupusas served in a bowl with eggs, beans, and greens with that refreshing curdido (spicy slaw) so well known by Salvadorians. My biggest complaint at this point was that I didn't have a bigger stomach so I could have more meals.

After fueling up, we went to check into our hostel where Chris greeted us, asking if we were the ones bringing the canned beets. Little did I know, we were, but had forgotten them. No hard feelings, our host suggested a book instead, continuing on his train of thought of being a beet lover. After he shows us to our cottage in the backyard, Destiny turns to me and states, "If the first thing someone says to you in a city is: have you read this book about beets and immortality? it's gonna be a good trip."

We dropped off the bags and wandered to the nearest sight of beer, which was a two minute walk (tops) to Westville Pub, delving into Green Man, Catawba, French Broad, and more. After that, an Uber picked us up (the right Uber this time) to carry us to our vague destination of "downtown" and we made the mistake of asking him to take us to his favorite brewery only to learn later he wasn't really a beer drinker. Regardless, we enjoyed the trendy LAB's beef sliders (with truffled fries and a blue cheese bacon sauce) and a couple of hearty flights.

In fact, we were on such a "let's just do flights" kick that we made the mistake of doing so at Lex 18, the prettiest, mood-lit supper club where the staff is dressed real old-fashioned like and, you know, serve moonshine. This was another instance where I wished we were hungry because not only did their menu look mouth-watering but it really would've helped with the moonshine flight. Regardless, I suppose I don't completely regret tasting the caramel, butterscotch, blackberry, or apple pie shots.

Next thing I know we're stumbling into some shops--Anthropologie for a bridal shower gift and Instant Karma for a birthday gift, which Destiny later realized was influenced by the moonshine flight and her Granny didn't really need a shirt from a hippie store, but the conversation with the friendly cashier was great and he passed on some recommendations--one of which we dove into at lunch the next day, however I have to tell you about Tupelo Honey first, a growing chain whose mother-ship we visited for dinner that night.

We definitely avoided over planning the trip, giving plenty of flexibility allowing us to go with the flow and do whatever we felt like at the time (in fact, even things we did plan on--like Dollywood--we elected not to when it came time [this being a happy decision for both of us]). But for Destiny, this was the Mecca, this was a basic requirement to salvage our trip, and I'm so glad she suggested it because damn. It is famous for a reason.

Growing up, I thought my best friend and next door neighbor's grandma was the prime example of southern food. (See, I grew up with a northerner for a grandma and my ma had never learned the ways of the south.) And she definitely still is! Cooking up those impossibly large breakfasts, or even that fresh blackberry cobbler out of the oven with a scoop of Blue Bell's, well, that still brings me back to summers as a kid (not to mention trying not to eat all those blackberries on the walk back home). This is definitely a New South twist and you can't exactly compare the two.

We decided to choose a couple of meals together so we could snack on a variety, even though it was by this point on the trip we realized we ought to start sharing a plate because the portions were always more generous than either of our bellies could handle and we were learning we had very similar tastes. We munched on the dinner rolls while waiting on the milk gravy smothered fried chicken, with okra and a mound of mac and cheese, and the second plate and chef specialty, Shoo Mercy sweet potato pancake with its own serving of buttermilk fried chicken, spiced pecans, whipped peach butter, apple cider bacon, and a hearty individual serving of maple syrup.

I could barely move to the Thirsty Monk, and I did manage to down one--I think it was the Blonde but April is North Carolina beer month so there's really no telling. All I know is I grabbed the next Uber and we sang Keeper of the Stars a little too loud in our cottage. Guess that moonshine was really starting to kick in...

While a night out without the mutts is always nice, what's even better is picking them up the next morning--we may or may not occasionally project our own separation anxiety as the dogs'. I wore Kafka out a bit at the dog park--a rather beautiful human park too alongside the French "Bread" River, mmm french bread--not knowing how well or not-so-well he'd be doing as he experienced his first time inside of shops. Unfortunately, we didn't have the easiest time finding affordable art + dog friendly shops as we had hoped in the River Arts District, although the art space in old, industrial buildings concept is an ideal one. On the bright side, we ran into one of the suggested restaurants by a happy accident: 12 Bones.

Naturally, I ordered the 6 bones (half rack of ribs) plate smothered in blueberry-chipotle barbecue sauce with smoked potato salad, pickled okra, and cornbread drowned in a good ole RC cola. Naturally, I only ate about half but the boys got some really tasty treats that meal. We packed ourselves up and headed back to downtown, scrambling three dollars together for parking and immediately admiring the Triangle Park murals across the street before finding our way uphill to Wicked Weed Brewing.

Our trip had been a little cool up until this point, but as it was the nicest weather yet we sat outside at the high tops and tied our dogs down. I have neglected to mention up until this point how wonderful all the locals had been to our dogs. Everywhere we went they were given a bowl of water, sometimes even treats, and lots of pets. Wicked Weed was no exception and it seemed like other Ashevillians knew it because it was dog city outside (and I love a good sun-warmed doggy). As you'll eventually learn, I'm not a hoppy-beer drinker which is this particular brewery's specialty, but at the bottom of their menu I found the lone malt salvation in a Vienna Lager under Gem├╝tlichkeit, which basically describes me in a nutshell... cozy space.

One of the employees recommended Local Provisions when we told him we wanted a nice meal for our last night of the trip. It was just a couple of buildings down and we salivated through the window, reading the evening's menu. They wouldn't open until 5:30 so we had some time to kill. After grabbing a decadent drink from the French Broad Chocolate Lounge (didn't even think to snap a shot of the Jitterbug before guzzling it down), we aimed to follow the Urban Walking Trail but we were rather confused trying to follow it. I'm sure this problem could have been solved by downloading a map with our smart phones but I don't regret heading down to the Battery Park Book Exchange where, despite fine leather furniture, they encourage dogs and champagne-drinking. Basically, I could live there, and even though the Grove Arcade doesn't allow dogs inside other stores, there were plenty of cute stands still open outside when we arrived.  

On the way back to Biltmore, we were lucky enough to pass the ongoing drum circle, where a tiny tot danced with Cricket and I drummed on the more intimidating Kafka's back. Upon arriving back to our planned restaurant we were disappointed to learn the small patio had been reserved for a party, so we backtracked to Rhubarb, another nearby place that had been recommended. Again, the waiters and even clientele loved on our pups while we watched buskers and traveling bands take turns on the corner.

Finally we remembered to split our main plate...which basically meant we would be ordering an appetizer and dessert as well. We shared the rhubarb glazed duck confit because duck confit had been something we swooned over through the window at Local Provisions anyways. An amazing band played a few feet away where its sole female played call bells with her feet and silver spoons with her hands.

We retired somewhat early after grabbing some souvenir six packs, taking turns reading funny blog posts out loud to one another, and woke up early to hit the road--to attack the 12 hour trip in one day because I had to be back down in Little Rock for a week of training that Sunday night (also not part of the original plan). Destiny wanted to challenge herself to drive the entire way and she accomplished that goal impressively. The music playlist was excellent, ranging anywhere from Destiny's Child to Glass Animals to Shania Twain.

As much fun as we had, it was good to pull into home--not even dark out yet. I realize this blog is called Life in the Natural State but sometimes you gotta get outta dodge and Adventure into somewhere new, ideally with lots of good food and beer, as we Fayettevillains so appreciate. I can only hope to do as many Adventure Series posts elsewhere in the near future for you. Until then.


  1. OH! I wish we were back :) Best vacation of my life.


  2. This is so cool! I LOVE eating and I'm unexpectedly putting Ashville on my foodie bucket list.

  3. I love that you found us! Glad you enjoyed your visit!

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