Monday, February 20, 2012

Snow & Opulence

Really only one thing happened today: The Appalachian mountains became larger, closer, and more picturesque; going from this:
 to this.
As with many of my travel days, the morning bore almost no resemblance to the afternoon. I woke up to find the same 4 inches of snow from last night still on the ground (and in the still-unplowed parking lot), with 3 more tacked on for good measure. Once again I called to find out the status of my roads, and everything was closed. Skyline Drive, the entire Blue Ridge Parkway, and even Newfound Gap Road through the Smokies (which I now believe saw only an inch of snow yesterday).

But not all my plans were necessarily dashed. I’ve never been to a Waffle House and I feel that a week south of the Mason-Dixon line would be incomplete without at least trying the place (more for the experience than for the food). There was a Waffle House in Waynesboro, so I decided to try that one before heading south. However, it seems that Waffle Houses, like the rest of Virginia, melt when they touch snow. Despite its “Open 24 Hours” sign, this too was closed.

Calling another audible, I had no choice but to take Interstates down to Asheville. I figured I’d find some unscheduled stops along the way that I could use as evidence that this would be more than another wasted day. I tried Natural Bridge, VA, home to (you guessed it) a natural bridge – the largest east of the Mississippi. But even ancient giant stone arches (or at least the Virginians who oversee them) are also allergic to snow, and I was informed the trail to the bridge was closed.

It was at this point that I really started getting frustrated. This was looking like the second straight day where every single thing I tried to do would be thwarted by a rather minor snowstorm. it as beginning to look like I’d be spending this week driving south and then turning around and driving back north, without ever getting out of the car. In the end, this possibility only strengthened my resolve to find something to do today.

Fortunately, the Virginian TV weathermen severely overstated the geographic extent of this event (shocking, I know). The last traces of snow disappeared as I crossed into Tennessee, where the grass was actually green. So there you have it: It’s not just a saying – the grass really is greener on the other side. At least if you’re stuck in Virginia.
Anyway, the state line runs through the middle of the town of Bristol, but the change between states is stark. Bristol, VA is a large run-down town that feels a little like Route 1 in Rahway (or for those of you in New England: the entire North Shore). Bristol, TN, on the other hand, is redneck and damn proud of it. It’s home of the Bristol Motor Speedway, where some famous NASCAR race is held every year. Beyond its parking lots are tractor suppliers, billboards for gun outfitters, and a hell of a lot of churches. It even boasted a cross that rivaled that other famous giant cross in Indiana.

But eastern Tennessee was more than just guns and God. As I approached the North Carolina border, the mountains started looming larger and getting much closer, with the road climbing above 3,000 feet in elevation. Here, the only snow clung to trees far above me and the temperature rose above 50 degrees (up from 19 when I woke up). The mountains began lining up in that classic “endless ridges” configuration.
By the time I entered North Carolina there was no sign of the snowstorm that had brought the self-proclaimed “mother of states” to its knees. On top of that, I had a decided on a destination to defeat my disillusionment – the Biltmore. Located just outside of Asheville (where I was going anyway), it was once the largest private residence in the United States, commissioned by George Vanderbilt. I had put it down as a “maybe” a few days from now, but desperate times forced me to call another audible. I arrived just minutes too late to go into the house, itself (of course I did), but I didn’t mind because 1) my rather overpriced ticket would allow me to return tomorrow if I wanted and 2) the grounds themselves are so incredibly vast and varied that they alone would probably justify the cost of admission.

So I started up the approach road, planned by the same guy who designed Central Park. (All afternoon I kept hearing that line by John in Jurassic Park repeated in my head: “Spared no expense!”). Rather that just going up to the house, it takes you on a 3-mile twisting journey through a native forest manufactured to look particularly nice from the road. Nowhere along the way can you actually see the house. Then you suddenly cross through a gate and basically drive across the mansion’s front lawn. The road then takes you through one of several formal European gardens before allowing you to park. The ensuing walk from the gardens to the front of the house took at least 15 minutes.

Everything about this place screamed opulence. Imagine something you’d only find in the fanciest of homes, and it would be safe to assume this place had at least 100 of it. Each garden had at least 10 marble statues and 2 sculpted fountains (Did I mention there were 5 gardens?). Think they have a few Tiffany lamps? Well they do, and that doesn’t include all of the other Tiffany items sold in the gift shop!

But despite all its ridiculous trappings, my favorite part about the Biltmore is that it’s situated perfectly so that it’s framed from most angles by the Blue Ridge Mountains in the background. So I decided to take advantage of this and go on a 2-mile round trip nature trail (all on Biltmore grounds) to their private pond and lagoon, just to see what was there. And what did I find there? Canadian geese. Just as honky and crappy and obnoxious as ever.

My real reason for walking 2 miles to see nasty birds was to kill time so that the sun would go down and stop blocking my view of the mountains. So on my way back from the geese I was able to get a few decent pictures, and then I went back up to one of the house’s many terraces, where I had an unobstructed 180-degree view of the mountains and the setting sun.

 By this point I was hungry. Having never made it to a Waffle House, I’d been living almost exclusively off my giant Tupperware container of snacks and I figured it was high time to find an actual restaurant. Seeing as this is North Carolina, and Asheville is a major city, I knew I’d be able to find a decent barbecue place. Yelp pointed me to Moe’s, which seemed to be the best place open for dinner (apparently the really good places are open for like 2 hours around lunchtime). I expected a sit-down restaurant, but it was more like a cross between a diner and a lunch cart. You order at the counter, seat yourself, and get your food when it’s ready. That worked for me. As long as I could keep refilling my soda, I was happy. As for the food, the sides were ok and I’m pretty sure the cornbread wasn’t real southern cornbread (it was sweet, which I consider a good thing). But the ribs were another story. When I picked them up they fell apart under their own weight. This place brought tender to a whole new level. Convinced I’d never eat again, I made my way over to my hotel.
So tomorrow I take another shot at a Waffle House, attempt to drive the last 40 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and head into the mountains to do the Smokies in earnest. I’ve already checked, and the main road through the park is completely open, so (knock on wood) hopefully the ghost of Eli Manning can finally take tomorrow off.

1 comment:

  1. My faith in you is ate BBQ in Te deep south. I love that last shot of the mountains.-amysue