"The most wasted of all days is one without laughter." ~e e cummings

Friday, April 8, 2016

Asheville, North Carolina: Magic and Happiness

The fact that, the day before our trip, he had a fever didn't surprise me. A measurable rise in body temperature is how Evan responds to all major life events or transitions. Holiday? Birthday party? Field trip? Switching out the long sleeves for the short-sleeved shirts in his closet? He'll have a thermal spike before or after the big day nine times out of ten. I was unfazed. 

The fact that he woke up the next morning at 4am, vomiting, four hours before we were to hit the road, did worry me. A lot. Our town is experiencing the hard-hitting effects of a Super Bug: a stomach virus so violent and relentless that it will knock an entire family out, one person at a time, sparing no one, for a four or five day stretch. Before Spring Break, some classes were down to a 50% attendance rate. My neighbors have had it. My kids' friends have had it. My kids' teachers have had it.

And now it looked like we did, too. Just in time for a five-hour car ride and a quick Spring Break getaway that, if we didn't get on the road now, would be over before it began.

What to do?

Skip it? Hunker down at home and deal with the Super Bug?
or Just Keep Moving...get on the road, cross our fingers, and hope for the best?

What choice did we have? We made up our minds. We steeled our resolves. We, Evan especially, muscled through. It wasn't our favorite car trip but, without having to stop too many times and while having the sense that the worst, for Evan at least, was behind us, we made it to Asheville, North Carolina.

Our first stop was the Botanical Gardens of Asheville

As soon as we stepped out of the car, stretched our legs, and breathed in that Appalachian Mountain air, I could feel it. There was magic in that air; healing magic.

While Max, literally, ran circles around us, Evan slowly but deliberately made his way through the park. He was able to keep down a few sips of water (a huge improvement from the previous 9 hours), breathe deeply, and let the healing magic soak in.

He needed to stop a few times to take a break, but after an hour or so, he was even eating pretzels.

Life was good.

At the end of the trail that winds through the gardens, there's a creek. It's probably the best creek we've ever found. There are huge boulders on which little kids like ours can play, and big kids like the UNC-Asheville students surrounding us, can study.

In my next life, I think I'd like to be a UNC-A student. 

Or maybe one of my kids will be and I can visit.

Like, all the time.

Creeks are mostly for playing, but there was geology to be learned in that creek, too. Evan noticed that the rocks were sharp and jagged, unless they were under water. It was a great opportunity to talk about erosion.

Water is powerful in its yielding, yet persistent nature. The gentle flow of the creek showed us the quiet power of water at its finest. It continues on its course gently, slowly smoothing rough edges, patiently clearing a path of easier flow over time, without acting destructively or in violent opposition to the world around it. Water, in Taoism, symbolizes wu-wei, or non-action. But don't mistake wu-wei for sluggishness or inactivity. It's working in harmony with the world. It's taking the path of least resistance while refusing to relax your moral standards. We could all take a page from water's book.

But seriously. The visible geology in western North Carolina is nuts.

Just look at this rock.

We hadn't been in magical Asheville for more than a few hours and it had already won us over.

From the Botanical Gardens, we headed south to our cottage.


If you're ever in Asheville, which you should try to be, you must stay at Asheville Cottages. This is not a paid review. Trust me when I say that I have received no compensation from writing this:

This place was perfect. 

This little cottage is one of 14 on a private, 5-acre piece of property just 10 minutes south of downtown Asheville and minutes from the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway. (It was also only about 20 minutes to the Biltmore Estate and 45 minutes to Chimney Rock State Park.)

We stayed in The Chestnut, which overlooked the common green space (and this great swing!). Our one-bedroom cottage had a king bed, a sleeper sofa, plenty of room for the kids to play, a hot tub, a grill, and every amenity you might need while on vacation. We packed everything we would use while on the trip, but we didn't have to: The kitchen came fully stocked with coffee, cream, juices, sodas, sugar, butter, condiments, spices, and cooking supplies. There was a complimentary snack bowl filled with muffins, granola bars, popcorn, and candy. Even little extras, like Ziploc baggies, were included. The bathroom had full-size shampoo and conditioner dispensers, as well as extra toothbrushes, hand soap, and lotion. There was a hair dryer, plush robes, tons of extra towels, and HEATED BATHROOM FLOORS. The sheets on the (sleep number!) bed were spa quality and I wanted to steal the pillows. I didn't...but I wanted to.

It was, by far, the cleanest rental we have ever stayed in. It was immaculate.

The front porch was pretty nice, too.

So after we spent some time expressing all the ways we loved our little cottage, we ventured back out again.

This time, we headed to West Asheville to check out a beer and burger place I had heard about called Universal Joint. In a renovated garage, the place was just as it was described: no frills, just good burgers and beers. (It was here that Molly decided she would no longer willingly be in photos, making the documentation of the rest of the trip...Fun. We'll go with "fun.")

Evan successfully ate a few bites of dinner and we all breathed a sigh of relief and knocked on wood that we had avoided the worst of the Super Bug. 

On the way to dinner, I remembered that I had recently seen a photo of a tucked-away, West Asheville gem called "Christopher's Garden" on one of my favorite Instagram accounts (Jean Van't Hul, The Artful Parent).

I mapped the intersection I found for it in this fascinating article about Christopher Mello, the mastermind and creative director behind the garden. We were only a few blocks away. 

It's on a lot in the middle of a residential neighborhood. "Can we just walk right in to someone's yard?" the kids asked...

Yes, we may. And we did. And it was magical.

The garden itself was just beginning to come back to life, but the found treasures, sculptures, and architectural elements throughout the space were begging us to come in and explore.

In the center of the garden, there was a table covered in loose parts...rocks, strings, pieces of sharp, rusty metal, you know... play things. The kids were immediately drawn to it and decided to create ornaments of their own to hang up around the garden. "Can we use these?" Max asked. Evan answered: "Remember what Christopher Mello said, Max: Yes, you may."

And so, they did.

And they ran.

And they relaxed.

And they explored some more.

And we love Christopher's Garden.

I didn't sleep much that night, lying in bed between Max and Molly, listening to their every sigh and sleep sound, noticing their every twitch and shift, waiting for the proverbial next shoe to drop.

But we got through the night without another Stomach Virus victim and headed out early the next morning for The Biltmore: The grand estate of the Vanderbilt family.

I had heard that, when in Asheville, The Biltmore Estate is a Must See. I can tell you this: these pictures will not do the grandeur and opulence of America's largest private residence justice. 

I can also tell you this: most of the history I learned about the Vanderbilt family and the Gilded Age throughout the exhibits was lost on me because, while walking through the Tapestry Gallery, just beyond the Music Room and before the 12,000-book Library, Molly looked at me, positively green in the face and said, "Mommy. My tummy hurts."

I spent the rest of the time holding her in one arm and her jacket cupped inconspicuously in front of her in the other. She didn't get sick, but man, was I worried that we would be Those People to puke on Edith Vanderbilt's purple and gold silk coverlet. 

But here are two little tidbits for you:

1) Maybe I've been living under a rock, but did you know that Anderson Cooper is a Vanderbilt? His mom is Gloria Vanderbilt, whom I've heard of, of course, but never knew the connection. His grandfather, Gloria's father, was apparently quite the playboy and squandered his share of the fortune, so no trust fund for Anderson.


2) The chess set pictured in the library below belonged to Napoleon!

The house, to say the least, is impressive. 

And the lower level was so Downton Abbey I couldn't stand it. I could practically see Mrs. Patmore bustling about and Carson holding court.

Just like in Downton, the Cecil family, who currently own the estate, has had to work creatively to bring in the necessary funds to keep the house running. In addition to the $50/adult entry fee (!!!), they have converted the stables into gift shops. The confectionery may or may not have been a highlight of the tour.

It was.

The gardens were in full bloom.

And we even stopped by the petting zoo and playground for a bit. There's a winery, several inns and restaurants, canola and sunflower fields, and a solar farm on the property as well. 

All in all, The Biltmore Estate is well worth the price of admission (especially since kids 10 and under are free) and we had a wonderful morning. Without the kids, we could have stayed all day wandering the grounds but they were ready to move on.

To Downtown Asheville!

After a quick 10-minute drive to downtown, we walked around a bit, popping into cute little shops here and there. The highlight of the afternoon, though, was a late lunch as this fabulous restaurant, Tupelo Honey Cafe. The fizzy lavender limeade hit the spot and the homemade biscuits with blueberry jam (and honey, of course) were amazing.  

We awoke Wednesday morning with no firm plans. We had left it open thinking we'd want to do more sightseeing in Downtown Asheville, but we felt like we'd seen it properly the afternoon before. We packed up, bid adieu to our lovely little cottage, and headed east to Chimney Rock State Park.

It was a stressful drive up the mountain on a winding, narrow, cliff-hugging road, but we made it to the top...or rather, the bottom...from the parking lot it was a 499-stair journey to the top of Chimney Rock.

The kids were such troopers.

Evan bounded ahead, unafraid and full of energy. 

Max, nervous about the height and the safety of the stairs, clung tight to Sam's or my hand most of the way up. (For those of you who have been in the past, the stairs were replaced last year. They are constructed of steel and wood, are comfortably wide, with hand rails and wire mesh on the sides. Very safe. Very secure.) 

Molly took turns walking and when her "little legs are too tired, Mommy" she rode in the pouch, first with me, then, when I couldn't climb another stair with a 30-pound weight on my back, with Sam.

Half-way to the top!

In the Grotto

Hanging on for dear life.

We made it to the top!

I swear they weren't the ones to carve the E and the M!

The return trip down the rock, of course, took no time at all, so we decided to squeeze in one last little hike before heading home.

Chimney Rock State Park has five hikes in all. The stairs to the top of Chimney Rock is The Outcroppings Trail. The Hickory Nut Falls Trail, a trail ending with a spectacular waterfall and which was featured in The Last of the Mohicans, looked awesome, but we didn't think we had it in us to do a mile-and-a-half trail at this point in the adventure.

Instead, we opted for the half-mile Great Woodland Adventure Trail, which was designed with the youngest hikers in mind. Quick and easy, with stops along the trail to learn about the native flora and fauna in western North Carolina, it was the perfect end to our little vacation.

Lesson Learned:

Thank you, Asheville, for your beauty, your delicious food, your eclectic residents, your art and imagination, and, most of all, for your magical healing powers.

We'll be back!


  1. Quite jealous. Glad you had such a good time and that stomachs recovered.

  2. I grew up very close to Asheveille, and my brother went to UNC-A. You are absolutely right - it is magical. This was a beautiful tribute - I'm so glad that you all had such a great trip.