Asheville, North Carolina
The small city of Asheville, North Carolina has got to be one of the last “unspoiled” gems in America. Not only is it nestled between the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains of Appalachia (by some miracle of god still pristine in large swatches) but the town itself is a strange and wonderful polestar for hippies, lesbians, musicians, artists, chefs, antiquity dealers, liberals and mountain bikers.
Consider this – in all of downtown Asheville, there is not one single chain retail store… no Caribou Coffee, no Eddie Bauer, no CVC, certainly no Taco Bell. Every store is singular in name and ownership. I would spend my days perusing used bookstores, gem shops, art galleries, clothiers, head shops… I experienced some of the very best meals I’ve ever had in my life in Asheville’s downtown. I recommend the “Southern Comfort Dish” at Bistro 1896. By the way, I didn’t know it at the time, but that was not to be the only southern comfort dish I would experience as sustenance while in Asheville.
One highlight meal was breakfast at “Tupelo Honey”. Not only was the food unbelievable and served with an edible flower (so I believed), but the serving help were all of a unique stripe… a half dozen fascinating young women all with multiple tattoos, no makeup and hairy armpits, all wearing sunny hippy clothes and no bras. Some had dreads. They were a display of not just feminine beauty, but feminist beauty. It was rare thing for me to see, and I’ll never forget the impression.
I found myself in Asheville late autumn to play The Grove Park Inn for two weeks of dueling piano shows. A four-star resort and hotel, the rooms were loaded every night with a clientele that was, well, loaded. I made some of the best money of my life that week, played with some outstanding performers, and ended every night at a bar or restaurant with the players and cocktail cuties swapping stories and spit, appropriate to gender.
That was just a total lie, of course. I didn’t hook up with a single cocktail waitress. They were all total hotties, one was absolutely alpha. Trade secret: a traveling musician’s chances of hooking up with the girls who work at the venue is pretty much the same as yours… slim and none. I take every small attention as a victory.
The Grove Park Inn was built in 1913 of massive granite boulders, and underground architecture reveals exposed bedrock and purple quartz as in the winding corridor spa corridor. But this four star hotel is not the most impressive piece of real estate in Asheville.
That distinction lies with the Biltmore Estate, built in the 1890’s by George Vanderbilt to be the nation’s grandest home. On the 8000 acre estate itself, the mansion, a winery, gardens, managed forest, and a hotel famous for unparalleled hospitality. By some strange cosmic coincidence, the hotel is run by an old rock band comrade of mine, and based on his graciousness one that I never pissed off too badly. We toured the hotel, drank on the veranda to the dotage of the staff, drove the Blue Ridge Trail, and ate dinner at Resas, one of Asheville’s very best restaurants.
I stayed a few nights at his house where I even got to see the Asheville Fire Department up close and first hand, when two engines arrived at his house at 2 in the morning when his son tripped the alarm. (Glad it wasn’t me!) I shared a delicious Puerto Rican Thanksgiving meal as guest with his excellent neighbors.
Douglas got it into his head that we should hike Mount Pisgah. And so doing we earned the vantage point of the entire range of mountains, looking far up and down the Midwestern portion the state of North Carolina. Nothing much beats climbing a mountain for gaining some confident perspective.
On my very last night in Asheville, the piano players and cocktail girls all went to a nearby bar for one last hour of carousing. There were some local girls there who were at the show. Now I don’t thank God nearly as much as I used to and a fraction of what I perhaps should, but I will be forever grateful for finding myself post-performance at a small town bar with “local girls who were at the show.” It’s a situation that at the very least can be counted on to avert or just postpone the deadly depression I can feel following shows, that can be like painting the words “Now What?” on a rock tied to my leg and kicking it over the cliff. “Hey piano guy!” from a strangers’ table can kick off minutes of good feeling and conversation. Add a smiling, stimulated girl not with a guy to the mix and I begin to have something to live for. And Santa, let her daddy have been a musician.
She had long straight red hair, an appetite for affection, and her father made instruments for every serious bluegrass string player in the Carolinas, so to tell. Deeply existent on music, this one. Her very purpose that night was to support and comfort me according to music’s every need. And I’ve got to tell you, music was in serious need of more than a blowjob. Which is only treating with the crudest of terms the sweetest of gifts, my tour ending with delicious compassion, a release from the constant aching.
At the airport, where Asheville resident Ms. Andie McDowell was ahead of me in the security line, moving too briskly for any clumsy attempts at conversation I might have made, the lie I tell for failing “What a beautiful kind city you have here, Ms. McDowell,” resulting in her eyes looking into mine.
When I look back on this fleeting episode of my life, I realize that there have been few times when I was ever surrounded by so much beauty, in every way, at every turn. “Southern comfort”, that old cliché, I’m adding to my list of Truths. And that is a very short list indeed.