Asheville, North Carolina. I park on the top floor of a nondescript parking garage. The sun is bright, it feels harsh in the winter breeze. I head across the street and walk through a tall, arched door.
The Grove Arcade is a grand space from an age of boundless optimism. Inside, it opens into a colonnaded gallery of shops. A pair of iron stairs spiral up toward wide skylights. You can’t help but admire the ambition of it all, when people dreamed of elegant skyscrapers rising into a modern city. I walk past windows carefully arranged with framed art and stylish furniture. I’m largely uninterested in shopping.
Outside, I pass a mix of quirky shops and little restaurants that have the unmistakable marks of tourism. Way too many art galleries for a town this small. I wander aimlessly for a while, observing all the strange adaptations for the COVID-19 pandemic. Makeshift pickup windows for carry out orders. Picnic tables in the street, surrounded by barriers of traffic cones. Everywhere signs announce mask policies and encourage a spirit of cooperation.
I made this brief stop in downtown Asheville during my pandemic road trip. It was sort of an afterthought, a way to break up the drive from South Carolina to Ohio. I’ve been through the area a few times, but I never saw much of the city. In retrospect, I should have spent more time there. Because it’s cool.
Downtown Asheville has just enough culture to avoid being dismissed as touristy. There’s a ridiculously good scene for breweries and food, backed up with some great historical and cultural sights. There’s an art museum and a *checks notes* pinball museum (it was temporarily closed due to COVID-19). You can see lots of architecture from the 1920’s, like the aforementioned Grove Arcade and a church designed by Rafael Guastavino, master of fancy tiled ceilings. He was in town to work on the Biltmore Estate, which merits its own post. Anyway, there’s lots to see besides the artsy stores and lots to do besides drinking craft beer, should neither of those activities suit you.
I search for a place to (safely) have a drink or a bite to eat, but nothing seems right. I’m thinking of leaving. I pass a guy playing dreamy keyboard music in the main square, so I stop to listen for a while. I start to notice some of the art around: a sculpture of two pigs walking, a mural of a black man that says “power to the people.” I grab my phone and find a sort of walking tour, which I follow for a while. More statues and more stories, like how the famous writer O Henry spent some of his final months in Asheville. The lore of the city is all around.
I start feeling cold and my phone is almost dead, so I leave to find my hotel out by the highway. I drive across the river to West Asheville, where I immediately observe the signs of a post-hipster enclave. Breweries, street art, fancy tacos–yep, the hipsters have been here. Not that it’s a bad thing. I appreciate a sense of creativity and an interest in tasty things. I decide to come back later.
West Asheville is a great off-the-beaten-path neighborhood that is short on tourist attractions and long on cool vibes. If your idea of fun is grabbing brunch at a local farm-to-table restaurant or digging through some vintage vinyl, look no further. The central hub of West Asheville is the business district on Haywood Road, which makes a 90 degree turn right in the middle of things. Look for a mural that appeals to your artistic preferences, park the car, and begin your exploration.
Since I was visiting during the pandemic and only for one night, a certain amount of research seemed advisable. I found Urban Orchard Cider, which promised a large outdoor patio. I shortlisted a couple of nearby restaurants including a local pizza place that appeared to have some outdoor space as well. I would love to give you recommendations, but things seem to be changing all the time during the pandemic. Better to go there and explore the neighborhood for yourself.
The cider taproom is a good find. As promised, there is a big patio with lots of room to spread out. I enjoy a flight of tasty beverages from the safety and relative comfort of a metal table. It’s getting colder, though. I feel like some sort of mountaineer drinking outside at their camp. I start feeling better about my day. Maybe I didn’t get to see much, but I did find a good spot for a drink, always a worthy pursuit.
After one successful stop, I decide to go for another at the pizza place. There are only a handful of tables outside, but I get one. Another metal table with a freezing cold chair. Across the patio, a small group is drinking wine and laughing, huddled under their blankets. The windows to the dining room are open, and inside I can see a couple mask-wearing servers darting around between tables. Eventually, I get my pizza and it’s exactly as good as I was hoping.
It all seemed a bit crazy, trying to have dinner out during the pandemic with the masks and the cold. This was on top of the weirdness of eating out alone, sort of a unique aspect of traveling solo that I’m just starting to get comfortable with. (Bringing a book to read helps!) But I was happy to be there, in spite of the weirdness.
It’s a simple thing, eating well-crafted pizza in a new place, not exactly the grand adventure I used to dream about. The pandemic has shifted things, though, and this felt like a moment of good travel to be savored. I was thankful for it.