Monday, June 16, 2008
Asheville: Escape to Hippyland
I have always lived in the epicenter of conservative America, having grown up in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, then living most of my adult life in Greenville. I have gradually come to grips with my bible-belting surroundings over the years. Every once in a while, though, I just need to escape the overbearing pressure to join the NRA, drive a Hummer, or otherwise engage myself in some activity designed to advertise the microscopic size of my genitalia. When that feeling hits me, I know just exactly where to go. Just a short scenic drive up US 25 and I-26 lies liberal nirvana and it goes by the name of Asheville. I flare my nostrils and inhale the aroma of incense and patchouli that lets me know I have come home.
Mountain people have been, throughout history, a breed apart. Nowhere is that truer than in Asheville, North Carolina, a colorful buoy of hippie culture floating in a red state sea. Could a tornado have picked up San Francisco and dropped it just to our north like in "The Wizard of Oz?" As unusual as it seems, you have to wonder what force of nature put this place in such an unlikely geographic position. My gut feeling is that the devil is tempting people not to believe the rigorous dogma required to be a boring automaton by setting us bible-belters so close to a place where being different is not frowned upon, but damn near encouraged. If you too have the urge to be a little off-center at times, come along with me to Hippyland.
What sort of activities do I involve myself in during my visits to Asheville? How very nice of you to ask that question so that I can segue into the next part of the article! Besides numerous trips to the Jersey Mike's on Merrimon due to my brother's (he is a Franklin, NC native and we often meet in Asheville) hopeless addiction to their mediocre subs, music is the primary reason I am driven to make the journey. There are many excellent venues in Hippyland, from Jack of the Wood to The Grey Eagle Tavern. For my money, the mecca of Ashevillian audiophilic orgasms is the Orange Peel. IMHO there are very few better places in the Southeast to see a show, and the sheer number of quality gigs they draw is unmatched. All genres are represented, from country to indie rock, from bluegrass to the blues, the Orange Peel has them all. As an indie and punk rock fan, I have seen The New Pornographers, Against Me, The Meat Puppets, Built to Spill, Dinosaur Jr., and Immaculate Machine, all within the last year. With square footage somewhat akin to a basketball court, the arena is quite intimate - I have never been more than thirty feet from the stage. The owners have also successfully fought off the warm temperatures associated with packing a large crowd into a small space by providing the largest fan in the known universe to cool things down. Seriously, they have this thing hanging from the ceiling that reminds me of the propellor from a WW II flying fortress, but somewhat larger. Rumor has it that the blades were stolen off of a windmill and smuggled out of Holland during our recent conflict with the Dutch over paint and tulip tariffs. If that fanstrocity fell from its perch everyone inside would be mashed and slashed into a human pate that would have cannibals the world over drooling like Pavlov's dogs. I will be damned if that thing doesn't make it extremely comfortable in there, though.
So maybe you are a soulless monster and don't care for music - what other diversions does Asheville hold? With the Blue Ridge Parkway only miles away, you could go on numerous hikes, climb some of the highest peaks on the East coast or view some of the prettiest cataracts (fancy word for waterfall) this side of your grandma's vision problem. That sounds like too much work, however, so let's find a good place to get drunk instead. You could head to Barley's Taproom, but we have one in Greenville if you want to just interact with hippie types for a short time, so let's find something a little more original to Asheville. You could try the Thirsty Monk, a new Belgian beer joint located on Patton Avenue, but be warned: the high gravity beers there may interact with your system a bit differently than a six pack of cold Bud. Walking may become a chore and driving is out of the question.
Although faced with many great choices in a town that takes so much pride in its hedonistic reputation, the first place you should head for is the Asheville Brewing and Pizza Company located on Merrrimon Avenue. There you will find what has been missing from your mundane Greenvillian existence, a movie theater that serves the cold, gold liquid refreshment that your shriveled liver has been too long without. Lay back in one of their comfy chairs and enjoy the show with a tasty slice of Italy in one hand and a frothy bit of Octoberfest heaven in the other. Watch a poorly dubbed Chinese martial arts film and you can consider your visit a cultural experience.
While we are speaking of cultural experiences, let's take at look at the people that make Asheville the decidedly diverse place it is. Long hair and beards seem to be a requirement, even for some of the women. Dreadlocks are a major plus. Dress is casual, with the basic attire consisting of a ragged brownish t-shirt, cargo pants (which provide numerous pockets for dank nugs and assoiciated paraphenalia), and tivas. Their odor will be a mildly pleasant melange of patchouli, incense, and marijuana. Piercings are limited only by your own creativity and pain threshold. Anyone wearing coats or slacks without gaping holes is summarily executed. There are openly gay people everywhere - and don't miturate upon that monument! Street performers are all over the place - a couple of the well known regulars include a lady painted in silver to resemble a statue and a gentleman who utilizes cardboard and spray paint to create amazing space-like tableaus . Hopefully I have prepared you for the Ashevillian populace so that your head does not explode. I would hate to have your busted cranium on my hands.
For any of you less open-minded folks concerned about running into any of these weirdos and having to talk to them, just stay up at the Grove Park Inn, where you can view them from afar, like zoo exhibits. The Grove Park features luscious spa treatments as well as their own private golf course, which you can play for a very affordable total of well under a thousand dollars. If you would rather overwhelm the hippies with numbers, a large invasion force of outsiders arrives in Asheville during the Bele Chere festival, which occurs every year during the last weekend of July. Bele Chere is a street festival that features beer, food, and several free concerts (De la Soul almost showed up a couple years back!), providing the kind of listening pleasure only a powerful blow to the head with a blunt instrument can equal. Hey, even a paradise like Hippyland isn't perfect.