Tuesday, December 18, 2012

DAY 117- Ashville & Great Smokey Mountains…

After getting settled in my hotel in Asheville, NC, I opted to stay close for dinner.  I went to a place nearby called Fatz.  It’s a local chain restaurant that was started in a renovated peach shed in 1988 by some friends and now is a southern chain that has 48 restaurants.  It was packed as it should be on a Friday night.  I sat at an open spot at the bar between two guys. 

It ended up being three guys and myself chatting and hanging out; one worked at a tire store, another worked for a utility company, and another was retired, I think.  The tire store guy was a regular and it was funny because I had a roll and silverware while he was being ignored.  The utility guy who we ended up calling Mr. Glitters, because he came in with glitter on his face from being in the toy section of Kmart (ahh-haa!), and myself were giving the tire guy all kinds of a hard time about the pitfalls and pluses of being a regular.  Meanwhile, the retired guy was talking about feeding his kids and grandkids, which happen to be living with him.  The retired guy was buying all of us rounds of drinks and they were all telling me about the Asheville area and North Carolina.  They were also all razing me about if Utah would allowed plural husbands for me because they wouldn’t mind be a candidate.  It was a fun time.  Mr. Tire guy told me to come back and spend more than just one day.  He would be here for me to find when I came back this way.
Photo- Biltmore Village.

The next morning, I was on my way to the Biltmore Village and hoping to take a peek at the Biltmore.  The Biltmore was the largest privately owned home and was built by the George Washington Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1895.  It’s still owned by the Vanderbilt family and is quite the tourist attraction in the area.  It’s also about a $50 fee just to walk in the door and then you can shop or walk through parts of the gilded house and HUGE garden area.  It sounded like it could take hours and sounded very expensive which wasn’t on my agenda for the day.  I put this on my list of come back and see later.

I did however take a bit of time to visit the nearby Biltmore Village which is a quaint little shopping upscale shopping village near the Biltmore.  In fact, the village was built by the Vanderbilt’s for the employees of the Biltmore Estate.  The village covers about a five block city area.  There’s little cottage like houses which contain various shops and restaurants.  There are cute little street lamps, brick sidewalks, trolley tourist cars, and horse drawn carriages too.  There’s also a Catholic Church that takes up a large corner area.  I wandered around the area with plenty of free parking (something Helen, GA could learn here).  The place was packed with all kinds of holiday shoppers. 
Photo- The outside of the glass art shop in Biltmore Village.

There were some wonderful shops.  My favorite was a shop that had blown glass art.  Some of the round glass balls looked like they had flower blossoms inside.  Another shop that I thought was fun was a Christmas Store with all kinds of thing Christmas.  In fact, I got a kick out of a tree that was self-flocking  with little white pebble-like beads that would shoot out from the top of the tree and be caught on the tree or by a round green saucer at the bottom of the tree.  Sorry, I didn’t venture a look on the price tag on this one.  I know all of you want one of these for Christmas. J     
Photo- In the River Arts Area of Asheville, NC.

Next, I drove over to the River Arts area in Asheville and on the way I tried to take a peek at the Biltmore but the trees surrounding it are like a full forest.  I drove along the river and down by the railroad tracks for a bit.  Then off to the side there is an area that has old brick warehouse buildings.  This is the river Arts area of Asheville.  I guess I was hoping for more.  It was just one large warehouse row with artists’ studios inside and a large graveled parking lot out front.  I explored a few studio areas and there was some wonderful art but there wasn’t much else out that way.  They needed a restaurant or a coffee shop or something out there.  At one end of the warehouse row, there was a large antique store.  I drove back to the interstate and headed west towards the Great Smokey Mountains National Park which I had planned to visit for most of the day.
Photo- The Blue Ridge Parkway.

From Asheville I headed west and then south to Maggie Valley.  I stopped for a quick lunch at a fast food chain restaurant called Bojangles which is a bit like a KFC but very southern type touches.  You could order dirty rice as a side and it appeared that everything on the menu had a Cajun version to it.  Next, I headed west to Soco Gap and turned onto the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The Blue Ridge Parkway runs along the spine of the Smokey Mountains and there are some amazing views but I will warn you there are some steep and curvy areas of road.  But with these views it very worth it.  Thankfully, there was no snow yet or this section would have been closed.  The elevation of the road runs between 5000 to 6000 ft. and closes in the winter quite often.
Photo- One of several views along the Blue Ridge Highway.

Next, I took a right hand turn onto Hwy 441 and was at the Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center for the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.  I turned in and went into the center.  It was packed and there were tons of people sitting listening to some live Christmas music being played by local people.  People were singing along with the music.  I talked to a parks employee and every Saturday before Christmas they have this event.  All of the musicians are locals and it’s like what they call a “front porch” session.  They all just show up and they go around and have each musician pick a Christmas song that they would like to play.  One of the guys on a banjo played “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” which had everyone laughing by the end of the tune.  I sat down and enjoyed singing along for a while.  It was a very festive atmosphere.  People and musicians would come and go. 
Photo- Some southern Christmas FUN at the visitor's center.

After a while, I got up to go see the park but first I went through the museum part of the visitor’s center.  It told the history of the park and how it was finally made a national park in 1934.  The museum told the story of how the roads were built for the park with the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp.) during the Great Depression.  The museum talked about the culture and the life in the area but what got me most was there was a HUGE fake pig hanging in an area.  It was a strange site to see at a National Park Visitor’s Center.   
Photos- The Great Smokey Mountains!

Next, I drove through the park and stopped here and there to take pictures.  It was rather cold and very windy day.  I was a bit disappointed that the road to Clingman’s Dome was closed for the season. At 6643 ft., Clingman’s Dome is the highest point east of the Mississippi.  There were quite a few roads to trail heads that were closed in the park.  I just stopped here and there; deciding not to do any hiking today.  Eventually, I got to the other side of the park and the Sugarlands Visitor’s Center where I stopped to use the restrooms.  I also got a bumper sticker and a couple of postcards too.

Then, I was off heading north through the crowded town of Gatlinburg.  It was stop and go traffic coming out of the park and I was so glad that I decided to drive into the park from the south.  From there, I took some back roads and worked my way up to I-40.  On I-40, I headed west to Knoxville, TN where I would stay the night.  The sun was going down and it was starting to rain so I slowed down and took my time.  It was dark when I finally got checked into my hotel for the night.

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