Meeting the Mountains

Blue Ridge Parkway

A view from the Blue Ridge Parkway

It might seem as though we’ve fallen off the face of the Earth since moving to Asheville, but the opposite is closer to the truth.  We’ve become more attached to it – spending weekends exploring the wrinkles of its surface through the mountains and valleys of the Blue Ridge and taking time at least once a week to taste the local food that defines this place.

Our favorite hilly hikes start from the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  From here you can walk North or South.  I say walk because even when I start out at a run, I need to walk at least one of the hills.  The further we go, the higher the hills climb, so I’ve quickly learned that a hill only seems daunting until you encounter the next one.  We’ve repeatedly renamed the “Big Hill,” as we venture further along the trail.

Graveyard Fields sign

Sign leading into Graveyard Fields

For a less strenuous climb, but an equally challenging foot terrain with several substantial creeks, I recommend Graveyard Fields.  We found this spot along the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Asheville, although several other overlooks tempted us along the way.  The parking lot here filled with cars, for a good reason: it’s a great family hike, suitable for young children or the furry ones in your pack.  Georgia loves the chance to sniff along the flat terrain while keeping us within her sight, and the waterfall at the end of the out-and-back trail made us human hikers happy. It was much cooler here than the surrounding area, so pack for a chilly atmosphere and the possibility of plunging into the water.

For those looking for a wider hiking path, we recommend a trip to the North Carolina Arboretum. Within a week of moving here, we became members, swayed by the parking fee ($8 a car, but free for members) and the foliage.  The gravelled roads traverse the entire 434 acres, with 10 miles of hiking and biking trails. Each is clearly marked for bikers, though some are designated foot-traffic only. Leashed dogs are welcome and a common site on weekends, and the trails lead into the surrounding areas, including a loop around Lake Powhatan.

After all this hiking, we definitely worked up an appetite, so here’s the short list of our favorite fare so far:

  • Homegrown does slow food right quick. Their sandwiches can’t be beat, and their ingredients are local and fresh.  And with sweet tea for just a $1, it can easily rival more common fast food restaurants that boast this same special. The dining area extends the homey feel, with several rooms and an outdoor porch to choose from.
  • Corner Kitchen is another hometown option, with an everlasting line of customers extending out the front door of the 1890s house in Biltmore Village. The flanking shops provide plenty of distraction during the wait, and the food is worth it.
  • Downtown can do no wrong when it comes to restaurants. From oversized burritos at Mamacita’s to sushi at Wasabi, we’ve found something for every taste.  Of course, there’s also the more well-known Tupelo Honey Cafe which draws its crowds with the tempting biscuits, honey, and jam, and the equally packed neighbor Mayfel’s, which is a great stop for a burger.

From the Mountains to the Sea

trail marker

Trail Marker for Mountains to Sea Trail

We’ve lived in Asheville almost three weeks now, and in that time, we’ve ventured no more than 10 miles from our front steps. Within that radius, we can access the Blue Ridge Parkway and spectacular trails or drive downtown for famous restaurants and retail establishments.  We can walk to a bookstore, a fabric store, and a McDonald’s – a dangerous combination that has made us caffeinated enough to consider our weekend hobbies.  The book stacks have doubled, and instead of buying ready-made curtains, we purchased several yards of a fabric that instantly feels like a part of our home.  It’s still rolled in a corner, in a box, along with some of the books, ready to be displayed as soon as we craft room for it.

As much as we’ve enjoyed staying at home in our new apartment, we’ve also enjoyed the outdoors.  Last weekend centered around an afternoon at the nearby WNC Nature Center, where Asheville citizens gain admission for a mere $6. Though the weather felt like spring, the animals didn’t believe it.  Most stayed in their enclosures or napped away the afternoon in a sunbeam, much like our dog.  The otters, though, put on their usual playful show, again, much like our dog. We now wonder which of the animals she can scent from the roadway as we drive by the perimeter of the  center with our windows down.  It’s our path to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the larger wilderness.

In some ways though, it’s the journey or the drive here that becomes most interesting.  From the barely visible castle on the mountaintop to the side roads that turn into winding paths, we never quite know where they will lead.  But we are lucky to be able to drive them, particularly because we had no idea that obtaining a North Carolina driver’s license would require a driving test and sign identification.  So if you plan to move to the state and make your home anywhere from the mountains to the sea, be prepared for the expected two hour wait at the DMV and use that time to study up for the road ahead.

Thin Ice

ice on the canal

Skaters leave their trails on the frozen canal.

Living in the city often scares me.  So much awaits just outside my front door, or outside of my two front doors.  Since we live in an apartment, we have our front door and the building’s front door, an extra step that still confounds the dog.  She prefers to bark directly at the front yard through the window.  Lately though, even she wants to stay inside on her window-seat above the heater.  On Thursday, snow covered the sidewalks during my morning walk to work.  By Friday, the south-facing pavement had dried, but by afternoon, the snow fell once again forming  a muffled winter wonderland during rush hours.  At least the wintery precipitation justified the excruciatingly cold temperatures.

The temperature dropped low enough, long enough to freeze the canal solid in spots.  We first noticed the icy surface from the Chain Bridge on Saturday, where at mid-day, several brave hockey players swirled between the banks.  The lowered water level means that any fall would be minimal, but I still consider it daring to venture out on the canal in the extreme cold.

On Sunday as the ice subsided, we carefully hugged the path during our run.  Our footsteps stamped the remnants off snow further into the dirt.  Our dog added her paw prints as well, because even if she hates the cold, she loves the snow.  She eagerly bounds through the flakes and picks the drifts over dry ground, until she lands in the cold puddle underneath. I bet the brave hockey players on the canal feel the same.

Time for Trails

The Washington Post ran a story this weekend from a couple who decided to bike the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.  It’s the D.C. end that interests me, and it’s one of our favorite places for long weekend runs, even on the shortest day of the year.  With additional afternoon sunlight and spring arriving a little more each day, it’s the perfect time to explore the running routes in D.C.

In the fall, the tow path and canal are almost empty.

Starting at Georgetown, the dirt tow path runs parallel to the paved Capital Crescent Trail.  On weekdays, the CCT bicycle traffic picks up with commuters, so it can be difficult to run with the dog.  The first time we ventured out on this trail, I even questioned whether or not dogs were allowed.  They are, as long as they are kept on a short leash.  On the weekends, you’ll see plenty of them trotting along the more natural tow path, leashed to walkers, runners, and the occasional bicyclist. This path also attracts fishermen and families who congregate along the banks when the canal is full.

The route we choose depends on the surface and scenery that we want.  The tow path, for all its small stones and pebbles, offers a relatively level surface and hugs the Potomac River into Maryland.  From the Key Bridge, it flows west past a rental boat house to reveal a kayak course that has been the subject of a CBS Sunday Morning segment.  After the dam, the views expand, so it’s worth parking at one of the many locks along the route and starting your journey from there.

The Capital Crescent Trail has a steep incline to begin, crossing over the canal and arching further inland through Maryland.  Though on the reverse route to Georgetown, the running is mostly downhill.  Plenty of side paths lead into the suburbs of Maryland and a McDonold’s emerges approximately four miles in, as a scented, primary-colored reminder of civilization that could almost be forgotten.  The trail skirts the outside of the city, as quick get away from hustle and bustle that more characteristic define the district. Perhaps that’s why Nancy Szokan found it so meditative during her biking trip.

Finding Georgia

I wanted a quick read this past week, something inspiriting for the season and lighthearted.  I scanned the end of the year best books list, but of course all of those books were already checked out from the library and had a waiting list of hundreds for the digital versions.  The bestseller that was still available, like a bulging-eyed Boston Terrier from the shelter, was Julie Klam’s You Had Me at Woof: How Dogs Taught Me the Secrets of Happiness. The 140-pages chronicle the adoption of her first dog in her twenties, to the second dog that coincided with the birth of her daughter, and the numerous fosters that found their way into her home and into her stories.  Unable to adopt them all permanently, she joins a rescue organization and records the adventures.  Though the stories become a little repetitive by the end, their value lies in the shared experiences, which is the reason that other dog lovers pick up this book.  Perhaps it is because we believe the passage that Klam quotes “A very wise woman once told me that dogs find owners, not the other way around.”  So here’s our story:

When I pleaded with my parents that I needed a dog, they said no, not when I was 12, but when I was 23.  Growing up, we had a two family dog, the later I named Happy, for the date I received her – my 12th birthday. She stayed with us for 12 years, until the year after I graduated from college.  I was alone then, renting a room, figuring out my next step and next school.  Two years later, I had earned my master’s degree, married by college sweetheart, and settled into a two-bedroom townhouse that had the space for a pet.

We were running several 5k races at the time, an appropriately our dog stationed herself just across the road from one during a campus pet adoption event. Having registered for the event, we had an hour to warm-up, but only need a quarter of that time since it was a warm, early afternoon.  Several shelters circled the open field in tents, with crates stacked two tall and dogs of all ages and sizes wandering around leashed to colorfully clothed college students.  A red and white hound caught our attention, so we asked if we could walk her around. She followed us instantly.  We even jogged a few paces just to see if she could keep up.

She was skinny at the time and new to the leash.  In the two weeks since being found on the road, she had starting eating again, learned to sit on command, and had all of the necessary medical procedures.  She wasn’t a beagle, at least not completely, but she had the same boxy nose and partial coloring of red and white that made us assume that she had beagle or hound heritage.  She used her nose to take in the world, and we would later learn that her other half might be boxer, since she also loved to take that upright boxing stance for a quick punch or high-five.

We debated whether we could handle the addition to our lives.  She was larger than the dogs I had grown accustomed to and smaller than those my husband had a kid.  Her short hair meant that she would be low maintenance in the grooming department, but her keen nose meant that she would get into plenty of other messes.  She watched us intently, with large brown eyes, as we decided to take her home.

We left the adoption event with a blue rope leash and her fade yellow bandana that she would keep for several weeks as a sort of comfort blanket.  Her first bed was a damaged University of Georgia blanket that we willing sacrificed in case it should be ruined in our townhome in Clemson.  She curled up on it in our otherwise empty kitchen while we shopped for all of the essentials: a dog bed, crate, food, bowls, and toys.  We set up her new house and sat on the linoleum floor playing with the new items until she knew they were hers.  We threw names back and forth across the room with the tennis ball, until it came down to two: Scout or Georgia.  The former came from my favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird, and captured the 7 month-old pup’s inquisitive spirit.  The latter came from her home state and summed up her southern nature, sweet and proper, and completely fitting for our Georgia.

Pet Worth

We find owning a dog completely worth the investment of time and money.  Our rescue – a beagle/boxer/hound mix, named Georgia – found us during a Saturday 5-K race.  After the run, we wandered over to a pet adoption event and went home with a seven-month-old pup. Within a day, she became a part of our pack and now follows us from room to room like a jingling shadow, wedges herself in between us when we sleep, and always greets us happily after we’ve left her alone during a 2-hour shopping trip or 8-hour work day.  Fortunately, she’s reached the age where’s she content to sleep all day. She’s always set her own eating times, so she doesn’t go through food quickly, but she likes her treats, and we sometimes spoil her with new news.  Five hours later, the bone is gone or the new stuffed animal already has a hole.

That said, owning a pet can be expensive.  For us, Georgia has been completely worth the costs. Fortunately, if you are considering pet ownership, Mint has the furry finances mapped out.  In DC for example, it costs an average of $140 a month.  They provide a pie chart for other types of animals as well.  What they don’t consider, in the case of our dog at least, is the savings from gym costs.  She makes sure we continue running outside, so she’s already surpassed that first 5-K.