No Place Is Finer Than Western North Carolina
I spent the first 21 years of my life in the foothills and mountains in the western one-third of North Carolina. I didn’t realize it back then, but not venturing far from where I was born and raised gave me a myopic view of the rest of the country and the rest of the world. I assumed everyone ate grits and livermush, poured peanuts into their Cokes, understood that “barbecue” was a noun that meant one thing — pulled pork, and moved over to the side of the road and removed their caps when a funeral procession passed by. You develop a narrow set of assumptions when you’ve viewed life through a narrow aperture.
It wasn’t until I joined the Air Force and got to see other parts of the country and other parts of the world that I came to appreciate how special Western North Carolina is. Once I expanded my aperture and experienced other places I could hold up as bases for comparison, I developed a genuine appreciation for the natural beauty, the food, and the music that make this area so unique.
I didn’t know how long it was going to take for me to get back home to my roots, but the mountains never stopped calling and I never envisioned settling down permanently anywhere else.
In many respects, Western North Carolina changed a lot in the years I was away. Nearly every county was “dry” back then. Whenever a referendum came up for a vote to permit the sale of alcohol, the Baptists and the bootleggers teamed up to make sure it was defeated. Now, Asheville is recognized nationally as America’s “Beer City,” the Biltmore Estate produces nearly two million bottles of wine per year, and Chemist Gin in Asheville is the “Official Gin of the 2022 Daytime Emmys.” And contrary to what I was told with absolute assurance when I was growing up, alcohol in Western North Carolina hasn’t caused the world to spin off its axis.
When I left for the Air Force in 1983, Asheville was like so many other southern towns where the downtown area was dead and most of the shops were closed and boarded up. As the textile mills and furniture manufacturers that had been the lifeblood of Western North Carolina’s economy shutdown, it seemed that prospects for the future dried up and died as well.
A renaissance took place in and around Asheville in the years I was away. Back then, if you came to Asheville and you were looking for a place to eat, you had your choice of burgers, barbecue, or fried chicken. While all of those are still readily available (and still delicious), dining options now pretty much run the full gamut. Asheville is home to several James Beard nominees and James Beard award winners, and it’s regarded as one of America’s top food destinations. But let me warn you that if you go downtown to eat on a Friday or a Saturday night without a reservation, you’re likely to have a long wait for a table.
Over the years, the Asheville area evolved into an artistic hub. It hosts several excellent music venues and it’s home to a lot of great musicians, including including Grammy winners like the Steep Canyon Rangers and guitarist Warren Haynes. Music icons Roberta Flack was born in nearby Black Mountain and Gladys Knight now calls Asheville home.
Art studios abound, particularly in the River Arts District where a once dingy industrial area has morphed into a bustling tourist destination. Painters, sculptors, metal workers, glass blowers and others found a home here in the mountains.
I’ve often described Asheville as “The Berkeley of the Blue Ridge” or “The Austin of the Appalachians.” It’s a progressive city whose motto is “Keep Asheville Weird.”
By and large, it’s an accepting and tolerant place. But that’s not to say everything is perfect. Poverty is too high, many are homeless, and the influx of non-native North Carolinians has increased the chasm between a lot of the locals who are employed in the service industry and their new affluent neighbors who help make Asheville the most expensive place to live in North Carolina. In some instances, it leads to a clash of cultures … it takes awhile for new arrivals to understand that “well bless your heart” isn’t some quaint southern term of endearment and “up the road a piece” is an imprecise unit of measure that’s somewhere between 100 yards and 100 miles.
The 15 Western North Carolina counties in the Eleventh congressional district make it the whitest of the 14 districts in the state and you don’t have to venture far to see confederate flags flying, often next to American flags, at the homes of those whose intellectual capacity is insufficient to grasp the inconsistency in flying the flag of the United States alongside the flag of the enemy it defeated 167 years ago in order to keep the United States united. Conditions for those who are not white, male, straight, and Christian improved considerably since I moved away nearly 40 years ago, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement.
One of the most pressing issues at present is growth. Some of the rural counties saw their populations decline over the past decade while in others it remained relatively stagnant. In the Asheville area, however, population growth surged and continues to do so. Many of the things I developed an appreciation for after I moved away are the same things that draw others to make our mountains their homes. Growth is a double-edged sword. On one side, the influx of affluent retirees and highly-paid folks in the tech sector drive up the cost of living and make it hard for some who were born and raised here to live here. On the other side, growth and the demographic changes that come with it will tip the political scale and eventually turn Western North Carolina blue. The two most recent people this region sent to Congress - Mark Meadows and Madison Cawthorn - were among the most uneducated, most corrupt, and least productive members of the 535 members of Congress with whom they served. Political change can’t happen fast enough and it’s growth that will get us there.
So, where does that leave things? Do the pros outweigh the cons, or is there some place better out there? That’s an easy one for me … I’m proud to be an Ashevillian.
Sure, we face some difficult challenges, but show me a place that doesn’t? So, let’s not run away from them, let’s lean in and take them on … and let’s do it while we enjoy an ice cold IPA and a magnificent view of the sun setting behind the glorious Blue Ridge Mountains. This place may not actually be heaven, but with beers, bears, barbecue, and natural beauty, it’s close enough for me.