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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 30, 2004

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Asheville, and Thomas Wolfe

North Carolina has produced -- or imported -- many fine writers and even more merely adequate ones. But none has surpassed the achievements of Thomas Wolfe, a native of Asheville, who discovered, and reported to us, that you can't go home again.

(Of course you can go home, unless there's a restraining order. His point is that even if you do go home, everything and everyone has changed -- the home you remember is already gone.)

Wolfe died at a disappointingly young age, leaving behind some memorable work but perhaps not the best he eventually would have been capable of. But no one has more successfully mined his own life for fiction than he did.

In fact, his work was so autobiographical that when his first novel appeared, he received enough threatening letters from disgruntled townsmen who felt (correctly) that he had portrayed them both accurately and unattractively that he stayed away for seven years.

During that time, his growing fame brought so many admirers to Asheville that the locals decided to forgive him.

(Which might give hope to Michael Moore that someday, somewhere in America, some of the people he has insulted with his crockumentaries might welcome him. But no, there's no comparison -- Wolfe was always truthful and intelligent, and never mean. The opposite of Moore.)

Wolfe's childhood home, the boardinghouse his mother ran during the first boom years of Asheville as a tourist city, had been preserved for many years when nearly a decade ago, an arsonist broke into the house and set a fire that left some feeling the building could never be restored.

Wrong. It has been beautifully returned to its heyday, complete with the added-on porches and many of the original furniture and much memorabilia, much as the house would have been in Wolfe's teenage years. It took a lot of effort and money from a lot of people both in and out of government, and last weekend the restored house was reopened to visitors.

The event was attended by many diehard Wolfe aficionados and six writers with local connections. Greensboro's own Fred Chappell, former poet laureate of North Carolina and one of the finest human beings ever to admit to being a writer, headed the list.

Joining him were much-honored fiction writer Gail Godwin, Sharyn McCrumb, writer of a magical series of Appalachian novels, Michael McFee, a powerful poet whose work has taken him from Asheville to Chapel Hill, and the current poet laureate of Tennessee, the folk poet and humorist Maggi Vaughn.

Along with a western-born writer who considered himself doggone lucky to be sharing a platform with that company -- and then had the chutzpah to read his own poetry in front of two poets laureate and a National Book Award winner.

(And for my fellow Sharyn McCrumb fans, you'll be delighted to know that her newest book is modeled on the Canterbury Tales -- but with a modern saint. Joining other recent popularly-chosen saints like Elvis and Princess Di, the saint who draws her characters on pilgrimage is none other than St. Dale. And if you have to say Dale Who, you might as well sell your house and move.)

It was a delightful event, but if you weren't there, it's not like they're going to rerun it next week for your delectation. The important news is that the Wolfe house is open, adding yet one more reason for you to spend at least a few days this summer in the town of Asheville.

Especially if you can be there on a day when they're putting on "A Day in May, 1916: A Living History Experience." These ten-dollar guided tours take you through the house, where you can meet actors playing people from the period; their dialogue gives you a real sense of what life was like in an era that is only just now passing out of living memory.

There's plenty of parking nearby, as long as the Renaissance Hotel next door continues its practice of not checking to make sure that everybody in the back parking lot is actually staying at the hotel. (Then again, it's a very fine hotel to stay at.)


Asheville is a tourist town -- most of the downtown shops are aimed at either upscale tourists with plenty of coin and a taste for lovely objects, or downscale hippies and mountain bikers looking for something whimsical, stimulating, or spiritual.

At the same time, the city leaders are working hard to keep it from collapsing as so many charming villages have in recent years. There's nary a Gap or Benetton or Sharper Image to be seen -- almost all the shops are unique to Asheville.

That's not an accident. That only happens when the government acts to protect a valuable public asset like a downtown with actual  character.

Though several swathes of street have been uglified with huge parking garages, the result is that there are places you can leave your car; and the patches of wasteland are not so huge that it interferes with walking.

Gravity, now, that's another matter. Asheville is called a "mountain town" because it's, um, in the mountains, and they go up and down. But if you plan your route well you can avoid the steepest hills -- and what you find is well worth the walk.

For one thing, the city has kept a lot of the buildings that give it old-timey charm (except, of course, for the regulation-hideous government buildings and banks, and the aforesaid parking garages, the worst of which is owned by BLT Bank, or whatever the letters are).

The sidewalks are also dotted with mini-monuments and sculptures and antique artifacts, many with plaques that are informative and, sometimes, entertaining. I was traveling with a ten-year-old who is an inveterate reader of plaques, so I now know every single thing about Asheville that the city thought I ought to know.

Another nice idea is that, unlike Greensboro and other suicidal cities, residential use is encouraged right among the commercial buildings. For instance, one of our favorite shopping areas, the Grove Arcade, has retail on the first floor, commercial offices on the second, and apartments or condos on the upper floors.

If only the city had had the foresight to require that parking garages devote at least fifty percent of their sidewalk frontage to retail space, so they weren't such block killers.


A few highlights of Asheville:

What may be the best chocolatier in the world is The Chocolate Fetish (www.chocolatefetish.com), diagonally across the street from a great independent bookstore, Malaprop's. Personally, I think you have to stop at the Chocolate Fetish first, for their intense truffles, their amazing chocolate-caramel-nut frogs, their meltingly good chocolate-covered caramels, or what my wife declares to be the best chocolate-covered toffee in the world.

Then, your chocolate craving either satisfied or piqued, depending on how abstemious you were in the shop, you can browse for ages in Malaprop's, delighting in a bookstore that has stuff that was selected for you by people who are actually in that very store.

We found some galleries that had art we liked enough to bring it home (notably the Asheville Gallery of Art), though they had this foolish idea that love was not enough, and we had to sign our names to little papers that came out of clickety machines. Ditto with My Native Ireland, which had fantastic handblown glass but expected us to pay.

As we slowly -- no, quickly -- reimpoverished ourselves on arts and crafts, we found consolation in the True Confections Italian-style bakery at the entrance of the Grove Arcade, where you can sample perfect eclairs and chocolate chip cookies -- or, if you're ten and don't like chocolate like one strange child of my acquaintance, pizza by the slice, with an amazingly original and delicious sauce.

At the opposite entrance, there's also Kamm's Frozen Custard, which is so good you don't even care what it does to your body in a swimming suit.

We found clever, intricate, and beautiful furniture, crafts, and art inside Grove Arcade, at shops like Morning Star Galleries, Mission at the Grove, and Four Corners. Not to mention the antique piano store, the rock and fossil shop, and the Warren Wilson Store, which supports Warren Wilson College financially and philosophically.

And along the street frontage of Grove Arcade we lost our hearts to Larson Porcelain, a mom-and-pop pottery store, the dishes made by the husband and hand-painted by the wife. As good as anything we found in Italy, though with designs that are truly their own.


If you're still hungry after snacking on chocolates and frozen custard and eclairs and pizza, there is an amazing dinner to be had at the Market Place Restaurant at 20 Wall Street. It can be a little dodgy finding it, but the fresh ingredients are combined by a dashingly creative chef into meals that are truly a fine art. The decor and the service are also excellent -- a restaurant that would be noteworthy in any city.

But if you're in a hurry and not ready to linger long enough to admire greatness, you could do worse than to stop in at the Mellow Mushroom. It looks like a beer-and-pizza joint with hippie pretensions, and I suppose it is, but their turkey sandwich has real turkey on it, and good bread; a worthy casual meal, unless you lose your appetite at the sight of male waiters who look like college kids determined to pierce every part of their face where they can't squeeze out a teeny little beard.

Because one of our rooms was paid for by somebody else, we could afford to stay at the Grove Park Inn, an old but thriving resort which, though it's only a short drive from downtown, has spectacular views. It's expensive but worth it, with good food at every restaurant, cheerful and attentive service, a great sports center with a huge indoor pool, and valet parking.

We had big rooms with windows that opened onto gorgeous scenery and mountain air (and the sound of people talking loudly down in the parking lot). The curvaceous and cupola-dotted roof looks like it was designed either by Gaudí or a hobbit. I felt like I was home.

On other occasions, though, we've stayed right downtown at the Renaissance Hotel or the Best Western right across the street from it; clearly the hotel standards in Asheville are quite high, and those downtown places have the advantage of being within walking distance of almost everything.


One evening I missed my turn on Charlotte Street and kept on driving out College, through the tunnel, and into a whole different Asheville.

This was the land of Taco Bell, McDonald's, Don Pablo's, and WalMart. Gone were the refugees from Haight-Ashbury and the Friends of Bill we saw all over downtown. Suddenly we were among mountain people. Folks who think roadkill is how you get dinner if you're a bad shot, who'd rally to a "Don't Tread On Me" rattlesnake flag, who are still angry over how the Whiskey Rebellion turned out. Families that are watchful in the WalMart parking lot because they've got a couple of feuds still a-simmerin'.

In short, Carolina Republican country.

You know, displaced Rhino readers. (Them as can read, anyway.)

That was a joke, folks. Please don't put nothin' scary in my mailbox.

After that we sort of got lost on purpose, driving through residential districts where modest little ranch houses and a few prefabs sit right among chalets and faux Tudor mansions and confused Mediterranean villas.

It's the forest that makes it all beautiful. You feel like Bambi and Thumper are just waiting to leap out and die in front of your car, it's that natural.

In Asheville it's consistently five to ten degrees cooler than the Piedmont all summer, and, hard as it is to believe, it's got more shade. Along about August fifth, it's gonna dawn on you that school's about to start and the heat's about to make you crazy and then you'll remember this review and you'll thank me all the way up I-40 to Asheville.

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