Days 142-148 – Asheville, Week 6

I’m pleasantly shocked to wake up on my birthday to find the weather is sunny and headed for the high 50s. I’m used to a grey, wet, windy day for my November birthday.

Of course, I’m also pleasantly surprised to see a small birthday cake on the kitchen counter when I wake up. I mean, it was expected, because I always request (demand?) a chocolate cake with vanilla buttercream icing for my birthday breakfast. The first couple of years Walt and I were together, he balked at providing cake for breakfast but now he’s come around. (His objections were less of the “cake for breakfast is not very healthy”variety and more of the “it’s traditional to eat birthday cake after your birthday dinner.”)

I’ve told many people over the years of my birthday-cake breakfast (thanks Jean for the suggestion all those years ago) and you’d be surprised at how many say “I’ve never thought of it” then immediately start rationalizing why it’s a good way to start the day – “you get to burn off your cake calories during the day” or “it’s really no more calories than a glazed pastry” or some such rationalization. A fair number of them have tried it, too, although only Jean and I consider it a ritual part of our birthday experience.

I don’t care who else does it. Cake and coffee make me happy, any time of day, and I’m going to continue to do it as long as Walt’s willing to provide the cake. Although, honestly, I have no objections to providing my own cake. I was single for many years and I’ve bought my own cake more than once.

In recent years, Walt has baked my cake from scratch but since we’re in a rental home, I didn’t expect it. The cake from our local bakery works just fine for me.

After we’ve tanked up, we head for our golf lesson. As I’ve said, it’s another beautiful day so afterward we decide to explore the historic Grove Park Inn. We walk in to a huge lobby with two towering fireplaces built of enormous boulders, huge windows and a patio overlooking the golf course and Asheville. I’m reminded of the lodge on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone Lodge. They’re all historic, hand-built structures with grand lobbies and huge stone fireplaces, although we’ve never seen boulders as big as ones used in the Grove Park Inn’s fireplaces.

We wander around, checking out the restaurants, shops and views, before heading to the concierge to make dinner reservations in a couple of weeks. We already have reservations at the Red Stag Grill tonight for my birthday and we’re very much looking forward to it. The grill is part of the Grand Bohemian Hotel in Biltmore Village and we’ve made Thanksgiving reservations so we’re eager to check it out in advance.

The Red Stag, known for its game dishes, does not disappoint. I have a yummy duck breast and a version of Oysters Rockefeller that is the best I’ve ever had (and I’ve eaten a lot of variations). Walt’s lamb two ways – braised shank and roasted rack – is even better. We top off dinner with a flourless black forest cake. We weren’t going to because we still have birthday cake at home but our server had asked in the beginning if we were celebrating anything and tells us now that since it’s my birthday, I get dessert for free. We can’t pass that up, obviously.

We get up the next morning to continue to work on the birthday cake for breakfast before heading out for a challenging 6-mile out-and-back hike to Green Knob. It’s challenging not because of the distance but because of the 2,500 feet of elevation gain in 3 miles. It’s also challenging because instead of just going up for three miles, we go up for about 1 mile, then down a few tenths, then up some more, then down some more then hit a long uphill. The guidebook I have says we can climb up to the top of an old Civilian Conservation Corps (built in 1932 but restored in 1996) fire tower. The tower is still there and we can climb the stairs but the access hatch to the deck is firmly padlocked. We have a snack in the sunshine before heading back down to the car.

Normally the trip down goes much faster but since this hike includes up in our downhill and some steep, leaf-covered sections that are a bit treacherous, we take just about as long to get to the car as we did to get to the top of the knob.

Still, it’s a gorgeous day in the 50s and sunny. We drive back along the Blue Ridge Parkway, enjoying a fabulous sunset.

We spend the next day just going to the gym and eating cake. Walt has to pack for a short trip for the funeral of a friend. I’m staying behind. I amuse myself by going to the gym, cleaning house and watching chick flicks.

Walt’s not worried about leaving me alone per se but he does worry that I won’t eat well while he’s gone because he knows I hate to cook and won’t do it. It’s just two days and I have cake. I fail to see where there’s a problem.

Days 135-141 – Asheville, Week 5

So one of the things I’m noticing in retirement – or at least this phase of it – is that it requires more changes of clothes per day than working.

When I was working full-time, I would think about my day before getting dressed. What’s the weather forecast? Do I have any meetings? Will I be packing/moving any boxes? My job, btw, was director of professional development for a trade association in downtown Washington, DC. While most of my days were spent in an office, sometimes I would travel to attend a meeting or host a professional development conference. Once I’d determined the weather and my work day, I was ready to get dressed. If it was a gym day, I would also pack a duffel with my workout clothes. After work or working out, I would come home and put on casual clothes until bedtime.

When we were on the road this summer, it was a question of “are we hiking today?” If yes, then I dressed in one of my two sets of hiking clothes. If no, then a casual dress, skirt and top or shorts. I only had a few choices, so many days my choice of outfits came down to what was clean.

I don’t have my full wardrobe with me in Asheville but I do have more items than I had this summer.

But my point really isn’t about how many items of clothes I have with me, it’s about how hard it is to know what to wear when you have a whole day of free time on your hands.

For example, one day this week I got up and put on casual pants, a shirt and collared pullover with shoes because we had a doctor’s appointment, followed by a tee time for golf. I was dressed OK for the early-morning doctor visit but when we left we noticed how much warmer the day was getting. So, back to the house to change into shorts and golf shirt with sneakers. Back from the golf course, we were headed to the gym, so workout clothes. Back from the gym, I showered and changed into yoga pants and a t-shirt.

This happens a lot. I get up and pull on jeans or yoga pants only to have to change to go play golf or hike or go to the gym, only to change again if we go out somewhere.

So, doctor’s visit over, we head out for golf. It’s November and we’re wearing shorts and golf shirts to see if our lessons are paying off.

Not so much. We both hit horribly off the tees, have hit-or-miss shots from the fairway. Walt’s chipping and putting are better than mine but I do manage a couple of good putts.

Luckily we’ve got another lesson the next day, the first with irons and full swing. The pro runs through a good swing, sets us up and immediately I hit a better shot than I did on any of the previous day’s nine holes.

Once our hour lesson’s up, Walt and I go practice our chipping and putting for another hour.

On our way back home, we take a detour to a new development where I’ve seen some property for sale. It’s actually not too far from where we’re staying and very close to both Biltmore Village and downtown Asheville. We’re thrilled to find that the houses being built are very much in our style: modern with wood and steel accents and lots of glass. I had found the development when looking through a real estate guide. I saw a house I liked and looked it up online, following the thread until I found empty land for sale in the same development.

The house I saw online for sale is not quite finished and it’s not locked. There’s no one working on it, so we go inside, checking out the space and view. The view is great, as is the house. It’s not quite the layout or finishes we would like but the basics: ground-floor master suite and laundry room, big windows and deck, and an open concept are all in place. There’s a lower floor with two more bedrooms, each with an en suite bath.

We keep wandering the neighborhood, checking out the other vacant land, trying to determine buildability (we are on a small mountain) and views. We finally wander up to where a large moving van is parked. The new owners come out, asking if we live in the neighborhood. We explain that we’re still in the market and we’re invited in to see their newly finished house. It’s very similar to the other house, only with better finishes, a fireplace and even better views. The couple who own it are new retirees from Washington, D.C.

In a “it’s a small world moment” we find out the wife used to work with one of our old neighbors.

We’re very pleased, both with the neighborhood’s location and the style of its houses. But, we’re still not sure Asheville is the place for us.

Further exploration will have to wait as we’re headed to upstate New York for several days to celebrate my mom’s 80th birthday. We fly up, visit my parents a couple of times outside the party and enjoy a birthday brunch with all of my siblings, their children and the only great-grandchild, who is three, smart and adorable.

We manage to visit my favorite chocolate shop, which is near our hotel. Walt always acts as if we’re just going because I want to but he always finds a few nut-studded chocolate bars to add to my pile on the counter.

We also get to have dinner with friends one night. We haven’t seen Dennis and Jean since we were staying in New Hampshire four months ago, so we are happy to see them and catch up.

Our travels are otherwise uneventful, which is a good thing. No weather delays. No missed connections. We arrive back at our Asheville rental a bit tired, though, and round out the week by doing nothing but going to the gym.

Days 128-134 – Asheville, Week 4

We haven’t even been in Asheville a month and we’re already making plans for where to go after we leave here. We’ve had very good luck using Vacation Rental By Owner (VRBO) for our houses both in New Hampshire and Asheville so we’re using it again for our January-March plans. So far no decisions but lots of looking, both for the winter and the spring.

We focus on our golf game on the nice days, putting and taking another lesson, chipping and pitching this time.

The weather turns cloudy, windy and rainy so we head out to visit a huge “tobacco barn” of antiques. I’m a little disappointed because there are many items for sale that are either newly made of old pieces or made of new wood/iron and distressed to look old. I’m always cautious about places like this. You really have to practice “buyer beware” in all antiques shops, of course, but I’m even more cautious in ones like this.

I do find some neat items, including a bronze dachsund boot scraper, a huge old iron bracket and an interesting old wicker chair but nothing that enticing that I’m willing to shell out the high-dollar prices being asked (or that I’d be willing to pay to store).

It’s fun to look though, and there’s a bluegrass band playing in the middle of the store. A nice touch.

Despite a rainstorm, we bundle up and head out for our now-traditional Saturday night dinner out. Our destination is Moe’s Barbeque, which is a small chain in Asheville. Apparently we’re not the only people willing to brave the rain for bbq and a beer: the place is packed. We place our order and grab seats at the bar. They serve mostly local beers, on draft. I’m a huge stout fan and order the Hi-Wire coffee stout. It’s great and Hi-Wire brews just up the road, also walking distance from our rental home. I see a future Saturday night destination.

The food is excellent: smoked turkey, pulled pork, cornbread, red-beans-and-rice that rivals homemade. So good and so worth the walk in the rain.

The weather isn’t any better on Sunday so after a trip to the gym, we decide to look at some property. As we’re driving, I tell Walt I think it’s trying to snow. The sky is so gray and leaden, the rain is getting very defined, more like flakes than drops.

“It can’t be snowing. It’s 40 degrees,” he replies.

I say nothing and a few minutes later, the rain has definitely turned to snow and it’s blowing all over the place. It’s not like being in a snowstorm. There’s no way it will stick to the ground and it’s melting as soon as it hits the car, but it’s the end of October and it’s snowing.

Lucky for us, the winds pick up during the night and blows out the bad weather because we’re up early to drive up to Washington, D.C. Walt has a meeting tomorrow and I have an appointment with the dealer to get new tires on the car. We could have had this done in Asheville but Walt got quotes from both dealers and DC was significantly cheaper. He was to go to DC anyway so it’s no big deal for me to go with him and take care of this chore while he’s at his meeting.

I get the car all fixed up and have lunch with a friend before picking up Walt and heading back out of town. It’s a long drive back to Asheville but the weather is clear and we cruise along very nicely on our new tires.

Sadly, no hiking for us this week and probably not next week, either.

Days 122-127 – Asheville, Week 3

We start Week 3 with our biggest NC hike yet: 10.5 miles with 2,970 feet of elevation gain. It’s a gorgeous day. There’s not a cloud to be found. The temperatures are in the high 50s, going up to the 70s. We’re headed to Lane Pinnacle, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I had planned another hike but at the last minute, we switched to this one because the trailhead is very close to the Elk Mountain Scenic Highway, where we’ve found some property we’re interested in checking out. (No matter what I do, that sentence just wants to end in a preposition!)

The trail is an out-and-back, which means we will be hiking 5 ¼ miles to Lane Pinnacle and then coming back on the same trail to our car. Walt very much prefers loop hikes because he likes to see different scenery. Me, I don’t care. I usually am working so hard to get to the top – and not noticing the details of rocks and trees and views – that it seems like a totally new hike on the way back down.

We get about a mile or so in, when I stop short.

“What?” Walt asks from behind. (For a variety of reasons, I usually lead when we’re on the trail.)

“A snake,” I reply, pointing to a 6-foot-ish black snake draped across the trail.

I’ve run into snakes on the trail before, of course. Often they hear me before I hear them rustling through the underbrush, usually just catching a brief glimpse of a tail. Which, by the way, is just the way I like it.

I’ve run into numerous bears on the trail (although none on any of our hikes this summer) and of the two, I’m more scared of the snakes. I was once hiking alone in Shenandoah National Park and came across a bear on the trail less than ½ a mile in. I shouted and clapped. The bear took off into the woods. I continued up Robertson Mountain, only to see another (or the same?) bear running up the trail ahead of me. He must have heard the bear bell I had put into my chest pocket after the last encounter. Bears have really good hearing and will generally run from voices or a metallic sound like a bell. On I continued and was just about ¼ of a mile from the top of the mountain when I encountered a snake lying stretched across the trail. I shouted and jumped (from a safe distance). He didn’t budge. I turned around. Yes, I could have easily gone around him but then I figured I would just have snake heebie-jeebies for the rest of the hike.

I was alone in Shenandoah. This time, I was with Walt. So he did the manly thing, stepping in front of me and poking his hiking stick at the snake, which took notice and turned toward him. We didn’t hear any rattles, but it was sticking its tongue out and clearly was annoyed. I threw a small piece of log near the snake and he eventually took the hint and started off the trail, down the hill. We scampered by behind it.

I made Walt go first for the whole rest of the hike although, of course, we didn’t see any more snakes.

The hike to Lane Pinnacle was very hard with nearly 3,000 feet of elevation gain. It was a pretty steady but manageable up for the first 3.5 miles, after which it got pretty steep then we rollercoastered over several knobs (Appalachian speak for “small mountain”) until we hit another steep up and found ourselves on a rock outcropping overlooking a gorgeous view.

Like I said, it was a beautiful day, so we took off our packs, had a snack and enjoyed the warmth of the sun before we headed back.

Since we can’t and don’t want to hike every day, we’ve shipped our golf clubs to Asheville. Neither one of us is a very good player. I took lessons 15 years ago but have golfed maybe half a dozen times in the last 10 years. Walt used to play as many Saturdays as he could but hasn’t played more than a few times in the past two years. So last week we visited the closest municipal golf course and talked to the pro about taking lessons. Now we’re signed up for 5 lessons, just the two of us with the pro. We start with putting, knowing that if we can learn to putt well, it will shave many strokes off our scores. The pro is very patient and gives us simple advice that helps us both. We are well pleased and promise to practice before our next lesson.

But for the rest of this, another beautiful day, we head to Biltmore Village for breakfast (pancakes with blueberry compote, yum ) before driving 100 miles to Statesville for the annual Carolina Balloonfest. The balloons are scheduled to go up sometime between 3:30 and 5:30 and we think we’ve arrived very early at 2:30 but there’s already a line of about 50 people ahead of us. We grab a blanket and jackets out of the car, pay our $5 admission fee and follow the crowd to mark our spot for the launch.

We learn that the balloons probably aren’t going up until toward the end of the 5:30 window, so we wander around the vendors. There’s wine and beer, carnival-type food, various crafts. Walt opts for a beer while I head for the fudge shop and the Black Dynamite Coffee Roasters, getting both a cup for now and a bag of beans to go. I’m not normally into vendor freebies – I don’t need highlighters or pens or pads of papers but I see two different tents where’s they’re handing out reusable grocery bags. Ah, something we could use! I snag one from each, feeling like they’ve just handed me gold. Then we head to the bandstand and listen to some bluegrass until we see the balloons start to inflate in the field behind us.

It’s a perfect blue-sky evening to watch them all ascend. Walt favors the crab-shaped balloon. I like some of the different colored ones.

We head home, still spotting a few balloons in the air.

The next day is rainy. One thing I’ve noticed about Asheville is that the storms come and go very quickly. In DC, it seemed like we’d get a couple of days of clouds, then a day or two of rain, then some more days of clouds before it cleared up. Here the storms seem to develop one night, give us one lousy day of rain, then blow out the following night and we’re back to blue skies, which is very much OK with us.

So the rain leaves and we give it an extra day to dry out because it was a lot of rain before we head out on our next hike. It’s called High Windy but it’s only a 6-mile loop with about 1,500 feet of elevation gain. It’s another lovely day, although High Windy does live up to its name. We did this hike because it was close and short and it didn’t list any stream crossings, which seems like a good idea. Not much for views, but a very nice day.

Between putting practice (we warm up at separate holes then hit half a dozen balls each from the same spot to see who “wins” the hole), hiking, and driving around looking at land for sale, our third week flies by very quickly.

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