Days 178-184 – Asheville, Week 11

Our drive to DC is very smooth; the sun is shining, the roads are clear and we left early enough that traffic is not too bad getting into northern Virginia, where we’re staying. We have various chores to do, including a haircut for Walt, a visit to Costco, a new phone for Walt and, of course, getting into the pod.

Mostly we’re leaving stuff, but there are a few things we want to retrieve. In my case, it’s mostly “wants” not “needs.” When it turns out that we can’t find the suitcase that I know is in there containing some winter sweaters and pants, I just give up. The additional items would be nice to have but not necessary.

When we packed our pod last summer it was 90+ degrees and it was nearly that when we visited the pod in September. Today it is about 35 degrees and very windy. The pod is stored in a huge warehouse. Normally they place locked pods outside for people accessing them (we call ahead, give the pod number and they put it outside in the morning) but they’re just pulling ours off the stack when we arrive and so they just put it to one side inside the building so we can get our stuff without being subjected to the wind and cold. Such a lifesaver!

Lauren’s up in Virginia for work, so we get to have a lovely dinner with her; our first visit in two months.

We head to a holiday party where Walt catches up with a bunch of friends and I score phenomenal mini chocolate cupcakes with excellent buttercream icing. I manage to sample a few other desserts (I saw other food but I’m not wasting calories while there’s packed dessert trays nearby) but return to the cupcakes. Walt refuses to stash a cupcake or two in his jacket pocket and my purse is too small … probably just as well since we’re having dinner at La Perla, a great Italian restaurant near the Kennedy Center. We have tickets to see An American in Paris, which is just lovely. Great music, great choreography, fun story.

We have a leisurely morning after our late night out, stopping to visit our friend Tony – and both lavish some attention on his adorable dog, Sammie, and admire Tony’s new car – and then head to the Ironworkers’ holiday party in downtown DC, which is always a great time. We get to see a lot of people and catch up, have wonderful food and drink. There’s a great 3-piece group playing songs, which is a very festive touch. As custom, I stash a few iced sugar cookies for later.

We head from the party to Tyson’s Corner mall for some Christmas shopping but we’re just struggling this year. Neither one of us wants to buy things that we don’t need or really want. We don’t have room, for one thing. In my case, I want to save my requests for when we have a house to decorate. I’ve seen lots of beautiful things on our travels – lamps, tables, a desk, a stuffed lynx, a clock – that I would love to own but not until we have a house. We’ve already shopped for Lauren and Bobby in Asheville and I’m lamenting all the great gift ideas I’ve seen for friends during the course of our travels but, of course, haven’t bought any of it due to space constrictions. I think that’s the hardest part of having no home, we can’t buy anything because we have no place to ship it for storage until we actually have a home.

Anyway, we’ve had a great time in DC but are ready to head back to our life in Asheville. The weather’s so nice that we play golf one day – Walt wearing shorts – and take a nice 10-mile hike in the Gorges State Park.

We know going into it that this is not going to be our favorite hike in North Carolina – it’s an out-and-back (as opposed to Walt’s preference of a loop hike), it goes down to a lake and then all the uphill is on the way back to the car and other than the view from the suspension bridge over the river feeding into the lake, there are no views – but it’s a gorgeous day. I’m wearing shorts and a short-sleeve shirt, the sun is shining and we see only one other person on the entire trail. We get our mileage and our 1,900 feet of elevation in and call it a day.

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Days 171-177 – Asheville, Week 10

The weather forecasters have been predicting about 3 inches of snow this week but, as usual, they’re wrong. We wake up one morning to snow that continues on and off for more than 24 hours. When it’s all done, we’ve got about 8 inches on the ground.

Since we knew it was coming, we just stayed inside, read, watched a Star Wars marathon and waited it out. By the time I’ve caught up on the pre-quels, the snow has started to melt.

We are heading to DC in a few days to get into our pod, see a show at the Kennedy Center, have dinner with Lauren and attend a couple of holiday parties.

But first we have to sort through all of our stuff because the primary reason we’re getting into our pod is to take stuff back to it. I pulled a bunch of clothes in September that I haven’t needed, we have some extra golf clubs, we have a huge suitcase we don’t need, etc. Oh, and there’s Walt’s bonsai pot. Definitely neither need nor room for it in the car.

We also pack for the trip, trying to make sure that we have enough clothes for our outing and still have enough room in our very small car for all of the stuff we’re putting back in the pod.

All in all, a very quiet week.

Days 164-170 – Asheville, Week 9

With the clock ticking on our three-month stay in Asheville, we decide it’s time to put some serious effort into property-hunting. We’ve done a lot of looking already, but always on our own, just looking up properties online and checking out various communities that we’ve bumped into on our travels.

But now we’re ready for some help. We have gone online and found the website of Private Mountain Communities. We spend an entire evening going through the 40 or so listed communities, ruling out those that are too far away from Asheville or clearly won’t let us build the modern house we really want to build. A few have only houses, no empty land, for sale; so those are eliminated as well. It’s a really long process; we go to the individual community’s website; we look up the available properties on Zillow; we check out the location on Google Maps, etc.

After we’ve whittled down the list to about a dozen communities, we make an appointment with Lori at Private Mountain Communities so we can talk to her about them. We don’t want to waste our time driving out to a community if she can tell us in advance that they won’t let us build a modern house (it’s not always easy to tell from the websites). She persuades us to take a couple off our list and add a couple more. Lori also provides us with directions and contact information for each community (most of them are gated, so we’ll need to meet with the sales agent at each one to get a tour).

We dive right into it, looking at a couple of communities near Asheville that afternoon, including two model houses, which are both lovely but very traditional.

Throughout the week, we continue making appointments and seeing communities, ruling out one that’s just too far from Asheville, another on a lake because we can’t find a lot that we like. We are looking for eastern and southern exposure, long-range views and the ability to build our modern house. And we have a budget that rules out the lovely $3 million piece of land on top of one mountain.

In between visits, we work on our Christmas shopping, go to the gym and, happily, continue to golf.

We feel both encouraged – we are refining our search and getting a better feel for what’s critical for us to have in our retirement home – and discouraged because we have not had an “ah-ha, this is it” moment.

Days 157-163 – Asheville, Week 8

Walt’s sister and brother-in-law have driven from Hilton Head, S.C. to enjoy Thanksgiving with us and we decide to take advantage of the continued warm weather to have a little pre-dinner hike. We head up the Blue Ridge Parkway and realize that we’re not the only people who have had this idea. There are cars and people and dogs at every overlook and parking area.

No matter.

We park at Craven Gap and head north. We’re on the Mountains to Sea Trail so we can hike as far as we’d like. We agree to hike for one hour, which gets us 2 miles to the Ox Creek Road parking area that Walt and I had used for our Lane Pinnacle hike a few weeks ago. We turn around for a nice 4-mile, two-hour hike, meeting lots of people and happy dogs on the trail on this sunny, warm day. We figure our hike is good enough to warrant a four-course Thanksgiving Dinner at the Red Stag Grill, which is excellent.

While Lisa and Dave were visiting, we also visited the Biltmore Estate for a Christmas evening tour. The house and grounds are decorated with about 100,000 lights (including 55,000 on the 55-foot spruce out front). There are 55 decorated trees inside the house, 1,000 handmade bows, over a mile of fresh evergreen roping, not to mention the hundreds of flowers, kissing balls, and wrapped “packages” under the trees. It’s all pretty spectacular.

After Dave and Lisa leave Friday morning, Walt and I head back out to the golf course to continue enjoying the weather.

On another beautiful day, we head off to Chimney Rock State Park. We climb the 499 stairs to the top of Chimney Rock, then go up another 330 to Exclamation Point before continuing for another mile to the top of Hickory Nut Falls and a view of the gorge below. We head back and, bypassing our parked car, we hike down another three-quarters of a mile to the base of the 404-foot Hickory Nut Falls.

What’s most striking to me is not the falls, which are not very effusive this time of year, but the large sign at the base showing pictures of four snakes: the venomous copperhead and Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, and two non-venomous, one of which is a water snake. The sign says to look for the water snake in the pools below the viewing platform. For once, I’m glad the day is a little chilly: no chance of a snake today.

We decide to give ourselves a day off and head to the Grove Park Inn (again) to view the entries in this year’s National Gingerbread Competition. There are nearly 200 entrants among adults, teens, youth and children. Some are incredibly clever, such as the baseball park (in the children’s category) and the gorgeous blue Victorian house. Many aren’t houses at all: there’s an owl, a swan, a group of ladies’ hats, etc. The winner was an incredibly elaborate setting of Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” with “books” and figures that didn’t look at all like it was made of gingerbread, it was so cleverly crafted.

We wander to the gingerbread stand (structure? house?) standing in the great hall that serves beer, hot cocoa and gingerbread cookies. (I’ll post a photo of the ingredients used to make it as well as some people standing in front of it.) It’s still nice out, so we take our treats to the deck and enjoy the sunshine.

Since the weather has stayed unbelievably warm and sunny, the next day we head off in a new direction for a hike in South Mountains State Park. We have learned the hard way (an aborted hike on a different day) that during fall hunting season (bear, deer, turkey) we are better off sticking to a state park where hunting is prohibited. We could hike in other areas but blaze orange hats and/or jackets are warranted to let hunters know we’re not prey and we don’t have any of that. We did have a discussion with some other hikers one day who were all wearing blaze orange.

One guy suggested that Walt’s red jacket and my lime green jacket and hat should be enough to mark us as “non-prey” but another guy was very clear: if we weren’t wearing blaze orange, we were taking our life in our hands in any area where there were hunters.

So, to the state park, where all hunting is prohibited.

Our destination today is the High Shoals Falls loop. We can actually reach the base of the falls in only 1 mile with 200 feet of elevation gain, but that would be no fun. We admire the falls but quickly start up the stairs built over the huge boulders. Our goal is the top of the falls, about 500 feet up. You’d think after all the stairs at Chimney Rock, this would be easy but it’s never easy, it’s just more achievable.

My guidebook says most people turn around at the base, or at least before reaching the top of the falls. We continue and do see another group that’s out for the same hike as us. The path is less steep once we crest the falls, we’re on an old carriage or fire road, so it’s easy walking (wide with not a lot of roots or rocks).

We come down a gorgeous ridge between two gorges and complete our 8-mile, 1,745 feet of elevation gain hike in a record three hours. We consider it a day well spent.

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Days 149-156 – Asheville, Week 7

The weather has remained just beautiful. Day after day of sunshine and, while the nights are cool, temperatures warm up to at least the high 50s, if not the mid 60s during the day.

We are determined not to waste a minute of this gorgeous weather and head off to a very popular local hike to the Looking Glass. It’s a huge granite pluton (geological speak for “big rock”) that can be seen from the Blue Ridge Parkway and is much-photographed. You can see a great picture of it on the Hike WNC website.

When we hiked John Rock on our first North Carolina hike in October, we passed the parking area for Looking Glass and noted the dozens of cars parked in the small lot and spilling out along the road. We decided then to hike it only mid-week. Good choice. We start out at about 10 a.m. and are only the fourth car in the parking lot, with another couple and their dog pulling in just as we head up the trail.

It’s still cool as we start but since there’s nearly 1,700 feet of elevation in a little over 3 miles, we warm up quickly. The trail is nowhere near as difficult as the Green Knob trail but it’s a nice little workout. We pass a few people coming down the trail as we head up and a younger couple resting on their way up.

When we pop out at the top, we get gorgeous views of the mountains along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Even better, at least from my point of view, we have the entire rock to ourselves for about 15 minutes before the couple we had passed and the couple with the dog appear. The woman with the dog says she wants to hold him up like in the Lion King, which would be very cute. She doesn’t, but it’s a nice moment.

Walt and I have had a nice snack and break and are ready to yield our prime viewing spot to the others.

As we head down, we pass about a dozen more people on their way up and congratulate ourselves for having timed it so perfectly.

Sadly Dolly’s ice cream shop, which we so enjoyed after our John Rock hike, is not open mid-week in November so we stop at Ecusta Brewing for a beer instead.

A couple of days later (after a golf day), we head to the West Asheville River Arts District, a several-block area of converted warehouses where dozens of potters, glass blowers and other artists and artisans have studio and exhibit space. We wander in and out, taking a few cards of artists whose work we like enough to think we might want to purchase, when we have a house with our own walls someday.

The weather is holding so after another golf day, we head to South Carolina’s Caesars Head State Park for a nice 8 ½ mile loop hike of Raven Cliff Falls. The day is a bit overcast, but it’s still warm so we’re not worried. It’s only an hour or so drive to the park, through the town of Brevard and some mountains we haven’t been to before. I keep trying to find hikes that take us in different directions out of Asheville but also meet my requirements for a day hike: no less than 6 miles total and preferably 8-12 miles with at least 1,500 feet of elevation gain and a view, either of a waterfall or from the top of a mountain.

In addition to accessing various hiking websites, I have bought a hiking book, which is where I got directions for today’s hike.

We first head in along a beautiful old carriage road, looping gently up and down around the crest of a mountain before heading out to a lookout where we can see the falls. According to my book, Matthews Creek drops 420 feet over several levels to create one of the highest falls in the Southeast.

We turn around and head back up the trail a quarter of a mile to a junction where we will start to head down for the loop. There’s a family of four standing at the junction reading the sign nailed to a tree that warns it’s a strenuous, 4-hour hike with a major down and then back up to the ridge and not to start unless you have plenty of time, water and food. We have all of those and are not at all fazed by the sign. It’s not our previous to have the “down” part of the hike at the beginning and the “up” toward the end, but we’ve done these types of hikes before and we knew what we were getting into. The family has no intention of doing this hike, which is probably for the best, and look a bit shocked that we hadn’t even paused after reading the sign. “Good luck.” “Be safe.” They call after us as we wave.

It is a bit steep going into the gorge but it’s really not nearly as bad as Green Knob was. At the bottom, we cross the creek and immediately head back up. It gets pretty steep in some sections but it’s just about 2,000 feet of elevation gain. Again, less than Green Knob.

At one point, there’s a 120-foot tall rock wall above us. Happily for us, the trail verges to the right of it and we continue up pretty easily to the top of the falls. We cross the falls on a nice suspension bridge and then stop to eat our lunch – PB&J and chips – on the rocks near the falls before heading up some more and completing the loop and heading out.

As far as we’re concerned, two hikes in one week, both in good weather, in mid-November is a huge point in Asheville’s favor even if we can’t find any post-hike ice cream.

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