"A Mask and a Minivan" - Our Pandemic Road Trip (Part 1 - Asheville)
Updated: Dec 14, 2022
This is the first official post about the 5-month road trip my wife, daughter, and I took earlier this year in the middle of the pandemic. You can also go back and read a little of the background/ context behind the trip.
We moved out of our Park Slope apartment at the end of the January and spent the first several weeks at my in-laws outside of Philly before departing on our road trip on Saturday February 13th.
As we were packing for what was to be a 5-month trip, it dawned on us that traveling with a baby was quite a different ordeal than traveling with just my wife and I. Whereas usually a mid-sized sedan was more than enough room for us to bring all of our stuff (we had gone on a several week long road trip in the Summer of 2014), now with a baby in tow, our minivan had hardly enough space to carry:
A huge box of diapers and wipes
Our Vitamix so we could make homemade baby food
The Pack n Play, which would be our daughter’s bed for the trip
A standing toy, which we affectionately called “the office” and later “the toilet” because it was the position that encouraged our daughter to have a bowel movement
Toys, books, and other baby paraphernalia
The trip started inauspiciously enough with terrible weather (the slushy/ snowy/ frozen rain a weatherman might call a “wintry mix”) and traffic around DC. As we eventually drove through western Virginia (not to be confused with West Virginia) the snow and ice on the trees made the hills look like mountains of ash after a volcano.
What was supposed to be a long 9 hour and 45 minute drive ended up being 12 and a half hours. By the time we arrived at our Airbnb, the last thing we wanted to do was unpack our entire van (but that’s what we had to do).
It was immediately apparent that this road trip was going to be a lot tougher than either of us had thought.
As I've traveled to different places around the US, I like to learn a little bit about the local history of the places I visit. In general, I feel we (i.e. Americans) learn in school about the origins of the thirteen colonies (especially the Northeast - i.e. Roger Williams founded Rhode Island, William Penn and Pennsylvania, New York was New Amsterdam originally, etc., etc.), and as a native Californian I have a little knowledge about that state's history – but that's about it.
I find places like Asheville particularly interesting because the geography doesn't offer easy explanation for why people settled there (i.e. it's non coastal and doesn't lie on a major navigable river).
It turns out that the location of Asheville was originally part of the Cherokee Nation and then, post American Revolution, was a sort of frontier outpost. Asheville as it is known today really began to take form when the railroad reached it in the late 1880s and it began to be known as a resort and therapeutic center – a reputation it still holds to some degree.
I had been to Asheville one time a few years earlier. It struck me as one of those proudly quirky bastions of liberalism/ progressiveness, surrounded by wide swaths of otherwise predictably red-voting areas, in the vein of Austin (though much smaller), Missoula (though much more southern) or Lawrence, Kansas (though more mountainous and naturally beautiful). The kind of place that would sell a well-designed t-shirt that stated: "Keep [BLANK PLACE] Weird" even though it wasn't all that weird in the grand scheme of things. Still, we rather loved these kind of places, so we were looking forward to our planned four weeks in Asheville.
During the pandemic, we generally preferred Airbnb's where we could self check in versus busier hotels. Additionally, now that we had a baby, we wanted a separate bedroom so Eowyn had somewhere to sleep where we wouldn't bother her (and vice versa). The 2-bedroom loft apartment we rented for our stay was located in downtown Asheville, was beautifully decorated, and in a great, walkable location. The only problem was the second bedroom that we had, to some degree, depended on, was too small (given the furniture inside) to fit Eowyn's Pack n Play, so she ended up staying with us in our room anyway. Each night we would tiptoe to bed in the pitch black, windowless (for it was a room built at the back of a loft space) and hope to God we didn't wake our daughter and thereby have to spend the 30 minutes to two hours to put her back to bed. Eventually my wife just slept in the twin bed in the second, small bedroom claiming that our daughter could "smell her" and would wake up.
I was working every day during the week, so with the exception of a short run or picking up food, most of my exploring was reserved for the weekends. Part of our goal of the road trip was to get out in nature and see some National Parks, so we did take a short trip to the Smokies (we had been there before so just did a day trip and didn't feel too compelled to try and see everything). Additionally, since we were thinking about where we'd live when we were done with our road trip, we did view a number of houses. The pandemic, and the remote work that came with it, it would seem, were reshaping where people were living and Asheville was one of the markets to benefit from the increased interest. As such, most of the houses we saw sold in a number of days. In the end, we decided that it was too early in our trip to make any long lasting decisions about where we'd live.
Beyond all that, here were some of the highlights/ our favorite things. This is by no means trying to be an exhaustive/ comprehensive list, more just some things we experienced that we liked:
1. Walking/ Running around the Montford Historic Neighborhood
Given Asheville's location in the mountains, the layout of the city streets is particularly haphazard feeling. I mean that in the best possible way. Roads curve this way and that up and down steep inclines, and the build of many houses is dictated by the fact that many of them are on hillsides (i.e. you might enter on an upper floor, etc.). Montford is such a neighborhood, perhaps a mile from downtown with loads of quaint, often historic, mountain homes. There's probably not much to "do" there other than look around, but it's definitely a great place to go on a walk (or challenging run given the terrain).
2. Hole Donuts
When it comes to food, I am not usually one for overstatement. However, when it comes to donuts, I had the privilege of growing up in a town with one of the best donut shops in the world in Stan's Donuts in Santa Clara, CA. Over the years I've been to a number of supposedly great donut shops, yet most of these are all spectacle (crazy ass flavors, over-the-top frosting and toppings) and no substance. What makes a great donut is really just simple, good ingredients and a commitment to serving them super fresh. Asheville's Hole Donuts is literally the only place that I've ever been to that can compete with Stan's in this regard. The donuts literally dissolve in your mouth. These are legit.
We went on a number of hikes in and around Asheville. Our favorite was actually not in the Smokies, but in Montreat, a small town about 30 minutes drive from Asheville. After driving through the town, you go up a small mountain road that traces the path of a stream, past a charming university campus (Montreat College) to the Greybeard Trail. We ended up doing part of that trail as well as some of the connecting trails nearby.
Directly across the French Broad River from downtown Asheville is the city's quirkier, more up-and-coming neighborhood of West Asheville. To use an imprecise metaphor, it is sort of the Brooklyn to Asheville's Manhattan (kind of, but not really). The main commercial thoroughfare is Haywood Road, which crosses over from Asheville's River Arts District, past the aforementioned Hole Donuts and features a number of trendy restaurants, cafes, etc. It's not particularly walkable as it goes for some miles; however, it's definitely worth checking out if you're visiting Asheville. We made a stop at the Asheville Sandwich Company, who have a wide selection of creative sandwiches, and really enjoyed the food.
Overall, we really enjoyed Asheville, though by the time we left probably felt that it wasn't the place we would settle long term. After our four week stay, it was time to pack up the van again though and head west. Next up: Lawrence, Kansas.