ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Chuck Lofton and his "Big Adventure" team traveled more than 450 miles southeast of downtown Indianapolis for a one-of-a-kind trip to Asheville, North Carolina.
Just 15 miles outside of Asheville is one of North Carolina's most popular art, music and food destinations: Black Mountain.
This small town, nestled at an elevation of 2,500 square feet, is the quintessential Appalachian arts community. Its downtown is a shopper's delight with a thriving art scene. Whether you like contemporary or mountain art, there is something for you to enjoy.
In the 1950s, artists, poets, musicians, and designers started flocking here, and it has never been the same.
The town was once home to Black Mountain College, a popular, innovative, experimental art college. Today, the town's art history is still on display with several galleries that focus on Appalachian artisans and craft-making.
My team, comprised of photographer Steve Rhodes and producer Megan Simpson, visited on a warm autumn day and loved it.
We took in the changing of the leaves at 10-acre Lake Tomahawk, near downtown, and found locals and tourists alike taking in the fresh breeze and beautiful scenery.
If you visit in autumn, you can enjoy one of several downtown fall festivals with Appalachian artisans anxious to help you complete your early Christmas lists.
Food is also a huge draw in Black Mountain. We had a wonderful brunch at the Open Oven Brunch and Bakery. We saw that there was a line and outdoor dining, and our meal didn't disappoint. Dessert at the local Kilwins capped off a great afternoon.
If shopping is your goal, there is no shortage of boutiques, craft shops, and galleries. In fact, there are 200 businesses that also include specialty shops, six major conference centers, and bed and breakfasts. If you have kids, you can take them to the downtown park that has oversized rocking chairs and serves as a major selfie-taking site.
On any day, you'll see bus trip tours, students from nearby Montreat College, and locals enjoying the simple beauty of this famous destination. Odds are, you will leave and want to go back soon.
Black Mountain is a wonderful highlight of any Blue Ridge Parkway visit.
Ryan Ashley the Poet
Take a stroll in downtown Asheville, and you might hear the sounds of tourist buses, conversations at an outdoor restaurant or the wailing sound of a busker playing a saxophone on a street corner.
If you listen carefully, you may also hear the click-clack-click-clack of a typewriter.
Ryan Ashley calls himself a typewriter poet. You'll see him on a corner, with a small table and a typewriter, dressed in a suit with a bowtie and a fedora. For a decade, Ashely has met people on street corners, weddings, corporate events, and restaurants, and quickly produced individualized poems.
Just tell him your story and he will create a poem — a really good poem.
"At the end of the day, it's nice to be somewhat successful in the world of poetry, and you get to travel to get to do this, but the interactions I get to have with complete strangers, to have them share tidbits of personal information or moments of their life with me and trust me and create a poem on that matter, and then, share it and read it with them and see their reaction is a reward — a reward that is beyond any kind of currency, beyond any tip that they give me," Ashley said. "Just getting to have a genuine, heartfelt interaction with a stranger is super, super powerful and meaningful, and gives my life a lot of purpose."
In just one hour, perfect strangers approached Ashley with stories of death from COVID-19, a new love and an anniversary trip to Asheville. These stories can be funny, sentimental, tragic and life-changing. Watching Ashley interact with people, we saw both tears and laughter as a response to their poems.
"I think tears and laughter are two of the greatest expressions that humans have, and they’re wordless," Ashley said. "I think crying is a healthy thing, and I think the tears that my poems invoke are those tears of just feeling seen, feeling heard and feeling like, for a moment there, they were able to release some pain or something that they feel heavily, like it was unburdened in that moment, and that's pretty awesome."
Many artists begin their work from a starting point of pain. Ashley lost his mother when he was 14 years old, and that has had a profound impact on his personal life but also his poetry. He compassionately listens to the stories of strangers, and then, with the click-clack of a typewriter, produces a poem that these strangers may hang onto for the rest of their lives.
Ashley touched me deeply with his work.
Ryan Ashley The Poet
As teenagers 45 years ago, my wife, Mary, and I celebrated our first Christmas together. Today, our children are grown and gone. We are entering our senior years together with Mary's constant companion — our yellow lab, the Senator. Ashley thought that 45 years was worth creating a poem to celebrate:
"45 Christmases" by Ryan Ashley
The glowing lights appear.
You can hear the carols sung.
You have come along to this time of year, 45 rotations, and the magic is still here together in love, safe among the smell of pine.
What a time of a festive season.
What a reason to celebrate life as Mary, Chuck and The Senator snuggle up as life's greatest gift has already been unwrapped, and it does exist, and it is held with precious hands of love as the Christmas bells ring.
Ryan Ashley is a historian of sorts. He documents love, loss, joy and the triumph of the human spirit through his poetry.
Thanks, Ryan, for the poem and for sharing your incredible talent as you minister to the hearts of the people you meet daily.
What a highlight of our trip, to have this young man document the adventure of life for Chuck's Big Adventure.
He also wrote a poem for Sunrise!
"Sunrise" by Ryan Ashley
Open your eyes.
Here is a new day.
A new big venture awaits.
And what will you observe?
How will it make you feel when you leave home in search of something new and exciting that will take your breath away?
Find the awe that inspires, the golden autumn wind...the poets who wander but are rarely lost.
There is endless exploration, and at the end and beginning and everything in between, you wake up as the sun will rise.
Life is one big adventure so let the exploring begin.
The Bush Farmhouse
Asheville is a southern town with a worldwide reputation. Ever since the days of George Vanderbilt and his Biltmore Estate, visitors from around the globe have enjoyed the beauty of the area and the avant-garde attitude of those who live here.
Mark Henegan has not only tapped into the wonder of the lifestyle here but has made his presence known in the ever-growing restaurant scene with his unusual, eclectic restaurant called the Bush Farmhouse, located about 20 minutes outside of Asheville in Black Mountain.
Henegan came to the United States decades ago and established the famous Mediba restaurant in New York City. He ran the place for more than 20 years and served his unique brand of South African cuisine to United Nations diplomats, former presidents and celebrities.
When the restaurant's run ended, singer Paul Simon's band members invited him to check out the food scene in the Asheville area. His latest effort, the Bush Farmhouse, is a memorable, one-of-a-kind place.
"This used to be a grocery store called Roots and Fruits. It was a market and all that stuff, and when I approached the landlord, she was amazing," Henegan said. "I told her what I wanted to do, and she's like, 'Go for it.'"
Henegan sources and grows some of its ingredients year-round at the nearly 100-year-old farm house, equipped with a kitchen and an outdoor grill.
The fact that cooking is allowed outside has been a real bonus for the Bush Farmhouse. Not only does it provide more room in the kitchen, but it also sends the aroma of the delicious food wafting in the air in downtown Black Mountain.
The Bush Farmhouse
The restaurant is also a working farm, with chickens, goats, and fresh produce grown on the site. The menu changes daily and is a cross between South African and southern cuisine.
The night we were there, the place was full with children having fun near the animals, with the adults enjoying conversation and a meal on a beautiful evening.
"It's more like South African mixed with North Carolina, with the Appalachian Mountains and the local foods," Henegan said. "We have our farm and grow all our own vegetables and produce, and then, we buy from farmers' markets and all our local meats and fish suppliers and all that stuff. We try to keep it local. These [dishes] have a twist with a bit of an international flavor.”
Henegan's vivacious personality, his South African- and Nelson Mandela-inspired furnishings, and the food and animals made this a wonderful part of our "Big Adventure" — a trip to South Africa without leaving North Carolina.
More of Chuck's Big Adventure in Asheville:
- Chuck's Big Adventure in Asheville: Blue Ridge Parkway, Joyride Slingshot Rentals, The North Carolina Arboretum and Folk Art Center
- Chuck's Big Adventure in Asheville: LaZoom Tours, ADORAtherapy and thermal inversions
- Chuck's Big Adventure in Asheville: Jerry Read Smith, Asheville Guitar Bar and Donna Ray Norton
- Chuck's Big Adventure in Asheville: Biltmore Estate and stargazing