Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Road Trip: Asheville and Atlanta (Cross Country Road Trip Ep. 2)

When we last left our intrepid travelers, they had just spent the day exploring the Finger Lakes. In today's installment, their adventures continue to take south along the East Coast of the United States. To read part 1, click here!

After a good night's sleep, we packed up the car, bid farewell to our cabin, and set course for NYC, where we would be seeing some friends for dinner. On the way out of the Finger Lakes area, we made a quick stop at Watkins Glen International Raceway, because the gasoline flowing through my veins would not allow me to be so close to a race track without stopping for at least a look. Our drive for the day took us through Pennsylvania and back into New York before we arrived in NYC during the late afternoon at the Chelsea Pier. The stop in NYC was brief, but hectic and we spent that evening in Princeton, NJ with friends before heading out to DC the next morning to see some family and friends.

Day 5 opened with us in familiar territory as we headed towards Charlottesville, VA, a city we have visited several times. The original intention was to stop in the area for lunch, but progress was so good that we continued on and actually made it onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. This was my first opportunity to drive this legendary road and it was a blast, low speed limit and all. However, it actually was not the BRP itself that impressed me the most, but rather Route 56, a tiny twisty two-lane highway that connects the BRP to Lee Highway and I-81. The TSX performed like a champ, dancing through the corners with aplomb, its weight distribution no doubt a bit more balanced by the presence of our luggage and bikes towards the back. While it would have been fun to stay on the BRP the entire way into Asheville, we had hundreds of miles to cover so we opted to take the most direct route for the remainder of the day, which would take us through several states and all manners of stunning terrain.

One again, the sun hung low in the sky as we finally arrived in Asheville. Down this far south, the air was thick and heavy with moisture. Our clothes stuck to our frames and breathing felt like we were inhaling air in liquid form. Our accommodations were in the form of a small, but comfortable apartment, just over a mile from downtown Asheville. However, on the advice of a friend, we unloaded our stuff and hustled over to the Grove Park Inn, a massive stone complex perched precariously on the side of a mountain. The terrace provided expansive views of the city below and gave us a few moments to unwind after what would be one of our longest driving days during this journey. After a beverage, a snack, and a stunning sunset punctuated by the lightning off in the distance, we drove downtown and found an interesting meal in the form of a pop-up restaurant inside a local bar.

Called Punk Wok, and located inside the MG Road Lounge in downtown Asheville, we had a chance to explore some interesting Asian fusion cuisine that took elements of various Asian foods and used them to create dishes inspired by traditional Southern Cuisine. While the execution left a bit to be desired, the idea is a good one and this was the first fusion dining experience that truly lived up to that categorization.

The next morning, we lazed about and got a late start, catching up on some much needed sleep. Once the car was loaded back up, we parked it downtown, planning on leaving straight from there to head to our next stop. Brunch was a a heavy southern affair involving much gravy, many biscuits, and lots of fried chicken. It was delicious and horrendously filling, so we strolled around downtown for a while, examining the many boutique shops and galleries while searching for places to get out of the blisteringly hot sun. At some point, we changed course and headed towards the southeastern part of downtown where the community has planted an edible forest full of different kinds of fruit-bearing trees and shrubs, some of which were just beginning to bud with immature apples, pears, and even figs.

Back in downtown, we continued our stroll through the Grove, an indoor shopping arcade with stunning architecture and a long history in the city. Unfortunately, it seemed that business was not good as many of the shops had closed and those that were not seemed to have very limited traffic. Taking advantage of the air-conditioning, we hung out a while to cool off, but quickly found ourselves back outside in the mid-afternoon sun. We were fast approaching our departure time and still needed to snag a gift for our hosts in Atlanta, so we headed back to the heart of the downtown area in search of some local delicacy, which we found in the form of sea salt caramels crafted by a local artisan. On whole, Asheville is a charming little town and we were wishing we had more time to be able to spend there since there was lots more to explore, but time ran short and we had a schedule to keep.

Piled back in the car, we pointed the TSX due south again and cruised down towards Atlanta. Our actual destination would be just outside the city, in the suburb of Decatur, where some friends had kindly offered to put us up for a couple nights. Luckily, traffic did not hinder us too much and we arrived just in time for dinner. However, if we thought Asheville was hot and muggy, the Atlanta area proved even worse. Doing anything outdoor felt like breathing in pea soup and it was easily still over 90-degrees even in the shade. Despite the heat, we did learn an interesting fact that Georgia has among the most ridiculous incentives I have ever heard of for electric vehicles, resulting in a surprisingly large number of EVs and plug-in hybrids throughout the Atlanta area, including the one owned by our friends.

Next morning, we prepped the bikes and set out to ride into the city. With Emory University nearby, we were able to, albeit with some difficulty, locate a trail that cut through parts of the campus, offering us a bit more protection than the open roads would have. What did come as a bit of a shock, however, was just how hilly Atlanta really is. I had it in my mind that the south was generally pretty flat, but we found ourselves doing an awful lot of climbing, and we were still miles outside of the city. Google Maps helped somewhat, now offering a great feature that shows elevation change when cycling directions are selected, but it still failed to prepare for just how much work we were going to have to do in the heat.

Our first destination for the day was the Carter Center. Built to honor former president Jimmy Carter, the center is both a presidential library as well as a conference center for major events. We arrived a bit worn, due in large part to the unrelenting heat and awful humidity, but quickly recovered in the facilities air-conditioned bowels. Walking through, it was interesting to see the many artifacts that were collected from President Carter's life and to learn about all of his accomplishments outside the Oval Office. While he certainly may not have been the most memorable president, he has accomplished a great deal during his that makes him worth honoring just the same.

Finishing up with the Carter Center, it was already approaching mid-afternoon and the sun's intensity increased with every passing minute. Our next stop would be downtown, to an Atlanta staple called Mary Mac's Tea Room. Created as a throwback in celebration of classic southern food and hospitality, this restaurant served up a wonderful meal of chicken fried chicken (yes, you read that right) and a decent, albeit touch too sweet for our taste, peach cobbler.

Bellies satisfyingly full once again, we cruised a short distance to the site of the former the Centennial Olympic Park, now home to a massive theme park dedicated to corporate giant Coca-Cola. While not the least bit amused by how this space has come to be used, it is still cool to be able to visit and see where so much history, both good and bad, took place. We dismounted at one side, near the Center for Civil and Human Rights, and walked through to the over end. Overrun with tourists and families with small children, the entire park stretched a few city blocks and is frequently the site of concerts and other public performances. On this day, much of the park had been cordoned off for some kind of private event that had either finished or not yet taken place, but were still able to appreciate the grandness of it all.

Exhausted from the heat, we opted to hop on the MARTA, Atlanta's rapid transit system, and shorten our ride back to Decatur by quite a few miles. Public transit in Atlanta seems to be more than a touch segregated as we were almost nearly the only non-black people in the entire station, although, surprisingly, we were not the only cyclists despite the ticket gates not being terribly bike friendly. After a quick trip of a few stops, we exited MARTA and remounted the bikes to complete the final agonizing miles home. Atlanta's cycling infrastructure felt nascent as there were few trails that were well-protected from the rest of traffic and most roads with bike lanes were quite busy. Drivers were also not terribly pleasant and frequently drove too close for comfort. Clearly cycling as a means of transportation is still a fledgling idea in this part of the US.

Join us again next time as our adventures continue and we explore other parts of America's south.

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