An Appalachian Adventure

Marcia and I spent the last week in the Southeastern high country on a little adventure that included a lot of unusual highlights, along with a deep appreciation for how very lovely and green the southern reaches of the Appalachian Range are. We love where we live on the shoulders of Arizona’s Mogollon Rim, but it was sort of “wow” to be reminded of how grand old mixed and deciduous mountain forests look and feel after a long time away from them. It was also refreshing to visit a part of the country where every plant isn’t aggressively trying to poke, stick, scratch, bite or kill you.

We left a week ago Thursday and spent a night in Phoenix, where we visited with Marcia’s nephew and his lovely family, who took us out for an outstanding dinner at Dick’s Hideaway, where we had some absolutely superb Mexican food, in most generous portions. We then flew on non-stop to Atlanta, rented a car, and drove up to Asheville, North Carolina, where my sister and her own lovely family were marking their 20th anniversary of residence. That makes them old school mountain denizens in a city that’s seen huge immigration and growth since the time they arrived. We hung out at their place for a few days, watching the Memorial Day fireworks at the nearby Grove Park Inn from their deck, eating many pounds of boiled peanuts, appreciating brother-in-law Dana’s excellent bonsai collection, and getting an ongoing Wild Kingdom show as the local bears hung around their yard, and dragged their trashcans around their neighborhood. We had to go shoot bottle rockets at them one night to make them go away. That’s some fine redneckery there, yessir.

We had a great dinner on Saturday night at Ukiah, a “Japanese Smokehouse,” which offered a wonderful combination of Carolina and Asian foods and flavors, served small plate style, so you could sample a lot of different things. Which we did. We also visited the outstanding North Carolina Arboretum (more crazy good bonsai there) and the quirky little town of Marshall, on the banks of the French Broad River. We had a great brunch at Star Diner, and then walked over to the little historic island at the heart of the town, which features an abandoned community center decorated with what I would guess are WPA/CCC-era murals, that have aged wonderfully weirdly.

On Tuesday, we drove over to Knoxville, Tennessee, and I was pleased to realize that we were there exactly 40 years after my first visit to that city, when my high school senior class trip took us to the 1982 World’s Fair. Here’s a photo from that long-ago trip, taken on the very long bus ride back from Knoxville. (If the shirt logo seems incongruous, it was a uniform item from my summer job at White Sulphur Springs in Pennsylvania). I suspect it was intentional that whatever was in my hand was cropped out in this view. Also, note one of my chums sleeping in the luggage rack at top right. It was that kind of trip . . .

Most of the structures and buildings from that Worlds Fair are long gone, except for the iconic Sunsphere (it seemed so tall to me in 1982, but now it seems modest and quaint, a Jetsons view of the future) and the Tennessee Amphitheater (nicknamed “Dolly Parton’s Bra” at the time of its unveiling, for somewhat obvious reasons when you see it). As can probably be divined by the previous photo, my high school crew’s behavior at that World’s Fair was, shall we say, problematic, to the point where our high school stopped offering senior class trips for some time after ours. Oops. Sorry, future seniors. If it’s any consolation, I don’t really remember much of what happened, but I know we had fun.

But the real reason we went to Knoxville was not for me to walk down blurry memory lane, but actually to see one of the most iconic artists in my own personal musical development, along with the musical development of countless millions of other people: Sir Paul McCartney. I’ve been on Team Paul in the “Fave Fab” sweepstakes since my earliest days, always a staunch believer in and defender of his brilliance, even through those years/decades when it was hip in critical circles to denigrate him for not being edgy enough, or for featuring his wife in his band, or for not being John, or for whatever contrarian idiocy critics were peddling at the time. But despite that lifetime of love from me, I’d never seen Paul live in concert, until this week. Marcia is also a big fan (I think Paul’s at the top of her “Hall Pass” freebie crush list at this point), so she also got her first experience of basking in the light of his awesomeness.

The show was incredible: 36 songs ranging from the Quarrymen’s first demo up to recent solo works, with loads of Wings and Beatles and even a Hendrix tribute in the mix, running to nearly three hours worth of music. Paul’s live band (he’s been playing with most of these guys for longer than he played with the Beatles and Wings, combined!) is cracker-jack tight and talented, and it’s jaw-dropping to see how hard Paul plays, and how well he sings, and how much energy he exudes, at his or, frankly, anybody else’s age. He’s a true force of nature, and I was thrilled to be at this show. Poignant moments in the set list included Paul playing George Harrison’s “Something” on a ukulele that George had given him, and Paul performing a duet with John Lennon on “I’ve Got a Feeling,” via an isolated vocal and video recording from the legendary Get Back rooftop concert; Paul turned his back to crowd for that one, watching John as he sang. It was powerful.

We headed south the next morning and spent some time exploring Chattanooga, which has done a great job of making the formidable Tennessee River accessible and enjoyable in the heart of its urban core. After another nice meal (are you detecting a theme here?) at Tony’s Pasta Shop, we headed back to Atlanta, checked into our hotel, and set an early morning alarm for our planned nonstop flight back to Phoenix on Thursday morning.

Unfortunately, American Airlines had some other ideas about that. We woke to discover that our flight had been cancelled during the night, and that the only way for us to get home was via a Charlotte connecting flight . . . the next day. Ugh. We made the best of the situation, and took the MARTA train into Atlanta’s Midtown area, where we walked around the spacious and tree-rich Piedmont Park, visited The High Museum of Art (their Howard Finster collection is a highlight), had another exceptional meal at Tabla (saag paneer is one of my go-to dishes at Indian restaurants, so I’ve eaten it all over the world, and I think I’d pick this destination as the source for the best version of it I’ve ever had), and caught what turned out to be a private matinee showing of Alex Garland’s new film, Men. Which was something, shall we say. I’m not quite sure what, but certainly something. (I like weird/ambiguous films, and I like Alex Garland, but after thinking about it for a couple of days, I have to judge this one as a well-made film, but not a particularly good film, in large part for scripting reasons, though the core cast of Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear did do most formidable work with flawed material).

So then, back to the hotel, another early morning wake up, an unplanned and unexpected flight back to North Carolina (both the ATL and CLT airports were utter mob scenes), then onward by air to Phoenix, then the 100-mile drive back to home again, home again, jiggety jig. A nice little adventure, all things considered, and despite the American Airlines annoyances. And, of course, I took my usual photos throughout the week, and you can see my usual album by clicking on the usual sample image below, this one of Paul’s “duet” with John at the concert.

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