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Sole Journey: Asheville, N.C., lives up to its reputation as “Paris of the South”

(Editor’s note: San Diego resident Jason Coleman joins SDGLN as a travel writer. Coleman, 32, is a flight attendant on private jets that take him on exotic journeys around the world. He is also a writer, photographer, event coordinator and percussive step dancer who also volunteers in the local LGBT community. His Sole Journey column will appear monthly on SDGLN.)

For years, I have been searching for a way to combine the great joys of my life. Those joys include travel, artistic expression and the overwhelming need to be of service. Over the course of my 32 years on this glorious planet, I have followed many paths but never truly forged my own or been in true alignment with what the path that the universe revealed for me and only me.

Honestly, I never listened to the calling ... not until this great idea came to fruition. I hope SDGLN readers will enjoy this column, and find inspiration in the journey. This journey, the Sole Journey, has paths that wind and faith that arises from synchronicity. And this column will explore the idea that where the sole meets the ground, soul can touch the sky. So, let the journey begin.

Flying to Asheville, N.C.

When flying into the beautiful mountain haven of Asheville, N.C., one might think, “So this is the Paris of the South?” The beautiful fall leaves changing below, the valleys and the mountain tops mask that just around the bend is a breathtaking city that “Good Morning America” recently hailed as the most beautiful place in the United States.

Once the aircraft has landed and the rental car is loaded with baggage, a driving visitor might notice the French Broad River and its many community parks leading the way to some excellent treasures. Adventure lies on these trails, and while kayaking, hiking and other activities along the river’s shores may inspire many thoughts ... the Eifel Tower surely isn’t one of them.

So why do so many seasoned travelers call Asheville “The Paris of the South?” Well, let’s start our journey like we are entering Paris from the country. Let’s drive down America’s most scenic fall thoroughfare, the Blue Ridge Parkway. And let’s use to colors of the fall’s changing leaves inspire thoughts of the world famous Moulin Rouge. Who needs a huge red windmill when you can look a kaleidoscope of natural colors provided by nature? And who knows what we will find just before arriving into the city of Asheville itself? Don’t’ forget, it’s a journey!

Fall is a favorite of many travelers. Thousands of travelers from around the globe pack their belonging thanks to Mother Nature’s season change in the area. The mountains inspire many people to leave their “baggage” behind as fall arrives ... for winter is a time to be reborn.
Conjuring up those emotions is a local favorite spot, Graveyard Fields on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Great hiking and meditation spots provide 360 degree views of the fall foliage. Local expert Del Holston says:

“Asheville, in a nutshell, is an unexpected surprise to those who travel to the beautiful mountain community. Visitors find that nestled between the peaks of the Appalachian Mountains is a vibrant city filled with stunning scenery, eclectic eateries and a unique history spanning hundreds of years. Fall in the mountains offers an amazing array of reds, yellows and golden orange colors blanketing the ridge tops. TripAdvisor considers Asheville the number one spot to view Fall Foliage and Livability.com considers Asheville the best place to begin a fall leaf tour. Fodors has listed Asheville as one of the top 21 places to visit in the USA. The list goes on and on, but to really appreciate why they receive these accolades, you first need to visit. Those looking to plan a trip should utilize local travel authority exploreasheville.com for the most comprehensive information on what Asheville has to offer.”

On our drive around town, two villages a traveler might consider visiting are Maggie Valley and Cherokee. Steeped in rich Native American history and lore, these locations offer a natural and holistic connection with the land of the Great Smokey Mountains. And if something more grandoise peaks your interest, the largest private estate in America, The Biltmore House, is less than an hour away from both locations and near the city of Asheville itself.

Whether you’re approaching from Interstate 40 east or west, there are plenty of treats in store. A permanent Farmers Market, Historic Biltmore Village, and fine eateries await your arrival. Whole baked local apples with cinnamon, cheese grits and biscuits with homemade jams and jellies are on the menu at the Moose Café, a fine example of how the Asheville area blends tradition, soul and trend. And Province 620 restaurant offers a variety of evening dinner choices that will keep the whole family humming!

On my particular weeklong trip this fall, I visited two events that put Asheville on the map in regards to dance and performance art: America’s Clogging Hall of Fame National Championships and the break-dancing jam, Southern B-boy Championships.

If you’ve been watching the “ABDC” on MTV or “America’s Got Talent” on NBC, you’ve probably seen these two dance forms going head to head for cash. In the Asheville area, the competitions attract hundreds of spectators. These two dance forms operating championships in the same city provide more examples of blending tradition and trend. So, after a full day of touring the surround areas and visiting the local arts scene, it’s time to finally drive into the city as the sunsets in the Great Smokey Mountains.

Cool architecture and café-lined streets

As we roll into the city, via Lexington Avenue, one sees signage demanding “Keep Asheville Weird” and “Buy Local.” And now a tourist may begin to feel the Parisian vibe. With architecture and café-lined streets, an illustrious play begins before our eyes as the sun continues to set. Passing through the squares near the Flat Iron Building and Wall Street, and one is likely to see hundreds strolling the sidewalks, all while passing over rolling hills lined with pavement and eye level artwork.

As traffic slows down, it’s a good idea to look for parking and hit the street. Let the sole walk it out! Locally made teas from earthen-named boutiques such as Gaea Gifts beckon you to enter. Tumbled stones and hand carved weeping Buddha’s are just a few of the glorious gifts at A Far Away Place. And just a stone’s throw away, fasten on hand-crafted jewelry from Cain’s Creations, an artisan jewelry maker located on site at Beads and Beyond.

If shopping wears you down, refuel at local eateries with eclectic names such as Boca, Wasabi Sushi, Early Girl and Tupelo Honey. These places alone will wind you from Lexington Street to Merrimon Avenue. And by following the beats of the outdoor drum circles, you will be guided right towards your hunger and offered many international eateries.

Finding the gay in Asheville

Our first day has met the evening. And you’ve felt so incredibly welcomed that you’ve almost forgotten to visit the gay locales! Well, for a midweek cocktail, club Hairspray is a place to unwind and sit under a vintage hair dryer while having a refreshing adult beverage! All while looking through your purchased treasures of the day! Or, if it’s the weekend, go to the tri-level hot spot, Scandals. Performers such as Miss Trinity Norrell and Miss Roxy Hart will dazzle you with big city entertainment. I guarantee that you will realize that happiness is free when you are transported at these show girl’s performances!

As the night winds on, the beats of the house music have replaced the beats of those street side drum circles now, there’s an exhausted smile on your face. You’ll be so delighted to find this hidden gem named Asheville, the oasis of the mountains. Asheville boast one of the largest gay communities per capita and feels so very European. Not to mention, you’ve discovered the beauty of exploring smaller cities in America, without the expense and hassle of an international fare. It’s like finding a little café in your neighborhood and never wanting to tell your friends! One this journey, an old adage comes to mind: “Secrets travel fast” and so should you.

Jason Coleman is a flight attendant on private jets that take him on exotic journeys around the world. He is also a writer, photographer, event coordinator and percussive step dancer who also volunteers in the local LGBT community. His Sole Journey column will appear monthly on SDGLN.