Every other Friday I drive from my home in West Asheville to the food co-op on Biltmore Avenue downtown. I take the busy road outside my neighborhood and have a neat little trick for getting off at the correct exit, which I learned while riding on the bus. Once, a fellow ART (Asheville Rides Transit!) passenger, a man who grew up here, called the little detour off the main road “The Hillbilly Highway.” He said that’s what his parents named it when he was a kid. It drops me back onto the main road, but in a better position to exit into town and turn right after the light (which is exactly how the bus goes). I delight in these types of stories and have even gotten my husband to take The Hillbilly Highway whenever we drive downtown. It’s a ten-minute drive to the exit, off which we shave up to 2 minutes by avoiding a traffic light. Since moving here, I have become accustomed to the quirkiness of our end of town and and am devoted to its offbeat pathways.
I learned to drive in New Jersey, land of the traffic circle and jug-handle turn. I bought my grandparent’s old Rambler and my brother took on the responsibility of teaching me how to drive a car with a standard transmission. I took Driver’s Ed at the high school and was slightly amused that the teacher was something of a praying man. I could see the practicality of that. I received my driver’s license when I turned 18. The ability to drive is like an open passport to adventure when you’re a teenager. I went to a lot of places and even drove on the highway a time or two. None of this prepared me for driving in Houston, where I relocated with only 1½ years of driving experience under my belt.
Houston is a city of freeways (aka interstate roadways). The best thing I can say about them is that you can’t get lost. The worst thing I can say is that I have known people who had to sleep in their cars while parked on them. High volumes of traffic coupled with high speeds equal quite an unmovable mess when bumpers find multiple other bumpers or when the weather drops too much rain on the feeder roads below and nobody can escape from on high. Feeder roads are down below the freeway, where cars enter and exit and businesses can line up hoping to catch motorists descending to their level.
I had to drive 15 miles to my first job in Houston, on the most terrifying freeway in town (I-10). About 3 in the afternoon I would start to feel queasy just thinking about having to drive home among the hordes of aggressive and irritable commuters. So I learned, at the tender age of 19, to drive like a little old lady. I became intimately acquainted with the so-called surface streets, which was anything NOT the freeway. These were roadways where speed limits were a lot slower and traffic lights dominated every intersection. Because it takes a lot longer to get anywhere on them, most people throw the dice and hit the freeway instead of cautiously making their way to their destination via the regular streets. I learned how to plan my route and timetable. This is not to say I never drove on the freeway, I just did so more strategically than most motorists. By the time I moved to Asheville 42 years later, I was used to a little bit of quirkiness in my pathfinding.
As an example of Asheville quirkiness, after my co-op shopping excursion, I have to exit the co-op parking lot, an accommodation of about 7 spaces, and drive down a steep hill behind the lot into what I call “The Pit,” which is an unpaved, gravel lot reserved for anyone desperate enough to pay for parking there. At the bottom of The Pit, I have to make a sharp U-turn to drive back up the same hill into the parking lot of LaZoom Tours next door and then make my exit onto the road from there. If this is not confusing enough, my Friday morning shopping time is when every entity along Biltmore Avenue has their deliveries made. Even if a truck driver could maneuver their vehicle into the tiny co-op parking lot, there’s no way they could ever get back out. The co-op is one of the very few enterprises along the street which actually has a parking lot. So all the trucks have to park in the street to unload their goods. Lucky for us 9 am shoppers, this is the hour of least possible day-time traffic.
I like to drive home a different way than the route I took to get there. It’s what I call “the town tour,” which is a term my mom used instead of “the scenic route” in her little town in Maine, which took her through the tiny but busy commercial district. It can be defined as a small detour that might take a little longer, but is worth the time and effort as it takes one off the busy roads to enjoy the surroundings at a slower pace. So, I have to turn left out of the LaZoom parking lot in order to take the local town tour. This is no easy task. Gigantic haulers park where ever they can. This may mean the middle of the street or directly blocking my left hand turn. Sometimes I have to cautiously pull into the road to see around the semi truck unloading in front of the co-op. Bless them, they bring the goodies I like to buy, but take forever to unload. Once I can see what’s coming from the left, I peer right if no truck is blocking my view. Sometimes I have to drive on the wrong side of the road to get around a truck jockeying for position in the closest lane going in my direction. I often feel like that little ball in the pinball machine, trying to evade anything that might send me flying.
Once I’ve successfully made it into the street, going in my direction of choice, I come up to a music venue at the corner where I want to turn right. It’s Friday, the time when the venue has biggish-named bands, with biggish trucks, unloading biggish amps and other plus-sized equipment. Often a behemoth of a touring bus is haphazardly parked right at the corner and I have to make my right-hand turn from the outside lane. Illegal parking seems to be the norm in the narrow streets of downtown Asheville on a Friday morning. Once I’ve cleared that corner, there are fewer cars to contend with and the going is smoother if I don’t get caught behind a city bus.
I was once a dedicated bus rider. That was before the pandemic when I had an office space on the southern edge of downtown, aka the south slope. Though I no longer travel into our central commercial district as often as I once did, I still believe the bus is the most convenient way to go if you don’t have to schlep a bunch of grocery bags. I respect the whole concept of mass transit and all the economical and environmental-friendly ways it is beneficial to the citizens of our city…until I get stuck behind a bus in West Asheville. Because, of course, I make my way past the south slope, through the River Arts District and across the river into another set of narrow streets lined with parked vehicles and trucks unloading their goods from the middle of the road. I refer to this part of my drive home as “the gauntlet,” made exceptionally frustrating by following the bus to every stop between downtown and my neighborhood. If ART stops at the grocery store, where there is a pull-over lane, I sail around it feeling that burden, at least, has lifted.
Tight lanes make up the majority of the drive through the gauntlet. Cars are always parked along the main drag, Haywood Road, on both sides of the street. Pedestrians, in most seasons, walk and cross the road where you least expect it. There are cross walks, but they seem to be mostly ignored by both walkers and drivers. I reduce my speed to a crawl through this part of town as there is so much to see and so much to run into. If you want to stop anywhere along this drag, your parallel parking skills will be put to the test. If the back end of your vehicle is a little too far away from the curb, you might get clipped by passers by or some big ass truck stopping to unload. Or by a bicycle, skateboarder or dogsled (just kidding!). It’s a tight squeeze through this glorified alleyway.
Slowing down allows me the opportunity to check out all the activity along the way. Late breakfasters at the OWL (Old World Levain) Bakery lined up for the best bread in town, the enormous flatbed in the middle of the street just in front of the lumber yard, loading or unloading, the ever-present bustle on the patio of Sunny Point Café and the buzz outside West End Market. As I pass these places, I picture myself a part of that scene, as I have often been walking to or near these places on a spectacular day. I notice the nearly empty lots at the laundromat and the public library, the construction progress of the bookstore moving to this fun and funky end of town, and the latest attractions posted at The Odd (formerly The Odditorium) as I close in on the intersection outside my neighborhood.
It’s strange that I hate to drive while simultaneously considering it a privilege. I have a car I share with my husband, though he usually drives if we go somewhere together. He never takes the town tour. The drive for him has a purpose–to get there using the most convenient route. I’m likely to take the road more-than-less traveled, perhaps longer and more complicated or, quirky but with plenty to see and admire along the way. As I pull up to the traffic light outside our neighborhood, waiting for that double-laned left turn signal, I generally have the feeling of having accomplished something of value. I went somewhere in this little city and saw the mountains and the places and the people that make up my community. And, thank you Robert Frost, that has made all the difference.
Always take the town tour,
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