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Learn the Constellations
With a new year comes new resolutions, and these mountains offer plenty of inspiration for higher living. Whether you hope to hike more or stress less, eat better or give back, Smoky Mountain Living offers an only-in-Southern-Appalachia guide to making 2017 your best year yet.
Will Harlan, the editor in chief of Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine as well as an elite trail runner, plans to immerse himself in the wonders of the night sky in 2017. He hopes to view all 54 of the constellations visible from Southern Appalachia, and to share the experience with his nine-year-old and three-year-old sons. To learn how to navigate the sky, he says he’ll attend stargazing sessions at UNC-Asheville with the Asheville Astronomy Club. In his words:
“The mountaintops and sweeping vistas of Southern Appalachia—especially in winter—are some of the sweetest spots to view the night sky. For me, the stars put everything in perspective, especially the petty problems of my everyday life. The night sky is a window back in time. The starlight we see is ancient. The night sky is also the frontier of our future. It contains multitudes and mysteries. We don't know what 95 percent of the universe is made of. For as long as we have wandered the planet, we have been crafting stories about the constellations spinning above us. We are a storytelling species, and each culture's greatest dreams and fears are embedded into the stories of the night sky. Stars are also nature's most perfect creation. They live for billions of years and produce all of the elements of the universe. We could not exist without them. Life arose from the exploding guts of distant stars. With all of these wonders overhead, why don't I look up more often? I want my sons to also discover the spine-tingling awe and wonder of the universe and our place within it.”
The Astronomy Club of Asheville offers two monthly stargazing events that are free and open to the public, typically on the Friday nights that occur near the Last Quarter and New Moons (December 2 and 30, for instance). Sky watchers gather at spots along the Blue Ridge Parkway as well as at regional observatories, such as Lookout Observatory at UNC-Asheville and at Grassland Mountain Observatory in Madison County.
Other star lovers: The Smoky Mountain Astronomical Society (smokymtnastro.org) hosts star parties at the Unicoi Crest on the Cherohala Skyway, an overlook on the Foothills Parkway referred to as Look Rock South, and Tamke-Allan Observatory near Kingston, Tennessee, as well as an annual star party in Cades Cove. Outside Knoxville, Marble Springs State Historic Site (marblesprings.net) gives occasional stargazing workshops throughout the year.
Learn a New Skill
“My resolution is to tie better knots,” says Diane Cutler, co-owner of Bryson City Bicycles, located minutes from Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Tsali Recreation Area. “Andy [my husband and shop co-owner] and I are fly fishermen. Most people think we moved here for the mountain biking, but we actually moved here for the fly fishing and opened a bike shop as a means to support ourselves in this tourist town.
“I can tie a few basic knots that get me by but need to expand my repertoire for not only fishing, but survival skills and practical applications (such as tying down a couch in the back of a pick-up). The reality is that I'll probably use the web and practice at home in front of the fire. However, it's good to know that I have the resources of my local fly shop, The Tuckaseegee Fly Shop.”
Whether you want to up your outdoors game or try out a new cooking skill, Southern Appalachia likely offers a hands-on class or workshop that could help. A few ideas: On December 11, Hickory Nut Gap Farm will break down a pig from tail to snout in its whole hog butchery class ($55). Past classes at the Jackson County Green Energy Park in Dillsboro have taught disparate skills ranging from forging a Viking round shield to creating a glass pumpkin (see jcgep.org for upcoming classes). And for those who prefer to learn at home on their own time, the 50th anniversary edition of the Foxfire Book of Simple Living offers a primer on traditional Appalachian skills, as it has for the past five decades.
Restaurant menus around the region read like an index of local farms and food suppliers. Can you say the same of the ingredients in your grocery bag? The Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) does its best to help make every meal Appalachian-grown. To that end, the ASAP staff offers their own ideas for making the most out of the regional harvest.
- Visit the same farmer every week at a tailgate market for an entire season.
- Attend at least one tailgate market every week of the year.
- Visit a farm you’ve never been to before.
- Learn preservation and pickling techniques.
- Ask for Appalachian Grown at your local grocery store.
- Volunteer at a tailgate market.
- Try five new or unfamiliar fruits or vegetables that are grown here in the region.
- Become a regular at an area tailgate market, and learn the names of every farmer and vendor.
- Make an event of learning how to preserve food, such as going with friends to the tailgate market to buy tomatoes and then having a canning party.
- Challenge yourself to cook with less familiar meat cuts purchased from a local tailgate market.
- Ask farmers at the tailgate market for recipe ideas and cooking tips.
Expand Your Comfort Zone
As the co-producer of the Asheville Fringe Arts Festival (see page TK), Jocelyn Reese thrives on pushing limits. This year she hopes to spend more time in the audience herself. “My resolution for 2017 is to go to more avant-garde performances in Asheville, and to encourage more people to experience art that is challenging and provocative,” she says. “I am especially interested in the Anam Cara Theatre Company's new work. They create new ensemble pieces with their Accordion Time Machine cast every few months, and their 2016-17 season looks very promising.” The Anam Cara Theatre Company’s next show, Pulse, tackles the issues that led to the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting (February 24-25, March 3-4, 10-11; anamcaratheatre.org).
Other ideas: Knoxville makes sound waves with its annual showcase of avant-garde music, Big Ears Festival, held March 23-26 at downtown venues. On Chattanooga’s Southside, the Granfalloon hosts unexpected events ranging from an experimental and classical music open mic night to “Rage Yoga,” which mixes yoga with alcohol and loud, aggressive music.
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Give Back to Your Community
A new year is the perfect time to devote yourself to a new cause. “During the past year, I challenged myself and others to hike 100 miles in honor of the National Park Service Centennial,” says Cassius Cash, the superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “In 2017, as we enter our second century of service, I am look forward to working alongside our second-century stewards in the Smokies and trying my hand at a variety of projects, from trail building to historic structure preservation.”
Volunteer opportunities at Great Smoky Mountains National Park include assisting with cultural demonstrations, maintaining trails, welcoming visitors, collecting water samples, and more; look for special volunteer days during the summer months. Find more information at nps.gov/grsm/getinvolved/volunteer.htm. In addition, Friends of the Smokies (friendsofthesmokies.org) and the Great Smoky Mountains Association (smokiesinformation.org) facilitate a range of service activities in the park.
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Learn the Local Flora
Learn Local Flora
Ashley English, the homesteading author of seven books and a regular contributor to Smoky Mountain Living, has dedicated herself to enhancing her knowledge of identifying and using local flora. “I'm doing so by taking wild foraging classes with Alan Muskat of No Taste Like Home and Luke Cannon of Astounding Earth as well as herbal classes with Asia Suler of One Willow Apothecaries and Janet Kent of Medicine County Herbs,” English says. “I want to be able to enjoy the nutritional benefits offered by eating wild foods as well as better be able to make medicines and home remedies for my family.”
No Taste Like Home leads foraging tours around Asheville and in the Smokies and Nantahala Forest; notastelikehome.org. Astounding Earth teaches forest skills (a 10-part series), leads tree identification hikes, and more; astoundingearth.com. In Marshall, One Willow Apothecaries features a curriculum focused on nourishing herbs; onewillowapothecaries.com. An herbal apothecary, herb garden, and nursery in a cove forest outside of Asheville, Medicine County Herbs offers a four-month herbal apprenticeship program as well as a catalog of herbal tincture formulas; medicinecountyherbs.com. And for budding naturalists of all ages, the North Carolina Arboretum (ncarboretum.org) offers classes, workshops, nature walks, field studies, and certifications.
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Whether or not you believe in vortices—those whirling centers of energy and spirituality said to dot the mountains of Western North Carolina—there’s no denying that this region has an abundance of natural antidotes for stress, from the fresh air of a pristine mountaintop to the healing breath of a good yoga class. Sometimes, unwinding can be as simple as reconnecting with friends.
“I have made a resolution to do more fun things,” says Leah Ashburn, president of Highland Brewing. “This may sound ridiculous, given my job—but Highland is a real company with all the stresses of any job (with some amazing benefits). I am often apt to relinquish gathering with a couple friends or even a weekend at a lake house because I struggle to get enough quality rest. The key is that the commitment to fun also leads me to taking better care of myself through mind-clearing exercise. When I have the fun stuff to look forward to, I leave work when I’m supposed to, make time to clear my head and be healthy, and then I get social. The day feels complete and fulfilling when I fit in these soul-nourishing pieces.”
If you’re seeking a fresh way to relax, the Asheville Salt Cave promises relief from everything from asthma and congestion to depression and stress. Tucked away in downtown Asheville, this unique business offers 45-minute relaxation sessions in its enriched micro-climate ($25) as well as massages and salt spa treatments; ashevillesaltcave.com.
Off the Blue Ridge Parkway just south of downtown Asheville, Shoji Spa and Lodge offers traditional Japanese bathing and soaking, “contrast therapy” (a cold plunge alternated with time in a dry cedar sauna), and other spa treatments. The “Hike-n-Soak” package features a guided tour along the Mountain-to-Sea Trail followed by a two-hour soak in a hot tub.
Combining salt and water therapy, salt water floatation tanks are popping up across Southern Appalachia. Also called sensory deprivation tanks, these lightless, soundproof float tanks are said to help people reach deep states of relaxation. Some 1,500 pounds of Epsom salt helps pull tension out of muscles while also creating a buoyant environment that allows a person to float effortlessly. Check out Still Point Wellness (stillpointwell.com) in Asheville, Lucidity Float Center of Chattanooga (luciditychattanooga.com), and Laniakea Flotation Tanks (lftank.com) in Knoxville.
Help Save the Planet
Jillian Wolf, a member of the AmeriCorps Project Conserve at Asheville’s Organic Growers School, plans to spend 2017 helping others go back to the land.
“Growing food at home or in community gardens and preserving it for future consumption used to be a matter of course worldwide,” Wolf says. “In the United States, we are now almost completely dependent, going back four or five generations, upon a food system that isn't resilient enough to provide for our population in these times of climate crisis. I'd love to see us all get back to growing, to getting our hands in the dirt and walking more tenderly upon it, to building community support systems around that focus on sustaining ourselves and protecting the environment on which we all depend.”
Her own hands-in-the-dirt experience ranges from volunteering at her neighborhood Shiloh Community Garden to activities with the Blue Ridge Naturalist Network (a public Facebook group) and the Asheville Mushroom Club (ashevillemushroomclub.com).
For those interested in environmental sustainability, Wolf points to opportunities with other Asheville-area organizations: The Asheville Buncombe Food Policy Council Land Use Cluster (abfoodpolicy.org) advocates for the use of both public and private land for food production. Bee City USA–Asheville (beecityusa.org) works to increase awareness and the number of pollinator plants populating our area, and the Buncombe Fruit and Nut Club (fruitandnutclub.com) plants edible trees in parks and other public landscapes.
The nonprofit Organic Growers School offers myriad resources for home gardeners including a new one-on-one, site-specific consulting program; organicgrowersschool.org.
In the words of the popular bumper stickers around Western North Carolina: “We still read.” Indeed, book clubs thrive here—and are a great way to be held accountable for your reading goals. Local libraries and bookshops across the region host clubs, and more can be found on meetup.com and by scouring community boards.
A couple of favorites: Malaprop’s Bookstore, a fixture of downtown Asheville, attracts big-name authors and hosts regular book clubs (malaprops.com/book-clubs). The original club meets in the shop’s cafe on the first Wednesday of each month and discusses a range of fiction and nonfiction books, while specialized clubs delve into topics such as literature in translation (every last Thursday of the month) and autism (first Wednesdays). In Waynesville, the Banned Book Club meets on Saturday mornings at Blue Ridge Books (blueridgebooksnc.com). Sylva, North Carolina, is a hub for book clubs (citylightsnc.com/book-club-central)—from the Sylva Yoga book club, which stretches body and mind on the second Tuesday of the month, to the Cullowhee Book and Dessert Club, which always ends on a sweet note (no matter the title under discussion).
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Forget the gym memberships. Hitting the trails of Southern Appalachia will get you in shape in no time—and the view is a whole lot better than the one of the next treadmill over.
Chris Wilcox, owner of City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, North Carolina, resolves to hike more often. Naturally, he knows just where to turn for help getting started. “To plan for my outings, I'll dive into some of the fine hiking guides available for our region,” he says. “A well-designed guidebook, with thoroughly researched trail descriptions and thoughtful layout, is a thing of beauty.”
A few of his favorites include Jim Parham's Backpacking Overnights in the North Carolina Mountains & South Carolina Upstate, Leonard Adkins’s Hiking and Traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway, Danny Bernstein's Hiking North Carolina's Blue Ridge, James Stepp's Afternoon Hiker, and Tim Homan's Hiking Trails of the Joyce Kilmer, Slickrock & Citico Creek Wildernesses, and Kevin Adams’s North Carolina Waterfalls (“now in a beautiful third edition with stunning color photos,” Wilcox adds).
Even more motivational than the printed word, though, can be encouragement from others. This region teems with group runs, hikes, bike rides, and other events that mix activity with socializing. Almost any day of the week, running groups meet up at different Asheville breweries; the Thursday night run starting from Wedge Brewing Company along the French Broad River is one of the most popular.
Departing from Oskar Blues Brewery in Brevard, North Carolina, each Tuesday evening, the mountain biking guides from the Bike Farm lead free group rides through the trails of neighboring Pisgah National Forest. Regional chapters of SORBA (Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association) host regular rides in Pisgah, Nantahala, and other areas rich in single-track trails.
Each year from March through December, Friends of the Smokies offers monthly hikes led by experienced hiker and author Danny Bernstein ($20 per hike; friendsofthesmokies.org). Also leading guided hikes throughout the year are the Great Smoky Mountains Association ($10, free for members; smokiesinformation.org), the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy ($10, free for members; appalachian.org), and the Carolina Mountain Club (free; carolinamountainclub.org).