I Would Live There: Asheville, North Carolina, Edition

Melody WarnickGreat towns, I would live there2 Comments

In sixteen years of married life, Quinn and I have managed to get away without our children maybe four times. When it happens, it’s through the enormous good graces and generosity of some family member or friend or other, and always, we’re left wide-eyed and grinning at our good luck. We’re free! Can you believe it? (Disclaimer: This doesn’t mean we don’t love our kids. It just means that sometimes they drive us absolutely insane, and a 48-hour separation is the best possible outcome for everyone’s mental health.)

This time, our friend Lucynthia mentioned in passing that she and her husband, Nate, would be happy to watch our kids so we could go on a mini-vacation. “Ah, that’s really nice and delusional of her,” I thought to myself. But then she pressed the issue in an email a few weeks later. “When are we going to watch your kids?” she asked. Like she actually meant it. Before she could come to her senses, we booked a two-night vacation to Asheville, North Carolina, for my birthday.

Why Asheville? Because it’s three hours away, close enough for just-in-case but far enough to make us untouchable in all but dire emergencies, and because a few friends, as well as Southern Living magazine and the the New York Times, rave about its indie shops, restaurants, and art galleries. Asheville’s biggest (literally) tourist attraction is Biltmore, George Vanderbilt’s 8,000-acre, 35-bedroom estate, but when we realized tickets cost $60 we abandoned our plans to go and focused on the city itself.

And it was utterly delightful. Here’s why.

The food.

Oh my gosh, the food. Quinn hates it when I go nuts with hours and hours of advance research before travel, so this time I was trying my darndest to just be like, “I don’t care where we go, whatever.” But then my instincts took over and I ended up Yelping the heck out of Asheville. I couldn’t help it. This place, Biscuit Head, was one of the restaurants where we ended up. (Named, apparently, for biscuits the size of a cat’s head.) It’s in some sort of doctor’s office complex — not where you’d ever expect to see a hip restaurant — and yet this is what the line looked like on Saturday morning, all of us queueing up for various biscuit sandwiches with toppings like pulled pork, fried green tomatoes, and Cherry Coke-flavored bacon. Folks know what’s good for them.

Biscuit Head line

I ordered an egg, cheese, and country ham biscuit, which I had to eat with a fork because the biscuit was so tender. Plus, there was a jam and butter bar, with homemade strawberry and blackberry jams, a bananas foster topping that tasted like an unholy apple butter, and a sweet tomato jelly, among other deliciousness. I get the sweats just thinking about it. (Asheville biscuit consumption tally: 4.5 in 3 days.)

Biscuit Head biscuit sandwich

Every meal we ate in Asheville—at Tupelo Honey, Sunny Point Cafe (fried avocado tacos and key lime pie!), and All Souls Pizza—made us want to never leave.

There were other delightful things, as well, including the marvelous arboretum, the Blue Ridge Parkway, loads of art galleries, and indie bookstores like Malaprop’s. We hit up a drum circle on Friday night, sat in Pack Square as the sun went down, and watched these guys do their country busking schtick a few times.

Asheville buskers

On the downtown streets, tourists and locals jostled for space among drummers, guitarists, opera singers, keyboardists, and five-piece bands doing renditions of Sufjan Stevens. (With so many, we wondered if the city was considering permitting street performers. They are.)

And of course I looked at real estate magazines and imagined what life would be like living in Asheville. Maybe next time we visit (I’m really hoping there will be a next time), we’ll take our kids.

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Free flowers

Melody WarnickBlacksburg, Cool projects, Place love0 Comments


I’ve passed this wooden flower stand and its “Free flowers” sign before, only I’ve always been too late to see anything but empty shelves until today, when four repurposed glass jars full of loveliness were sitting there. I only had spare change for the donation box, but I couldn’t resist stopping and taking a jar that once held lingonberry jam and now holds mint, daisies, and what I think might be a dahlia.

Isn’t this adorable and neighborly and such a good idea for those endowed with a green thumb? It’s like a Little Free Library for flowers. I have no idea who’s behind it, but that this exists in Blacksburg makes me incredibly happy. (Thank you, whoever you are on the corner of Harding and Orchard View!)

Have you seen anything like this in your town?

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Do houses matter more than towns?

Melody WarnickCool projects, Great towns, I would live there2 Comments


A lot of people make the mistake of confusing houses with places. We think that once we find a really affordable house, or a beautiful one, or one that we can finally squeeze all our kids and dogs and stuff into, that nothing else really matters. It doesn’t matter where that house is. Only the house itself is important.

I’ve made that same mistake myself. I’ve written briefly here before about my real estate obsession. Even now, while I’m writing a book about how vital towns our to our health and happiness, there’s a niggly bit of me that insists that all that matters is finding a city where I can buy a nice house for less than $400,000.

But a fews weeks ago, I went to a town called Ocean Springs, Mississippi, where dozens of residents lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina. We rented a vacation home from a woman named Beth whose own house had been washed away. The tidal surge broke open the entire front wall, and one of her favorite chairs was found floating somewhere down along the pier. You’d think someone like Beth would just pick up and move away. The house is gone. Why bother?

But that’s not what happened. Most people I talked to in Ocean Springs were hard pressed to think of many people who had moved away after Katrina. Most stayed and slowly rebuilt through the very definition of hell or high water.

Part of the post-storm solution for helping people stay in place and rebuild faster are Katrina Cottages — tiny houses that are quick and cheap to build, yet make people feel a lot more at home than trailers do. Someohow Ocean Springs became a landing zone for several cottages envisioned by different architects, and now 18 or so of them are currently installed in a little rental community called Cottages at Oak Park.

Cottages at Oak Park, Ocean Springs, MS

An offshoot of my general real estate obsession is my love for tiny houses, and people, these are the most adorable ones in the world, painted in cotton candy colors with white picket fences. The teeniest are 300 square feet, the biggest 1,800 (not that tiny). I’m in love.




What do you think? Would you live in one of these? More important, where would you put it? Living in the right house can make us feel at home in a place, but I love how the Katrina cottages are built to keep people in their town even when bad stuff happens.

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Why I spent a ton of money on Small Business Saturday

Melody WarnickBlacksburg, Buy local0 Comments

This year, my daughter’s thirteenth birthday happened to land on the day after Thanksgiving, and so, because she’s officially a teenager and required by law to obsess over clothes, we went Black Friday shopping. On Thanksgiving night. For four hours. The mall was exactly the bacchanal of consumerism that you’d expect, and yes, I did get a very cute jean jacket at the Gap, thank you very much.

A day later I returned to the pre-Christmas fray with another shopping mission: to spend a whole lot of cash in Blacksburg’s local businesses for Small Business Saturday. Like Black Friday, Small Business Saturday is a fabricated excuse for spending, started by American Express in 2010 because, in the words of CEO Ken Chenault, “small businesses are the engine of job creation in the U.S. economy.” As on Black Friday, one is expected to buy a lot of stuff.

But there is a significant qualitative difference. In the mall, I’m searching for good deals on stuff I want; you can practically see the dollar signs in my eyeballs. Shopping on Small Business Saturday, on the other hand, feels like a higher-level experience, half-consumerism, half-charity.

Quinn on Small Biz Saturday

By my count, Quinn and I went into seven different stores and bought stuff at every last one. Most of it wasn’t originally on our shopping list, and most cost a bit more than we would have spent on Amazon. But I don’t have one twinge of buyers remorse (unusual for me!), and here’s why:

  1. Because buying things at locally owned businesses keeps 38 percent more revenue in my own local community than buying the same things at national chains.
  2. Because I bought unique things I wouldn’t have encountered at national stores, like a Blacksburg Is for Lovers t-shirt from Uncommonly Gifted.
  3. Because I talked to cool people. At Matrix Gallery, I bought a woven wheat ornament that was made by someone who lives right here in Blacksburg. The woman who sold it to me told me a funny story about trying to make her own woven wheat ornaments while slightly intoxicated. I love me some Target, but you just don’t that kind of quality interaction at big-box stores—nor the satisfaction of knowing that your money is helping a community member’s business thrive.
  4. Because I got a free mini pumpkin cupcake at Mad Dog clothing boutique and free gift wrapping at Imaginations Toy Store.


On my personal hierarchy of spending, bargains have traditionally been at the top. But I’m trying to prioritize locally made purchases, even when they’re slightly more expensive, because they make me happier. I know, consumerism is consumerism, and maybe I’m basking in an unwarranted halo effect. But Small Business Saturday at least gives me the illusion that I’m not just in it for the stuff.

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The Spookiest Thing I Love About Blacksburg

Melody WarnickBlacksburg, Place love, Virginia0 Comments

I am a complete and total wuss when it comes to scary stuff. When I was growing up in Southern California, my dad would take my sister and me every year to Knott’s Scary Farm, where mask-wearing maniacs revved their chainsaws on the Log Ride and 20-somethings in evil makeup chased us around the funnel cake stands. Eventually, after a particularly vibrant post–Scary Farm nightmare, I woke up and went, “Wait, I actually HATE that.”

So you will not find me standing in line at any haunted houses this holiday season (or watching The Sixth Sense for that matter … shudder). But spooky AND historical? That’s somehow okay. For two years I’ve been driving past West View Cemetery in Blacksburg, with graves dating back to before the Civil War, and one gloomy October afternoon last week, I took a solitary stroll through it.

Cemetery tree

The cemetery is still being used, but the oldest tombstones were clumped together beneath a golden maple tree.

Shattered tombstone

Time and weather had been unkind to some of the markers. They’d been shattered, or tipped over, or rendered tiny, weather-worn nubs.

Old gravestone

Others were speckled with an orange moss, but not enough to obliterate that Brooke Lawson, who weathered the Civil War in Blacksburg, died when she was just 28—10 years younger than I am. What was life like for her? She wasn’t from here originally. What did she think of the town where she ended up?

Blacksburg Confederate statue

And what of Blacksburg’s beloved Confederate dead? What was life like for them? The ground beneath the memorial statue has been worn bald by visitors, which I think that means they haven’t been entirely forgotten.

I suppose you could walk through West View and imagine Scary Farm–style zombies emerging from the ground. But the cemetery wasn’t spooky for me. Sad, a little, but also inspiring in a Carpe Diem sort of way. Their time is over and done with. Not mine, not yet. It makes me think of the Mary Oliver line:

“Tell me,
what is it you plan to do
with your one
wild and precious life?”

(According to Haunted Places, only two spots in Blacksburg rate as ghost-ridden: The Lyric movie theater and, oddly, the Holiday Inn. I will be staying far, far away this Halloween.)

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