Asheville: The Madison of the South?

Similarities found in North Carolina city

People kept telling me Asheville is like Madison, and sure enough, the first person I bumped into when we got off the plane in North Carolina was Russell Wilson, the former Badger quarterback, now an NFL superstar in Seattle.

Not Wilson in the flesh, I should say. Rather a large image of him in the uniform of the Asheville Tourists, for whom Wilson played minor league baseball in the summer of 2011 prior to coming to Madison.

I was in Asheville for five days earlier this month riding shotgun for my wife, who was there for a business conference.

There was a lot to like about the city. Its progressive vibe did remind me of Madison. But while I’m name dropping, allow me to note that I once met Ron Shelton, director of the classic minor league baseball film “Bull Durham,” which was shot partly in Asheville. Kevin Costner’s character plays briefly for the Tourists.

We met through a mutual friend, 1974 Madison West High grad Cyrus Nowrasteh, at the Hollywood premiere of Cyrus’s movie “The Day Reagan Was Shot.”

The list of authentic, enjoyable sports movies isn’t very long, and Ron Shelton directed most of them.

Thomas Wolfe Memorial

In Asheville, my wife’s business meetings left me at loose ends. The first day I walked from our lodging at the historic Omni Grove Park Inn a couple of miles to the city’s downtown.

Asheville is in western North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains with a population around 90,000. It’s home to a well-regarded liberal arts university and a thriving restaurant/craft beer scene.

The clustered downtown is easily walkable. I was vaguely in search of a rare midday beer, but more just wandering. That's when I saw a sign and an arrow pointing to the Thomas Wolfe Memorial.

That stopped me. I had rarely thought of Thomas Wolfe since I took the great Walter Rideout’s 20th Century American Literature class at the University of Wisconsin–Madison more than four decades ago. Like many, I am more familiar with his namesake Tom Wolfe, author of “The Right Stuff” and “Bonfire of the Vanities.”

Still, the name Thomas Wolfe, author of “Look Homeward, Angel” and “You Can’t Go Home Again,” resonated with me. He was my dad’s favorite when he studied literature and drama at the University of Iowa. My dad was hoping to be a writer and ended up a broadcasting executive.

During my own college years, I asked him, “Why the switch?”

“I liked to eat too much,” he said.

I’m sure there was a message there, though he left it to me to figure out what it was.

Wolfe grew up in Asheville and the Memorial is a museum that chronicles his life and times. I was alone walking through on a weekday afternoon. I learned some Asheville residents did not immediately appreciate his highly autobiographical fiction. Wolfe died at 37 of miliary tuberculosis. And while dying young has its disadvantages, it can be a good career move. The Wolfe Memorial today is a state historic site.

Biltmore House

As Asheville tourist attractions go, the Wolfe Memorial ranks considerably below the Biltmore House, a 250-room, 175,000-square-foot behemoth built in the late 1800s by George Vanderbilt and still the largest private residence in the United States.

We took the nearly obligatory tour. While the gardens — on the estate’s 8,000 acres designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also did Central Park in Manhattan and Lake Park in Milwaukee — were stunning, the grandiose house didn’t do much for me apart from making me think its existence should have sparked a revolution. (I’ll balance this dim view of the house with some good cheer for the adjacent Biltmore Winery, “America’s most visited winery.” Fun tastings, helpful bartenders.)

It was while strolling the downtown, listening to buskers, ducking in and out of the bustling bookstores, galleries and bistros, that the comparison to Madison really kicked in.

My son came over from Charlotte one day. When Jeanan was done with her conference, we walked all over Asheville together.

Though we’d heard Asheville is a popular retirement community, young people abounded. We also heard that the city doesn’t allow chain restaurants, although that appears apocryphal.

Regardless, there’s a bounty of great local places to eat. We had lunch at the Spanish tapas restaurant Curate. It was a revelation. Among other things, it had the best potato salad ever —even better than that of the late, lamented Jacobson Brothers in Madison.

Anthony Bourdain ate at Curate in 2011 as part of a ticketed book signing at the restaurant. Curate was new then, but there was already a Bourdain connection. Curate chef and CEO Katie Button worked previously at the famed former elBulli restaurant in Spain, where Bourdain centered one of his “No Reservations” episodes.

I wonder if Ms. Button would consider an outpost in Madison. Hey, it’s a lot like Asheville!

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.                      

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