Climate change: Why we moved to Asheville 24 years ago

I couldn't help but notice the sign New York City had erected next to an on-ramp on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway: "FUGEDABOTIT." It was the easiest, cheapest way to tell drivers not to try exiting there. No problem for me: Born and raised on Long Island, I could speak and understand their language. And thanks to World War II, the U.S. Navy and Yale, I understood that not everyone spoke the way I did.

While still living in New York, I was considering holding a fall conference at the Grove Park Inn and came down to Asheville to investigate. But they were full up, explaining that "leaf lookers" from all over the U.S. and Europe booked those rooms years in advance. A few years later, I retired and decided that living in Princeton, "Noo Joisy," was no longer desirable. I wanted to be able to play golf year-round, and to take field trips seeking pretty minerals I could fashion into jewelry for my wife. I’d held conferences in Florida, but the winter weather was unpredictable, and in summer you had to run air conditioners night and day.

A professor friend at Drexel University came to my rescue. He relayed my ideal living conditions to the meteorology department, which recommended moving below the Mason-Dixon Line on the western side of the time zone, so you’d get more daylight hours for playing golf. Between 2,000 and 3,000 feet above sea level, they noted, the air is too thin to hold moisture all night: When the sun sets, the air cools down and any moisture in it condenses as dew, reducing the humidity. The mountainous terrain breaks up heavy storms coming from the Northwest or Gulf states, hurricanes don’t venture that far inland, and you’re spared the severe tornadoes encountered in the flatlands. Yet you don’t get the cold and snow found at higher altitudes.

Meanwhile, friends who’d retired to the Sunbelt found the nearly seasonless climate boring. On the bright side, however, they said living there was giving them a taste of what perhaps lay in store for them: It was hell. And if you enjoyed catching and grilling Gila monsters, there were always a few sunbathing on your deck.

More research revealed that Western North Carolina was world-famous for its gemstones: emeralds, rubies, zircons, sapphires, even diamonds. From Franklin on up to Spruce Pine, it was (and is) a rock hound’s heaven. Gold was still being found in Cabarrus County, the site of America's first gold rush.

After I retired, we drove down the Blue Ridge Parkway, exited at Asheville and continued on to Sapphire Valley, east of Hendersonville, to play golf, drive around, and see what it was like in these mountains, presumably inhabited by banjo-plunking hillbillies who earned their living making moonshine and selling it to us Yankees. But I found neither sapphires, hillbillies nor moonshine, and Hendersonville seemed mostly populated by much older retirees.

Asheville, though, offered a unique combination of Southern charm and Northern commerce. True, downtown merchants had fled to a new mall on Tunnel Road, and both the Asheville Art Museum and the Colburn Gem and Mineral Museum languished in the Civic Center’s basement. Yet there were many signs of potential change for the better. Within a few years, the Pack Place Education, Arts & Science Center would have taken over the old library building and expanded it to become the new home for those two museums plus the Diana Wortham Theatre and The Health Adventure. The new facility would help restore the vitality of that part of downtown: no more boarded-up shops and vacant restaurants!

Still, my wife and I had to consider what we’d be giving up in such a drastic relocation. She loved living near New York's Broadway, Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall and many famous museums, and she feared losing access to them. But in recent years, she's been amazed at the cultural amenities now available in Asheville and environs, which are far more accessible, less costly and, in many ways, superior to those big-city offerings. The Diana Wortham Theatre stages plays and other entertainment, and the U.S. Cellular Center brings in the best traveling shows. For music buffs, there’s the Asheville Symphony, and UNCA sponsors highly innovative adult-education programs. A few years ago, when I was board president of what’s now the Colburn Earth Science Museum, I taught a class on North Carolina minerals.

Slowly but steadily, our preferred lifestyle has not only been restored but reborn. This unique, delightful Southern city has evolved into a mecca for artists, young entrepreneurs and educational sciences, not to mention the newly enlarged heart of Beer City.

There are now enough golf courses here to serve every person alive who wants to play the game, including the five excellent 18-hole courses associated with acclaimed designer Donald Ross.

Years ago, many wealthy Americans, such as E.W. Grove, came here to be treated for tuberculosis. But these days, we all enjoy access to Western North Carolina’s topflight medical services and hospital facilities.

In short, we really lucked out in moving to Asheville, and we intend to stay forever. Pick up and move again? FUGEDABOTIT!

— Kempton Roll lives in Beaverdam.

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