Hot Springs is famous, of course, for its opera house. I'm kidding! It's famous for its hot springs. Accordingly, booking a soak was the first thing my companion and I did when planning our westward escape. Otherwise, we wanted to leave things open. We'd been feeling too wound up in the world, and a mountain enclave with a triple-digit population and indifferent cellular service sounded appealing.
We found a random yurt on Airbnb, advertised as "Mountain Fiesta Yurt GLAMPing," which seemed like a good compromise between the best parts of camping (a fire pit, an idyllic setting) and rooming (electricity, a bed). We knew we'd hike on the Appalachian Trail, another of Hot Springs' main attractions. But all of our best experiences turned out to be improvised or discovered.
That's the way to travel somewhere like Hot Springs, where nothing goes as planned—throwing Google Maps to the wind and navigating the terrain on a personal, local level. The destinations become more rewarding for the winding, unknown roads that lead to them—not unlike the roads that lead into Hot Springs.
It's a four-hour drive from the Triangle, the monotony of I-40 scrolling by like the background in a shabby cartoon. But then we exit into a different world. On the approach to Mountain Fiesta, where the yurt awaits, we judder at school-zone speeds through switchbacks that continually refresh our views of rising slopes, forests, and pastures. The no-nonsense straightness of the interstate, so much like the workweek, gives way to a path that is circuitous by necessity, subservient to the undefeated geography of rural Madison County. As we finally reach our destination, our cell-phone signals, already flickering, promptly cut out.
Mountain Fiesta is a compound of Airbnb rentals near the French Broad River. In its former life it was a garden store frequented, we have it on good authority, by fancy ladies, and the property remains beautifully, messily gardened. The rolling grounds include a yurt, a barn, a trailer, a tent, dogs, chickens, goats, and a donkey named Corazón. Brenda, the owner, lives in a house there, and she offers to drive us and our things to the yurt in her cart. We decline, even though it's up a very steep, short hill, because we don't want to seem like people who would want to be driven up a steep, short hill. As we climb the wooden steps into the yurt, which is elevated a few feet off the ground, I'm panting slightly, but we're delighted by what we see.
A yurt is a venerable old shelter, a round tent built around a wooden lattice, with a door and a peaked roof. But unlike one you'd have found on the steppes of Central Asia, this one has a small refrigerator, a coffeemaker, an electric space heater, and a big fluffy bed, romantically canopied under either tulle or mosquito netting. Smiling down on it is an oculus that admits stars at night, up-and-at-'em sunrises in the morning. With its homey touches—wrought iron shelves of knickknacks, local nature books and board games, a little dining room table—it beats a hotel at $80 a night, especially with a torch-lit path leading down to a private fire pit with a sweeping view of the property and the blue-hazed mountains beyond. Even the composting toilet is, somehow, adorable, all clean and new—and featuring scented sawdust to, as a sign delicately puts it, "cover your business"—tucked inside a traditionally moon-marked outhouse. (What did the moon ever do to deserve that distinction?)
We only have about an hour to loll around the yurt before we need to make the trek for our bathhouse appointment. Though Mountain Fiesta has a Hot Springs address, it's really out in the county, and more than half an hour's worth of shuddering hairpin curves wait between us and the Hot Springs Resort & Spa. The natural mineral springs there have impassively watched an impressively long series of grand hotels burn down one after another since the nineteenth century. The springs became a destination as early as 1778, when white settlers discovered them and proclaimed the health benefits of their Cherokee magic. The foundation of an original bathhouse remains onsite, evoking ominous madhouse ruins.
Now the springs are privately owned as a spa, and water is pumped from underground into plastic tubs in open-faced wooden bathhouses, for privacy. The naturally heated water is warm but not hot, visibly mineralized, silky and buoyant with bubbles. We've somehow landed in what we're told is the most desirable tub, where the French Broad meets Spring Creek, and time melts away with the golden hour as it slides through the tunnel of trees enclosing the river.
Feeling restored and cleansed, we venture into Hot Springs' small downtown. After a tavern opened there in 1788—a stop for wayfaring American Revolution soldiers—it became more of a tourist destination when a turnpike was constructed through it in 1828. By the end of the nineteenth century, according to the resort's website, "there were amusements of every variety: bowling alleys, billiard rooms, tennis courts, swimming pools, riding stables, a golf course, amateur theatricals, and an orchestra playing for dances every evening in the large ballroom."
Times seem to have changed in Hot Springs, though, and we can't find any such amusements. It feels like a place people pass through, especially as the Appalachian Trail passes directly down the main street. The pavements are marked with the AT symbol, and backpackers seem to outnumber citizens or tourists. The town still has something of the frontier outpost about it, its shops geared to sportsmen, its coffee prospects grim.
But we find a warm haven in the historic Iron Horse Station, a restaurant and bar teeming with a vibrant townie culture. We're drawn in by the sound of someone playing a guitar, which turns out to be made out of a cigar box. We have the grilled local rainbow trout, its freshness accentuated by lemon and pepper, as well as a couple of local craft beers, Foothills Brewing Company's Carolina Strawberry and Asheville Brewing Company's Ninja Porter. The former is light and tart, the latter heavy as cocoa and coffee. We'd been eating car and camp food—dried fruit, nuts, bread, cheese, avocado—so eating a good meal is especially satisfying. But, this pleasant respite aside, our trip to Hot Springs wasn't really about Hot Springs.
Still, we find ourselves back in town the next day to pick up the Appalachian Trail. We'd chosen a hike from many that Brenda had laminated in a binder, which promised varied climbs, waterfalls, and views. It's an overcast day, with a heavy feeling in the air, and as we near the trailhead, we discover why. All the trails on this side of the French Broad are closed for controlled burns, and they will be for our entire trip. Downcast, we trudge back through town to the other side of the river and pick up the trail there. But it's an unimpressive stretch, a mild incline rising through thin forest, with no views to speak of.
It's not like we don't have other options. Rafting on the French Broad is great, as is hiking in Pisgah National Forest. But any of that would require cell phones, and we can't even. So instead, we drive to Marshall, another town that, like everything around here, is half an hour to forty-five minutes away from everything else. If Hot Springs feels hardscrabble, Marshall is quainter, like a mountain Hillsborough (if more visibly economically depressed). It has a cafe serving Counter Culture and a health-food grocery. Improvising a dinner plan, we buy a bag of small Yukon Gold potatoes to roast in the fire, blithely assuming we know how to do this.
Then we wander into a junk shop that's blasting the White Stripes, and its friendly owner, hearing our hiker's lament, gives us directions to a trail on the Big Ivy River. He even runs out to our car as we're leaving to clarify one landmark-based point. Even so, we get lost and have to drive back for further instruction. The second time, we find the way, down a broad, easy path under a green canopy, with the sun settling down on the calm river beside us.
It's already dark when we get back to the yurt, after picking up tinfoil, firewood, and a few other supplies in Hot Springs. We're starving. But before we eat, we have to build the fire, wrap the potatoes in foil, put them on the fire, discover that makes them burst into flames, let the fire burn down, and then nestle the potatoes in the embers instead. It's very late now, and we're demented with hunger. Maybe that's why, when we unwrap the first potato and find it crisp on the outside, soft and mealy inside, it seems like the best thing we've ever eaten—even better than our Iron Horse Station meal because it was hard-won, much like our Big Ivy walk. We burn our fingers on the foil, split the potatoes with a plastic takeout knife, and stuff in obscene quantities of butter and gas-station salt and pepper from paper packets, swigging night-cooled pinot noir from the bottle.
One protip for staying at Mountain Fiesta: if you desire the boundless peace and quiet of the mountains, book the barn and the yurt, and then just stay in the yurt. That will prevent anyone else from booking the barn and whooping it up at the ping-pong table all night. (The barn admittedly looks pretty sweet; it also has a DVD projector.)
I guess there is no real getting away from it all. On Sunday, submitting again to consumerist reality, we stopped in Asheville on the way home, to shop, drink Izzy's Coffee and Dobra Tea, and gobble vegan biscuits and gravy at Early Girl Eatery. Back on the grid, we went back to work, but my heart is still glamping in the yurt.