Welcome to Big Sandy Mush

Our home away from home for the month of July is the Big Sandy Mush, a secluded valley located about 15 miles northwest of Asheville. European settlement of the valley dates back to around 1800, but the mountains ringing the valley kept it fairly isolated. Generations of residents raised all their own food, kept cows for milk and meat, kept sheep for wool, and were extremely self-sufficient. One historical account I read suggested that the only items people regularly imported to the valley in the 19th century were coffee and salt (both great choices, obviously). The first road toward Asheville was constructed around 1890, and the first paved road didn’t exist until 1951. So despite being just 15 miles from Asheville, Big Sandy Mush retained its agrarian character well into the 20th century. Today, around a third of the land in the valley has been placed under conservation easements that limit the use of the land to agriculture, forest, and open space.



Our drive in and out of the valley passes through a bucolic landscape dotted with 19th century barns and filled with working farms with small livestock herds for dairy and beef, along with vegetable, herb, honey, and wine operations. The rural atmosphere is highlighted by the fact that we get waves from the drivers of virtually every car we see on the roads. We’re enjoying catching glimpses of bunnies and wild turkeys in the fields along with the well-fed bovines. It’s obvious to me that we gravitate toward places with unique character, and this valley has loads of it. Read more about it, and enjoy lovely pics of cows and goats, at the Farm Heritage Trail website.



We’re staying in a converted goat barn on a small organic farm, which definitely fits the vibe of the community, but our host is also a master woodworker and the home is graced with countless artistic details. So far our favorite things are the onsite chickens, the charming little pack of rescue mutts, and the amazing display of fireflies that we appreciate every evening. Ken and Ruth Ann became fast friends, and we made outstanding deviled eggs for 4th of July with farm fresh eggs. We are simply delighted by the feathery legs on our farm’s chickens and their pert expressions when we wander over to that side of the property. We normally buy organic eggs (the kind where the chickens have “sunlit porches” and the farm includes a newsletter about recent events featuring a hen of the week) but I have never felt so convinced of the high animal welfare quality of my eggs. We’re also enjoying the bounty from our hosts’ impressive organic vegetable garden. Having trails onsite to explore when we don’t want to drive to a trailhead is also a huge plus. Our rental is exactly as described on the AirBnB listing, so we are pretty pleased with the selection.

Hikes of the Week

Our main focus in Western North Carolina is to experience mountain hiking again, and our visit started off with several great destinations.

Art Loeb Trail

Since we haven’t done any mountain hiking or experienced any meaningful elevation in several years, we decided to start off slowly with a relatively short but extremely scenic hike from one of the trailheads off the Blue Ridge Parkway (a National Park Service unit). From the Black Balsam trailhead located southwest of Asheville, we hiked up to Black Balsam Knob and continued on to Tennent Mountain (similar to this hike except we continued out to the peak of Tennent). With a trailhead located at high elevation, and clocking in at around 4 miles, this hike was not too rigorous in terms of elevation gain or distance. But because the trail generally hugged the ridgeline, it was full of spectacular 360 degree views. As an added bonus, the trail was rimmed by blooming mountain laurel. Experiencing overcast conditions and 62 degree temperatures was an extremely welcome change from the intense heat we saw just last week at home in Florida. A heat index of over 110 degrees is no joke, and makes venturing outside fairly miserable. So far North Carolina is delivering much more pleasant temperatures, even though it’s a humid (and very green) environment.

Craggy Gardens

On a different day we explored the Craggy Gardens section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, located to the northeast of the city. This area is famous for its Catawba rhododendrons, but we were just a little too late in the season to experience the explosion of magenta and purple flowers. Still, the views from Craggy Pinnacle were breathtaking, while hiking through the fern-filled forest was magical. On our return trip we also stopped at the Folk Art Center along the Parkway to admire the huge array of crafts from local artisans, all members of the Southern Highland Craft Guild.


North Carolina Arboretum

If there’s a botanical garden in town, you can be sure we will find our way there. The North Carolina Arboretum is part of the University of North Carolina system and located within the Pisgah National Forest adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway, so it’s a lovely example of successful partnership between state and federal agencies. There are about 65 acres of cultivated gardens along with over 10 miles of hiking trails. For me, the most memorable parts of the garden are the areas that are closely tied to local ecology and culture. The “quilt garden” is a seasonal display of colorful plants arranged within defined square beds in designs drawn from classic mountain quilt patterns. I thought the most interesting parts of the bonsai collection and the surrounding Japanese garden were bonsai creations using atypical NC native species like bald cypress and Virginia creeper. The gardens also featured a number of captivating metal sculptures ranging from abstract pieces to an homage to Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape design.



In addition to the formal gardens, the arboretum has an extensive network of trails of varying distances, including several that continue into the adjacent Pisgah National Forest. So after ogling all the pretty flowers and shrubs, we headed off to the woods for a hike that’s advertised in the garden map as a 4 mile loop. We basically covered this set of trails without the side spur to Lake Powhatan.

Friends in Flat Rock

We capped off a fantastic first week by spending a day in Flat Rock with friends Eric and Laurel (Raven and Chickadee). We met at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, where we strolled through the wooded trails and visited the working farm. Carl’s wife Lillian was a breeder of champion goats, and their North Carolina property was home to a thriving goat operation. We enjoyed seeing some of the descendants of the famous Sandburg herd, and Eric was happy to demonstrate that these goats are exceptionally amiable. After a delectable lunch at the charming Blue Ruby Bistro, we headed over to their new community to check out the construction on their new house. We loved hearing about their planned customizations and seeing the mostly-complete house, the very thoughtful community amenities, and their obvious excitement about the area. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that construction stays on schedule! I don’t want to share any spoilers, but we think the place is going to be absolutely great.



Here’s hoping that week two lives up to the high standards set by week one.


7 thoughts on “Welcome to Big Sandy Mush”

  1. That rental barn is breathtaking. You’d have a hard time getting me to want to go anywhere else. Well, except for the botanical gardens (which we also thoroughly enjoyed when we were there!) and to visit those two rascally friends and see their lovely little home. I also hope your next two weeks are filled with more of the goodest stuff. Looks like you picked a real winner😍

    • What if I told you that there is a hummie feeder on the covered porch, and the sugar pigs stop by constantly when I am outside reading? Then I know you’d never leave. 🙂 We are quite pleased with our rental. After hearing some not-so-great stories from others (ahem) we were relieved and gratified to find that this place is exactly as advertised. Or, in some cases, even better than advertised. It’s too bad the AirBnB website doesn’t allow people to upload sound files, because the daily birdsong here is incredible. Plus there are natural springs on property that have been channeled down burbling streambeds into meditation pools. Truly a remarkable place! Luckily we have nearby friends to pull us out into the wider world.

  2. So much green… the scenery, and my envy!!

    I’m very happy to hear your Air BnB is living up to expectations and the weather is providing just what you needed after the most recent Florida heatwave. Sounds like you found the perfect place to spend a month, not least of all because Laurel and Eric are seasoned pros and can take you to all the best places!

    I love the photos of the grand vistas but I have to say, there’s something about the picture of the gnarled tree that keeps calling to me. It’s a keeper, for sure.

    Hope you guys continue having a terrific time!

    • While I’ve been a little surprised that we have seen few wildflowers, even at higher elevations, I have to admit that I haven’t really missed them all that much. Seeing green for miles is pretty great, too. The trees, ferns, mosses, and other green stuff is a feast for the senses. I mean, the smell of the air here is even refreshing. We are thrilled with the decision to get out of hot, hot Florida and escape here. Our hosts have sort of apologized about a recent “heat wave” featuring temperatures in the 80s. Trust me, we are not uncomfortable at those temps! We’ll see if Eric and Laurel get soft and start claiming that 80 degrees is hot. 🙂 In any case, I agree with you about that tree photo — it’s probably my favorite photo so far.

  3. We’re so happy that you’re loving it here in Western NC! You chose such a cool Airbnb. A small working farm with an artistic vibe is my ideal. With eggs from chickens that stroll by and veggies from the garden! Now I want to stay there, if we can get a cat sitter for you-know-who.

    You chose some great trails for your first week, and I’m impressed that you knocked them out with no problem after several years at sea level. Love that photo of you two on the trail! And the arboretum is one of our favorites. Like you, I’m intrigued by the native NC plants in the bonsai collection. There was a blooming azalea last month that was spectacular! It made me want to bonsai something, but I guess I should have started 50 years ago, haha.

    Most of all, we’re delighted that you came to visit us. It was so much fun to spend the day together. We’re looking forward to a day in Asheville with you next week! 🙂

    • While we didn’t plan this visit just to follow you around the country (though you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise), we are thrilled that we’ll have the chance to see you guys while we are in the area. After just a week, it’s obvious to us why you love this area so much. I think you’d really like this AirBnB as a weekend getaway, too.

      There’s a gardening saying: The best time to plant a tree? 20 years ago. The second-best time? Today. I say that you should take that to heart and experiment with bonsai. Once you’re settled into your new place you’ll have plenty of opportunity to pursue new hobbies. (FYI, cleaning your rental properties should NOT be a hobby.) Can’t wait to see you guys again!


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