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Chaste Mountain Whores 

Sellin' that Appalachian charm

Asheville and Blowing Rock are whores. Face it, anyplace that yanks tourism's crank as vigorously as they both do is a whore. And yet it occurred to me while meandering around Blowing Rock recently that whoring mountain towns have a quality different from their seaside, legs-spread sisters like Miami Beach that I can only describe as chaste.

In the hierarchy of whoredom I'd rank downtown Blowing Rock as a high-class call girl, which is what some of its visitors decked out in designer mountain-weekend attire resemble. It's been at the game a long time, luring the well-to-do to its ample bosom of mountain scenery since the turn of the last century, and enticing them with the upscale trinket shops that line its Main Street like baubles on a neck. The buildings that once held the working components of a small town now house the sellers of expensive, irrelevant doodads that almost nobody who's originally from the area can afford.

By ceaselessly huckstering itself as an old-fashioned mountain village, Blowing Rock has morphed into a ritzy fantasy of one. It's no more authentic than the sweet-as-Equal version peddled in Jan Karon's Mitford book series -- aka "Blowing Father Boring." Behind its quaint facade of shoppes and cozy park benches lies the mercenary soul of a harlot who'll kiss you on the mouth, but only if you pay enough.

Now remember, we're talking about Main Street, where some of the tourists who mince along its blocks look like they just landed in the park in a spaceship from another planet -- or Manhattan, whichever is farther. They've traveled many miles to see this strange phenomenon called a simple mountain village, but just by their ultra-urban presence they make it false.

These aliens tend to be vomit-your-dinner thin and dressed as if they consulted Vogue or GQ on the perfect outfit for seeming to be outdoorsy in a town that's seeming to be rugged, but in a frothy, you-can-have-your-espresso-too kind of way. They all wear expensive-looking footwear, from glossy loafers on the men and stiletto-heeled boots on the women, to spotless hiking shoes the subtle colors of animal pelts on both.

Yet mere miles away from Blowing Rock's gilded vulva of commerce you can view on parade creatures who appear to be from yet another planet -- the opposite one of the narrow interlopers. In other words, they're from right there. While ambling among the mountain natives at Tweetsie Railroad on Saturday afternoon, I noticed that some of them -- especially women with flocks of little "uns and a baby planted on one boulder-sized hip -- have grown these vast, bulbous behinds squished into tent-sized jeans, or left loose to shift back and forth beneath skirts as voluminous as tablecloths.

You get the impression from flashed smiles that even in young mouths all teeth cannot be reliably accounted for, and there's a tendency to hook back home-cut hairstyles with those shiny, spiky plastic things, sometimes in addition to fuzzy rings. A few of the grannies girlishly sport manes straight down to their rears as if they're about to break out into a game of hopscotch, although their ponytails are solid gray.

One mountain momma and her brood struck me in particular because the children were outfitted in what looked to be their winter Sunday Best, despite the fact that it was a warm day. The dress of one of the little girls had a dark velveteen bodice, and an almost ankle-length skirt covered with some kind of holiday glitter, that ended just above scuffed Mary Janes. Her brother wore a stiff-looking shirt with long sleeves and a buttoned-up collar, and the mother, whose hair was half yellow and half black, and I don't mean in a punk way, had on one of those skirts fashioned from an entire bolt of fabric. This group stood out among the usual shorts and sneakers, not to mention the occasional Teva sandals and Tommy Hilfiger coordinates, but it was touching that their trip to Tweetsie was such a big deal to them that they were dressed in their best, and maybe their only presentable, clothes. The chaste quality of the mountain towns comes from just such natives.

While people in coastal towns haven't been as segregated by their geography, some of the mountain residents have been isolated enough in the hollers to take on an otherworldly air, even if their merchants can't jerk-and-rip-off the tourists fast enough. That's why there's such an extreme, cartoon-like contrast in the hills between the locals and the people who come to peer at their habitat as if it were a zoo.

If commercial Blowing Rock is a sophisticated hustler, Asheville is a big ol' streetwalker gussied up in New Age crystals, with that other foreign race, the Floridians, standing in line to love her to death. Let's just say I knew Asheville when, before she was anointed the next Nirvana, but that's another cotton patch.

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