Saturday, May 25, 2019

Riding with the ROBOS -- Asheville and a Blue Ghost Firefly Tour

The ROBOS on the steps of the Grove Park Inn 
Note to self: Riding an electric bike isn't quite as easy as it looks. It's one thing for cyclists to use the extra assist to pedal around Punta Gorda and quite another to negotiate an e-bike's thrust to cycle up a hill in city traffic. And that's without taking into account the leader having to keep track of his nine little charges all in a row (more or less).  But the ROBOS are always up for an adventure.

Enter The Flying Bike (aka Touring with Torin). Torin is an old hand at e-biking. He commuted to work in Asheville on his electric bike for six years before finding an e-bike business opportunity on Craigslist when looking for a new battery. It seemed meant to be.
Interior of Basilica of St. Lawrence
After an exhaustive orientation (the details of which I promptly forgot once I was on the bike), we headed onto the streets of Asheville. It was only slightly nerve-wracking as we made our way -- in fits and starts -- to the oft-overlooked Basilica of St. Lawrence.

The Basilica was designed by Rafael Guastavino, a Spanish architect who was a contemporary of Gaudi. While you may not know his name, I suspect you're familiar with some of his designs. Guastavino is credited with creating the ubiquitous subway tile design that graces many a shower. This likely comes from the faience tile work Guastavino did for the New York City subway station when it was built in the early 1900s. His most significant work for the subway system was the City Hall station, now used as a turnaround for the 6 train. Guastavino and his well-trained son are also responsible for the McKim Building at the Boston Public Library and the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station. For some great pics of his work, click here.

Our guide Torin
Back to Asheville and the Basilica of St. Lawrence. The interior features the largest unsupported elliptical dome in North America. It's quite an amazing structure made of terra cotta tiles molded together with thin layers of mortar. There's nary a piece of steel or wood in the dome. Guastavino is also responsible for the stunning blue tiled pool at the Biltmore Estate.

From there we were off to the glitz and glamour of the Grove Park Inn.  No trip to Asheville is complete without taking in the view of the Blue Ridge Mountains from the hotel terrace.

Torin shared a couple of noteworthy tidbits about the Inn with our group. The sprawling structure required 200 tons of stone for its still-original exterior. If I understood Torin correctly, most of the stone was hauled up the hill by mules. (Talk about being a beast of burden.)  And here's the kicker -- the Inn was built in just 362 days. The story goes that Henry Ford bet E.W. Grove the Inn could not be built in under a year. Grove employed 400 men who worked ten hours each day to accomplish the feat. Their daily pay of $1 was the best in town. Sadly, I failed to ask what Grove won for besting Ford other than some serious bragging rights.

Dinner at a picnic area on the Blue Ridge Parkway
That evening found us at the Cradle of the Forestry for a Blue Ghost Firefly Tour. While darkness fell, we were given the lowdown on fireflies, which are actually soft-bodied beetles. If I'd thought about it, I probably wouldn't have been surprised to learn that the fireflies' lanterns serve a reproductive purpose. (We were informed the number one pick up line for fireflies is "You sure look flashy tonight." Groan.)

Male fireflies hover one to four feet above the forest floor with their two lanterns on (unless, that is, they are in "private mode," in which case only their lower light is on). Their lanterns can emit light for up to a minute. Female fireflies stay in the leaves where they will nest for their gestation period. Perhaps it is because they are frequently hidden from view that females can have up to nine lanterns.

I got a bit nervous when we were warned we might not actually see any fireflies on our walk through the forest. It was early in the season (which only lasts two-three weeks), and fireflies aren't fond of temperatures under 60 degrees. The Cradle's location at an elevation of 3200 feet made it cooler than it was in Asheville. But my fears were abated when walkie talkies started sounding off as guides already in the forest reported, "I have visuals." Whew!

The ROBOS and our vehicle
As we entered the forest, we immediately saw a few fireflies flitting around. It was fun to hear people use their newfound knowledge as they excitedly announced the sex of the firefly they'd seen.  Before long the crowd spread out, and I found myself walking alone for much of the mile long path. It was a special experience to be amidst the trees with a nearly full moon shedding light on the path. Seeing some fireflies along the way was just a bonus.

All too soon, it was time to bundle ourselves back into our ten person passenger van and head home. I'm proud to report that I did much of the driving, including on the winding road back down the mountain. It was no harder than riding an  electric bike, except when it came to parking.

A huge thanks to Pam for organizing the ROBOS' South Carolina adventure with near military precision. The planning paid off, with every day full of friendship, the beauty of nature, and new experiences. Who could ask for anything more from a getaway?

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