The Carolinas: Day 2

Day two of my trip to North Carolina started with a simple objective- go west as early as possible. I didn’t have any concrete plans for the day, but I knew my list of to-dos was long compared to the time I had available, so an early start was imperative.

My initial plan was to spend most of the day exploring the Biltmore Estate. Biltmore is the largest privately owned estate in the United States. Built by the Vanderbilt railroad tycoons in the late 19th century, the estate sprawls across 8000 acres and almost 180,000 square feet of home, all nestled under the Smoky Mountains.

The gray sky convinced me otherwise. With so much of Biltmore’s appeal tied up in the impressive scenery, I didn’t want to risk a gloomy, rainy day at the site. Same thing for trails in the Smoky Mountains- even light rain would make that kind of exploration a little awkward.

I didn’t have to decide right away- my first event of the day was at A-Escape Asheville, only about fifteen minutes from Biltmore. I signed up for their submarine game. On my way to A-Escape, I passed a few areas that gave me a taste of what the Smoky Mountains must look like- scenic vistas with clouds and fog in the valleys below.

At the escape room, I was thrilled that there was a little Chihuahua resting in the lobby. My dog is half Chihuahua, so I have a bit of an affinity for the breed and how they act.

I enjoyed the game! The scenery and technology was a little simpler than the other rooms I had done recently but the pieces they had were used effectively. They used a technique I like in escape rooms- giving players a dark space to explore, but with a good flashlight. I suppose it’s because most rooms that invest in making a nice space want you to see it, and those that don’t wont give you enough light to see clearly. The effect was used well at A-Escape.

I had to use a few hints early but ultimately made it out with a decent amount of time to spare.

My next stop was a little unclear. Biltmore and the Smoky Mountains were in range but the weather was still uncertain. I was also tempted to spend much of the day on a driving trip through the Smoky Mountains (potentially to a tourist haven like Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge) but without Christina, I’d lament the inability to take photos. I instead set my sights on downtown Asheville.

I had mentioned in an earlier post that the night before my trip, I was out until ten for a work event. As it happens, one of the vendors I met had spent time in Asheville and couldn’t recommend highly enough an Indian fusion restaurant called Chai Pani. With a little bit of research, I found that Chai Pani had been the recipient of a coveted James Beard award- fans of cooking shows will recognize the award as one of the two most commonly mentioned prizes (the other being the Michelin star). It was disappointing checking it out without Christina, but I had to try it myself.

Upon arriving in Asheville, I was surprised at the nature of the town. Midday on a Friday, the streets were packed to the brim, with pedestrians every which way. The only parking I could find was a parking garage on the edge of town, which itself was nearly full.

I parked and headed to Chai Pani. I arrived just before the restaurant opened and was seated very quickly. I tried two unusual items- the “pav” (pronounced “pow!”) and a pineapple turmeric cocktail.

The pav was incredible- I had never tried anything like it before. The best way I could describe it was a hamburger made out of potato with various spreads of spice at different layers- some sweet, some savory. I immediately checked if I could find pav anywhere near Chicago, and unsurprisingly, not many places serve it.

I explored Asheville on foot after lunch. I found three geocaches across town and scoped out any other attractions. A pinball museum was a tempting destination, but it wasn’t opening until the evening so I had to take a pass this time. At midday, I started planning my afternoon.

With the threatening weather, I finally gave up hope on exploring the mountains or Biltmore and set my sights on returning to the Charlotte area. I found an escape room about midway back on the trip- Lake Hickory Escapes near Hickory, NC. I could sign up solo for two rooms there and registered for both.

I arrived in Hickory a little early and searched my map for a nearby outdoor park- the one I found was cooler than I could have imagined. Horseshoe Park doesn’t look like much- a small parking lot over a reservoir, with no clear trail running to/from it, but upon further exploration, I found a path leading down toward the water. From above I could see a stone path of sorts, and I worked my way toward that.

The path was strange. Upon entering the woods, the trail takes off on a near-straight line, crossing a small brook and then transforming into the stone bridge I saw from above. The stone path was unusually straight and went on as far as the eye could see. With a steep dropoff on both sides (four feet on the left, fifteen on the right), it looked a lot like Khazad-Dum, the bridge Gandalf falls from in the Fellowship of the Ring.

Even stranger, following the bridge to its end reveals an obstacle. Just before a set of steps that lead from the bridge to another body of land, a large tree has grown completely over the path, blocking it entirely.

I VERY cautiously climbed on the base of the tree and shimmied around the trunk. After jumping down on the other side, I breathed a sigh of relief and walked up the stone stairs.

Unfortunately, that’s the end of the story. There was no grand treasure, just a small trail which got less and less clear the further I went. Satisfied with my little adventure, I crossed the tree again and headed back to the car.

Enough time had passed that I could head to my next appointment at Lake Hickory Escapes. I first played the Carnival, then the Mines. Three strangers had signed up for the Carnival, so I looked forward to teaming up. Typically my approach in this situation is to hang back and let the group explore and test, then step in and call out my own suggestions once the group gets stuck.

The group was a set of three in their late teens, dressed like they were performing in a punk rock concert. They were glad to team up, and so was I.

The Carnival game was centered around a killer clown who is apparently the mascot of the venue’s haunted house attraction. Players explore the clown’s lair and ultimately look for a way to find evidence of a recent murder, then escape. The sets were reasonably elaborate, particularly the final space. I wont spoil it but the room had a wonderful disorienting effect which I hadn’t seen before.

I followed my plan to a tee, letting the group explore and then contributing more once progress died down. It worked really well and everyone had a great time.

We solved the room with plenty of time to spare, dodging the clutches of the killer clown and escaping back to the lobby.

I bid farewell to my teammates and headed to my next game, the Mines. The Mines set was very elaborate- authentic with plenty of space to explore. This game was only a 45 minute game, and I felt challenged, needing to use all three of my hints to find the treasure and get out.

Both games were fun- not bad at all for blindly selecting a room based on geography and availability! With the games complete, I hopped in the car and headed back to Charlotte.

I booked back to back escape rooms for the evening at Speedway Escape, one of the venues highly recommended to me by people involved in the Morty escape room rating app. I hoped Christina would be free in the evening, but on my way back to Charlotte, I called her and confirmed her work outing would go all evening.

I initially had about an hour to spare in my calendar en route to Speedway, but a massive roadblock due to a local festival cost me heavily. I used the remaining spare time I had to stop at a place called Acai Frenzy for an unorthodox dinner. The “acai” was a berry mix that essentially had the texture of sherbet, and it came mixed with some really fun toppings.

I arrived at Speedway and checked in. Unfortunately, no one else had signed up to join me. Fortunately, the owners were present and offered to help me through the parts of the games that physically required more than one person to complete. I really can’t thank Scott and Sonya enough for doing this, for going out of their way to allow me to play.

Before the game, I was able to chat with Scott and Sonya a little and learn about their history and their business. One of the coolest stories was Scott’s worldwide haunted house setups, including a major Halloween event in China. I love meeting interesting people and these two certainly fit the bill.

My first game was Sorcerer’s Quest, which tasked me with finding a powerful crystal to stop the world from sinking into eternal darkness. The game was neat, with a high number of different puzzles to explore and a good amount of careful searching required. I was a bit nervous at the beginning when I saw how many different elements there were to explore, but thankfully I got on the right track early and kept moving forward to uncover the hidden crystal and win the game.

My next game was Dracula’s Tomb, another large, intricate game with quite a few secrets and surprises along the way. The puzzles were well designed and made good use of the space. I completed Dracula’s Tomb, destroying the vampire menace.

One thing I noted about both rooms is that each started in quite a large physical space- enough to comfortably have a team of 6+ explore at the same time without team members tripping over each other. It was a perk that was wasted on me playing solo, but I’m noting it as a great place to take a somewhat larger group for a team building activity in the Charlotte area (a detail which Christina may be able to take advantage of at some point).

The recommendation I received for these rooms was well deserved. The owners clearly put a lot of thought into these rooms and went all out with the space and the sets. The rooms had quite a few unique physically interactive elements. I had an awesome time.

It was getting late, so I headed back to the hotel, arriving only minutes behind Christina. I was happy with how I spent the trip- exploring vastly different parts of South and North Carolina, exploring a few local treasures, finding several geocaches per day, and solving seven escape rooms. As usual, I returned with a longer list of things I wanted to do in the area than when I started my trip, but it’s great to have a reason to go back- hopefully this time it wont take me five years to get back to Charlotte!

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