Sometimes we get so comfortable in our home territory that we forget that we don’t have to travel far to find adventure. I’m guilty of this too, of course, and it usually takes a visit from a friend to remind me to go poking around in my own neighborhoods. This time, it was a visit from my fella that sparked my search. He’s from Iowa, which may as well be a different continent from North Carolina, and I wanted to show him how beautiful and intriguing my little corner of the world can be. My immediate corner is pretty remote–so this would require some travel. But I didn’t want to spend hours and hours in the car–our rule was to stay in a one-hour radius.

First stop: the NC Arboretum. I’m ashamed that I lived here for three years and never went. But a quick internet search listed an installation there that I absolutely had to see: “Some Assembly Required: the LEGO Brick Sculpture of Sean Kenney.” I read this and thought, Surely this can’t be what I think it is. But it is, and I’m here to tell you, it’s just as amazing as you are imagining right now. 

This installation includes twenty-seven sculptures–most of which are well over life-size at 6-8 feet. I mentioned this to Andrew as a possible outing and he said (just as I predicted), “Are you kidding? Awesome.”

This is what happens when of adult-sized kids get together. This is what we do for fun. And I’m here to tell you, even though it was a dreary, drizzly day in Asheville, this is about the best way we could have spent the afternoon. This installation is part scavenger huntthere’s a map to guide you through the 8 acres of gardens, and there’s a certain delight in coming over a hill to find a pair of bison peeking at you. I was expecting these to be situated in one small area of the site, but was pleased to find that we were required to walk over the whole area and do a little hunting. 

Kenney has done an amazing job in creating these pieces. From a distance, they look quite lifelike, and up close, they have a pixelated quality that is still fun to look at. There’s a kind of rippling that happens on the surface of the largest sculptures–sort of the same effect you see on topographic maps. 

As with most art, the kicker is the details: look closely and you’ll see the bird perched on the adult bison’s back. In the piece below, goldfinches are perched at a feeder where the seeds are made of single tan LEGO bricks.

Other pieces included a giant honeybee in the greenhouse, a hummingbird by the gallery, a lawn mower parked by the tool and maintenance shed, and lily pads floating in a pool by the education center. Had these pieces not been spread out the way they were, we wouldn’t have happened upon the bonsai garden, where I learned that native species (cedars and pines, even!) can be cultivated as bonsai.

The show was such a success that it’s been extended through February 2. The Arboretum does not charge a per-person admission, but rather a flat $12 charge to park your car on-site. 

I’ll admit, I was afraid that winter would take a lot of the joy out of this installation. I expected these to be bright spots in a sea of gray, but there was a certain loveliness in seeing the gardens in winter. The maple bonsai had dropped its miniature leaves, but the evergreens were still bright. Without the blanket of leaves, it was easy to see the patterns in the bark of some of the more striking tree species; after the rain, some trunks were bright red and yellow. 

And all around us, the robins were fussing in the holly trees, foraging for the berries that came in bright red bursts. It made me want to come back in the spring of course, to see everything in full bloom, but it also made me appreciate the subtlety of the winter colors I sometimes forget. 

We wrapped up our day in Asheville with a quick walk downtown (I forgot how the Southern cold seeps into your bones and freezes you from the inside out) and a stop at this gem that I can’t wait to revisit: a coffee bus! 

We saw the sign from a across the street, and were trying to pinpoint where the cafe might actually be–was it behind the gallery? Above the gallery? But then we realized: it’s the bus! That’s right. Some genius took a big red double-decker bus and made it into a coffee shop. 

There’s a little espresso bar in the bottom level and seating on the top deck. Music that sounded like it came straight from a little Parisian cafe floated around it like a cloud. 

It even rocked a little when we boarded. 

It’s funky and adorable, a little surprise that makes your day. Exactly what I’d expect to find in Asheville, and exactly the kind of thing I can’t find when looking for it. You just have to stumble upon this kind of thing, and sometimes it takes being a tour guide for a friend to get there. 

Up next: the Road to Nowhere and Fontana Dam…two places that are lonely in winter, so you’d best take a friend unless you want to feel like you’re at the Overlook with Jack.