I've never been a big believer in omens. But perhaps I should reevaluate; the day I flew from San Jose, California to Linux Expo in Raleigh certainly provided enough of them. My adventure began with a delay in my flight to Dallas that prevented me from making my connection. So the nice American agent moved me to a slightly later flight through Chicago. Which (you can see where this is going, can't you?) was itself delayed an hour. Which might barely have made my connection if we hadn't been forced to sit on the tarmac at O'Hare for an extra ten minutes while a plane occupied our gate. So we missed the connection and had to wait two hours for the next one, arriving at Raleigh/Durham airport a mere four hours later than scheduled. (Why American didn't consider the plight of twenty-one Raleigh-bound San Jose passengers worth delaying the flight another couple of minutes is a question for their aptly named Customer Service department.)
Eventually I had my bag and my rental car and was on my way. Only to
discover my next omen. What does it say about a city when a rental
car map provides no information on its downtown? That there's no
reason any sane individual would ever want to go there? With that
happy thought I guessed my way through impenetrable woods toward
downtown, the convention center and my hotel. And decided that
at ten in the evening Raleigh looked like a nice enough city. That
opinion held until the next morning, when I was informed that my walk
around the convention center took me to the high risk part of town. I
might have guessed that by the proximity of the pawnshop and the
bailbondsman, services I have thus far experienced only on television.
Like a lot of cities, Raleigh is trying to bring life back to its
downtown. It has a lot of work ahead of it, with far too many
handsome old buildings lying empty. And I can't say I find Sir Walter
himself the most appealing of hosts; his statue at the entrance to the
pedestrian mall looks positively depressed. Then again, Walt came and
went before the perfection of barbecue and microbrewed beer, two of my
happier memories of my visit. All he had was tobacco, still popular
with the locals despite the best efforts of the Surgeon General.
Until my visit to Raleigh for Linux Expo, I'd never spent more time in North Carolina than it took to traverse it on the way to visit family further south. So imagine my surprise when I found myself back in the state just under a year later. This time it was a family-related event, which is a surprise considering my complete lack of family in the state. But there I was in Asheville, a smallish city in the Blue Ridge Mountains that's something of a tourist destination. (But not, I hasten to add, when I was there in January.)
My first impression, arriving well after dark following a four-hour-late
flight into Greenville, SC and an hour and a half drive up the
interstate1, was of an
industrial city whose better days were well behind it. (Old
buildings, bare trees and no signs of human activity will do that.)
Things looked better in the morning, as the often do. The architecture
seems almost to glow in the wintery light. And the sight of a
junkantique-filled gas station-turned-pizza joint
harkened back to an earlier and happier (if only because our memories
are so unreliable) time.
Downtown Asheville isn't a terribly big place. Which means that it
doesn't take long to reach more serene surroundings. The cottages on
the left are part of Biltmore Village. Once they made up a pretty
little neighborhood at the edge of the Biltmore property, about which
more anon. (I always wanted to use anon in conversation.
One more achievement to cross off the list.) But now they're full of
crafty stuff for the tourist trade. (Well, not now. Wait a
couple of months for things to unfreeze.) On the right is a wide
creek (or is it a narrow river) near the entrance to the Blue Ridge
Parkway. The Parkway was closed during my visit; something about ice
and snow and suicidal driving conditions. (Ice and snow? Don't they
know this is supposed to be the south?)
I mentioned the Biltmore Estate a moment ago. Biltmore is one of the
big attractions of Asheville, if not the big attraction.
Built a century ago by George Vanderbilt, grandson of transport baron
Cornelius, as a tribute to his ability to live better than anybody
else, it's a remarkable achievement for his time or for ours. (They
don't permit photos inside the house, so you'll have to settle for
these two outside views.) Marginally less impressive than the Czar's residences I encountered on my
trip to St. Petersburg, it still gets plenty of points for gracious
living or at least conspicuous consumption. Like the fact that there
are a dozen bathrooms but not a single sink in any of them.
Apparently, guests still preferred to have their water delivered by
servants. (But they weren't too proud to have the bath water piped
To me, the most magnificent aspect of the house is its setting. Look out the rear windows and you won't find a single sign of humanity. Maybe it comes from living in Silicon Valley, but all that open space says wealth to me far more than all the expensive furnishings in the world.
I guess one of the joys of being supremely rich at the turn of the
century was the ability to ignore the seasons. Biltmore has extensive
greenhouses, so Vanderbilt and his family could enjoy nature's bounty
even when nature itself wasn't so enjoyable. One tropical greenhouse
was a riot of color, one that just demanded a picture. But all that
warmth and humidity had a predictable effect on me and my
camera. I'm used to walking around in a fog; photographing in one is
a different story.
Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California