When I do get around, I write about it. If you want to read exclusively about my visits to United States presidential sites, you can do that over here.
Travel: North Carolina
July 15, 2011
Traveling the country as a comedian, I always wanted to see Asheville, but it's not on the way to anything. And once gas got over $3 a gallon, you really only visited places that were on the way. (Unless it's a plaque marking Rutherford Hayes' birthplace. That's totally worth it.) So imagine my delight at getting into the 2011 Laugh Your Asheville Off comedy festival. Here was an honest-to-goodness, real-life, tax-deductible reason to visit the city of my dreams!
Well, not exactly MY dreams. Asheville is a super-white hippie town, where the streets are paved with free-range granola and there's a head shop on every corner not occupied by a vegan restaurant. There's a drum circle on Friday nights in the middle of the downtown, and it might set the record for most white people with dreadlocks in a one-block radius. I counted three used record stores on the same street, which proabably means that two of them are fronts for pot dealers, which in turn would explain the people walking down the main drag smoking joints in broad daylight.
I wouldn't want to live there, but it's a great place to spend the weekend. The heart of the city is really walkable, the views of the mountains are great, and they really like their beer. So much, in fact, that the opening show of the festival was at the Highland Brewing Company. But Highland is a few miles from downtown, so we had to get there somehow ...
That's me doing stand-up comedy on a bus. The festival people had the excellent idea of partnering with the local tour bus company to run a shuttle out to Highland; people could drink on the bus, drink and the brewery and drink on the way home, all while being responsible total drunks. And since it's a comedy festival, they asked some comedians to provide the entertainment on the way. It was easily the best show I've ever done on a bus. Some pointers, if you ever find yourself in that situation: hand gestures can be a great way for a performer to convey energy and enthusiasm, but on a moving bus they might result in a massive head injury, and once you're gushing blood from your head it's hard to get the crowd back. Use that handle, even if it cramps your style.
The brewery show was great. I figured an opening show on a Wednesday with no pedestrian access would be lightly attended. Hundreds of people showed, because they love their festivals in Asheville. There was also free beer for performers backstage, so I don't think you could ask for too much more. After that my obligations for the week were over, so I was able to take in shows in the evening, and shop for incense and consignment-store jeans at my leisure all day. And you know what? For $4, I'm gonna buy some jeans that don't necessary make my butt look great. If I spill ridiculously cheap draft beer on them, so be it.
July 16, 2011
The saying goes: When in Asheville, do as the Ashevillians do. The wife and I won't take bong rips, kick hacky-sacks or play banjo while braless on street corner. That left hiking, so on Thursday afternoon we got in the car and decided to check out Chimney Rock. It would be outdoorsy and scenic, and according to Google maps, a simple 40-minute drive from Asheville. Had I looked closer, I would have noticed that US-74 goes through a town called Bat Cave, which would have been an excellent warning that Google maps is stupid. I love a windy road, but Allyson gets carsick fairly easily, and it's hard to enjoy the beautiful scenery of the North Carolina mountains when your eyes are closed and you're fighting off the urge to vomit.
But we got there with only the slightest talk of divorce, and it was worth it. Chimney rock is a granite monolith: 315 feet of bare rock jutting off the side of a mountain, offering a sweeping view of the countryside. You can take an elevator near the top, but since we're real Americans (and the elevator was out of service) we took the steps. That also made Allyson want to vomit.
So I left my beautiful wife to contemplate her life decisions and climbed even higher up the mountain, in search of photograph that would not show my wife on the edge of vomiting or divorcing me. This was the best I could do:
Allyson is the dot in the middle of the rock wearing a pink shirt. Doesn't she look happy? The views are truly awesome, and by the time I got back down to Chimney Rock, Allyson was surrounded by a Baptist youth group and unable to yell at me in public. (I'm kidding. She totally would have yelled. She was just feeling better at that point.) From there we went down the mountain a little bit and took a hike out to a 400-foot waterfall.
It's a very nice 400-foot waterfall. It's more of a wet rockface than a free-falling cascade, but a man can still appreciate the site of anything falling 40 stories. This waterfall (and the park in general) was featured prominently in the 1992 movie version of "Last of the Mohicans," though I'm pretty sure they digitally edited out the Hispanic guys drinking beers standing in the pool at the bottom. It might have ruined the historical mood if they left them in. I know it took some edge off the majesty of nature when I was there.
After that we went down the mountain to the car, and then we drove back to Asheville via a road that did not bend more than the average lower intestine. While we were driving, I told Allyson how happy I was to spend the day with her, and that I hoped she could forgive me for not planning the day a little bit better. That also made her want to vomit.
It was a magical afternoon.
Seeing the sights
There were several options for our day trip, but one of the things about Asheville is that everything "near" is at least an hour away. We grabbed a ton of brochures from the hotel lobby, but Chimney Rock panned out as the only really feasible close-range attraction. That's a total shame, because the brochure for BabyLand General Hospital was the most horrifying and intriguing thing I've seen in a while.
July 17, 2011
George Washington Vanderbilt, being a good son, took his ailing mother to the mountains to take in the purifying airs. Being a Vanderbilt, he then decided to buy a significant percentage of the mountains.
And then he hired one of the nation's best architects (Richard Morris Hunt, who did the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty), the nation's best landscaper (Frederick Law Olmstead, who did Central Park) and every stone mason in a 500-mile radius.
The finished product is Biltmore, and it's a testament to what you can do with obscene amounts of inherited wealth, a robust id, and a super ego in total remission. The mansion is the largest private residence in America. It has extensive gardens, it required a staff of about 40 to operate, and each of the 250 rooms is probably larger than my apartment (note the disappointment on our faces, to the left). The stables were big enough to hold a food court and gift shop (which they now do) and the driveway was about 3 miles long. More than 50 people died shoveling the driveway each winter, probably. And George only bothered living there seven months out of the year.
It's one of the most romantic places you can possibly visit in America -- not in the gettin' it on sense, but as something that will never be equalled or attempted again. There will not be another Biltmore. Consider: Cornelius Vanderbilt made about $100 million as a shipping magnate; his son William doubled the fortune by focusing on railroads. Grandson George (born 1862) inherited about $10 million. He was famously bookish (the Biltmore library is awesome, and he employed a librarian) and able to ignore the family business since his older brothers were running the show. So George considered Biltmore his life's work.
Every room is jammed with ridiculously wonderful artwork or treasures from Europe: a chess set owned by Napoleon, Belgian tapestries, hunting trophies, paintings by budding (at the time) Impressionists. He commissioned John Singer Sargent, the leading portrait artist of the day, to do likenesses of the architects; he got Gifford Pinchot -- the future head of the U.S. Forest Service and a leader of the Progressive movement -- to manage the forests. If he had a fancy, he tickled it; the dining room has amazing friezes of Tannhauser because he happened to like the opera. (It also has a pipe organ.) There's an indoor pool and bowling alley (in the 1890s!) and the kitchen was equipped to serve seven-course gourmet meals to a constant stream of guests. The exterior is covered with gargoyles, and carved downspouts, and statues of knights. Every window has tiny faces carved at the corners. The gateways to the main drive are flanked by sculptures of topless lady sphinxes ... well, just because.
It's not merely that everything and everyone associated with the house is costly. Everything and everyone is THE BEST. It's an imperial kind of luxury that you just can't find in the modern world, because that level of opulence somehow became embarrassing over the years. George couldn't ride the snake for long -- when he died in 1914 while recovering from an appendectomy, his finances were getting dodgy, and huge chunks of land were sold off to keep the estate afloat. But he bothered to ride the snake while he was alive. There's something awesome in that, even if it was only to entertain his rich snob friends. So what if he was a fiscal moron.
We took the audio tour, which was really solid. You cover a good chunk of the house and get some nice anecdotes. They focus on the love story: George met his wife after he had moved into Biltmore, and they had a daughter. That daughter was the real bridge to opening the house to the public. There were also docents in most rooms ready to answer my stupid questions, and I didn't manage to stump anyone. At $50 a ticket, it's nice to get your money's worth. After a slice of insanely good gourmet pizza at the stables (George would approve) we explored the grounds:
That's the Italian garden, which is really just the gateway to the walled garden, which is really just a gateway to the spring garden, which was really just a gateway to the 5.2 billion acres owned by the Vanderbilts. Once you wrap up there, there's still Biltmore Village. Communities had to form to house the workers that built the place. Plus George wanted it to be a working estate, complete with farms and a dairy: The bigger the population, the less chance people would be suspicious when aristocrats chose to kidnap someone and hunt them for sport. The dairy was hugely profitable for a time, but around the 1980s they flipped the property into a winery with a huge tasting room. So after you spend all day soaking in the luxury, they force you to drink free wine.
The point is, if you're in Asheville, visit Biltmore. You'll be a little sad for the passing of an era that can never return. But you'll be sadder if you never experience it at all.
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