It had rained non-stop from Illinois and Indiana through Ohio and Kentucky, into parts of Tennessee, crisscrossing the Great Smokey Mountains. A challenging stretch of road for two flatlanders but we managed a steady clip.
We were in North Carolina before we caught the first glimpse of blue sky and sunshine. Suddenly, on one side of the heavily forested mountains, sunlight ignited a blur of red, yellow, and orange foliage against a backdrop of blue mountain shadows.
I had passed through Asheville, North Carolina, once during a backpacking excursion on the Appalachian Trail. This happened one summer around forty years ago. I was with a different partner back then and had not yet met Lee.
A few months back when I suggested to Robyn that we should visit Asheville to take in Fall colors and the lively arts scene that sprung in the intervening years since my original visit, I honestly had no firm memory of the place. Rather, my principal memories of that trip included encountering two wily black bears that quietly stole a hanging backpack with our food supplies in the middle of the night, and one day and night spent in vulgar Gatlinburg, Tennessee, go-cart/water slide capital of the world.
In real life, Robyn and I are not entirely unlike the two lead characters in the country cornball ‘sixties sitcom, Green Acres. As you might remember, in this show a rich and successful New York City lawyer quits his job, uproots his sophisticated wife from their luxurious Park Avenue penthouse, and abandons the big city for the simpler pleasures of Hooterville. I am hardly wealthy, yet it suffices to say that I am far more outdoorsy and rustic than Robyn. She is a good sport, however, who once purchased a pair of hiking boots to indulge me. On the other hand, she derides my lack of fashion sense, and quite recently, for example, described my current wardrobe as being haute L.L. Bean.
One day, during a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway, I pulled over to investigate a hiking trail with Lola the pup. At the trailhead, I saw that the terrain was steep. I tried to imagine how treacherous this trail would be if conditions were either wet or muddy. Momentarily, I recalled a trip to Kauai with Robyn where we encountered such conditions, but this occurred on a trail not nearly as steep as this one. Fortunately, today the weather was glorious, a perfect day for our mountain road trip. Under sunny skies, the colors were vibrant, and the leaves shimmered under a thick tree canopy.
In these parts, the towering overlooks lack guard rails. As we drove, Robyn occasionally would remind me that she does not like heights. I noticed that she held onto the passenger door with a tight grip that made her knuckles white. Whether this was due to the steep drop-offs, my questionable driving skills, or perhaps a bit of both, I’m not sure.
When it comes to investigating local shops and businesses Robyn is indefatigable, and Asheville proved no exception. In its sprawling Arts District, a hodgepodge urban reclamation project consisting of corrugated metal warehouses, containers covered with graffiti, and aged brick structures, I felt like we left no studio or tiny shop unexplored. When I groused, Robyn would chasten me by pointing out –correctly–I can appear to be less than enthusiastic when I’m not doing something that I like to do. She was right. I apologized. Ironically, I ended up buying more new stuff than her.
Indeed, the overall vibe in Asheville might be described as shabby chic. While its population trends are young, white, and well-educated, the place itself does not look affluent.
In contrast, Biltmore House, built by George Vanderbilt, is a museum that once could lay claim to being America’s largest single-family home. The French Chateau house features two hundred fifty rooms, surrounded by thousands of acres of pristine land. The critic Richard Nilson astutely has observed that 1.4 million annual visitors come “to see how real money lives.” As for the house and its interior trappings, he writes,
“There are some very nice details, but they never add up to a satisfying whole. Instead, like a meal of too much rich food: garlicked langostinos and chocolate cake, they sit in the belly undigestible, waking you up in the middle of the night with disturbing dreams.”
“Biltmore House: A philippic,” https://richardnilsen.com/2014/03/03/biltmore-house-a-philippic/ Having now seen this place for myself, I find Nilson’s assessment to be fair. However, the grounds that surround the house, including its massive glass conservatory, planned, and brought to fruition by the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, are spectacular and breathtaking.
Perhaps proving the adage that the rich get richer, at roughly one hundred dollars a pop, the family earns a cool one hundred and forty million dollars or so in revenues each year simply by permitting us peons to visit. The family enjoys a long history and has a penchant for making money. Previously, for example, in 1914, George Vanderbilt’s widow managed to raise some cash for the family by convincing the U.S. government to buy roughly 87,000 acres of property from her. Today, this property forms the brunt of Pisgah National Forest, the largest in the Eastern United States.
Thinking about my travels over the years, I could have predicted success and failure in my significant romantic relationships based, in part, on the trips that we took together: I recall the three-week tour of Canada’s maritime provinces, Quebec and Ontario with my first wife, which had turned out to be a harbinger of our failed marriage; multiple camping adventures with Jane in Wyoming , Montana, South Dakota or elsewhere; my first trip to Costa Rica with Lee, the jungle journey that made me think she might be the one.
Robyn and I have now traveled together, not extensively perhaps, but sufficiently, including our most recent trip, to convince me that we could be together in this for the long haul.