From the rooftops of Asheville, N.C.'s Biltmore Estate, you'd swear you could see all the way into Tennessee, even though the border is 50 miles distant and the haze makes the distant air like gauze. Regardless, the acres and acres of folded landscape and trees, whose tops look almost navy blue in this light, are proof that while wealth can't buy happiness, it sure can buy one hell of a view.
But that piece of pith is getting ahead of the story.
Any focus I have—and, on any given day, that's not much—vanishes faster than warm water on hot asphalt during the summer time. From my office windows, I look out on increasingly lovely days that beg to be romped in. Sunny. Cloudless. Pleasantly warm—rather than oppressively hot, which will certainly come later in the season. A great time to set aside any driven concerns and lie under the bright blue sky and think about absolutely nothing.
Any real ability to concentrate for anything resembling a decent period of time has become nothing but vapor, as it does every year around this time. Some atavistic voice is in my backbrain screaming about long-forgotten rituals of summer vacations, three full months where you could let summer's torpor take over, luxuries that are sadly lacking in the real world. Instead of settling in on a porch with an ice-cold glass of sweet tea and embracing the oncoming season, I jump in the car to head up and out of my lethargy.
There's something about measuring time only by rest stops and mile markers, some ineffable quality that makes a road trip akin to mental Drano. For the first hour, the ideas come quickly, making me wish once again that I had the courage (or the reckless stupidity) to write and drive. After the bulk of the traffic peels away at the I-40/I-81 split—I stay on 40 heading toward Asheville—there's nothing really to think about other than keeping my aging auto between the lines and singing along (quite well, if I do say so myself) with one Mr. Scott Miller. All of my previously frantic thoughts flit away, as if driving this stretch of highway has become a 60-mile-per-hour moving meditation.
Without a destination, though, a road trip is nothing more than a couple of hours of aimless driving about. Without being able to specifically pin down where it is that you are going, it's hard to justify the time or the energy expended. Actually, with interconnected nature of road trips and fossil fuel consumption, it's hard to justify in general. But I'm an American and flagrant consumption is my birthright.
The extravagant and (clichéd as it sounds) breath-taking Biltmore House is George Vanderbilt's birthright, built from the money his grandfather Cornelius originally made in shipping lines and from ferrying folks from one spot to another, as well as from subsequent generations' additions to this mind-boggling fortune. This monument to the joys of capitalism sits on the outskirts of a town now known for its devotion to more spiritual, less money-centric pursuits—or so the brochures would have you believe.
From the rooftops of the Biltmore, modern-day Asheville can't be seen, nor can parking lots or strip malls or any of the other myriad blights that plague almost every town of any size. What blocks them out is the 8,000 acres of forest the house sits on, plus the additional acreage of the Pisgah National Forest, 87,000 acres of which was land that formerly belonged to this property, donated to the federal government in 1915 after George Vanderbilt's death. Before being acquired by GV, this land was denuded farmland—he and Gifford Pinchot planned and planted this impressive forest before the turn of the 20th century.
The woodlands would be overwhelming if you weren't already standing on one of the most impressive buildings in the Southeast. Some numbers, which, admittedly, only begin to give a small glimpse into the impressiveness of this grand house: 13 chimneys, 1,000 workmen and 5 years to build, 250 rooms, completed in 1895. While a tour of the inside is not to be missed and is full of amazing details about what life must have been like for the fabulously rich during the heady Gilded Age, the rooftop tour tells you more about the people who actually did the work that this icon of wealth required.
Gargoyles, carved by imported Italian stonemasons, peer at you from almost every flat surface—some with faces eerily similar to architect Richard Morris Hunt and Vanderbilt. There are some griffins, some monkeys, a bear, and a bare-arsed grotesque. Whimsy rides hand-in-hand with gothic imperiousness, which creates a personality for the carvers who were given free rein to release what they saw in each block of stone.
Beyond those more decorative touches are slate shingles that are easily as long as my forearm, held to the steeply-pitched roofs with twists of wire, topped off in some spots by copper-and-gold panels (now green with age) depicting the Vanderbilt crest. In this summer light, back when they were first installed and buffed bright, the top of the house must have looked like it was touched by Midas—which, in a way, it was, I suppose.
It's hard to think critically up here, after the mind-wiping drive, the stair-filled journey to the roof, and standing on top of tons upon tons of stone. It's as if some internal switch has been reset, flipped over to simple observation mode brought on by only having to concentrate on the road slipping under car wheels for two hours. And, together, the drive and the rooftop combine to form a profound sense of undeniable awe—both for the building itself and the laser-like focus it must have taken to hold on to such a fantastic dream.