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September 28, 2007

*note* I realize this posts backwards, so scroll down to Friday and read up!

An unexpected side effect of traveling without family is that, when you get back, they all want to know every detail of your trip. Even relatives I rarely talk to anymore insist on seeing all the pictures! (If you were really that interested you would have gone with me when I asked!) As an appeasement, I'm posting a play by play.

Sunday morning we went to breakfast. The lady who runs the place went all out - this is possibly the first time I've ever eaten breakfast in courses! Granted, my idea of breakfast is generally: "what can I eat that doesn't assault my taste buds at this ungodly hour and won't make a mess?"

Course 1 was fruit (bananas, raspberries, strawberries, etc) and yogurt and chocolate sauce (NOT syrup) and whipped cream, and possibly grape nuts or other crunchy things. Taste buds said, "oooh, yum. I can handle this." Mind said, "whoa, chocolate at breakfast? I like this lady."

Course 2 was a frittata? or possibly a quiche? It was mostly egg, which means I know nothing about it. Growing up with a mother who was deathly allergic to eggs means that I never acquired a taste for them, and generally avoid. I was willing to try it, though, since there was bacon and spinach and tomatoes in it that would offset the texture. It was also very good, but rather rich, so I only had about half.

We shared a table with a couple from South Carolina. We had interesting conversations with them about politics, family, and travel. He was in the military, and since we were from a very political/military/world oriented area, we got along quite well.

After breakfast, it was time to get on the road again and head to our final destination - Chimney Rock Park!

We tried to take the scenic route, but missed the turn due to the area's bizarre lack of road signs. Sure, eventually there was a road sign, but it would be blocked by other random signs, or so small that you couldn't see or read it from the 3-lanes-in-each-direction highway. So we took the interstate to another scenic route (there's no lack of scenic down there). As I stared out the window I realized that the carpets of healthy green draped along the sides of the road (in some places right TO the road) was kudzu! It waved prettily in the breeze caused by the cars, and I tried to shut my mind to the internal lecture about invasive species.

We drove through what I call one road towns - towns that hug the main thoroughfare and don't branch off onto side streets. They couldn't, there was rocky mountains on one side, and a river on the other. We saw the town of Bat Cave, but alas, there was no place to stop and take pictures of any signs. All too soon we came to the town of Chimney Rock, and it's Rocky Broad River. The round rocks in the river were awesome - it looked like you could rock hop across the whole thing. The rocky part of the name was certainly accurate, but broad - not a chance. Here, buildings hung out over the river, almost desperately, trying to be a part of the Chimney Rock allure.

We crossed on a narrow wooden bridge and drove up to the admissions gate, and then on up farther to park near the famous elevator. Scary, wild trip up a narrow road with sharp turns, no markings, lots of trees and picnic areas in places I would never want to picnic for fear of a car crashing the party. We made it safely to the top, Brian enjoying the nice turning radius of the rental.

To get to the elevator, we walked up a long, cool tunnel that had been blasted out of solid rock. It was slow going, as every few feet there were signs telling about the creation of the elevator and the work done to make Chimney Rock a tourist attraction. There were also signs that told you how long your wait would be if you were in line there, and more signs explaining about the rock types.

The elevator itself was sleek, and modern, designed to withstand moisture and operate quickly and smoothly. I found this disappointing in comparison to the creaky, old fashioned elevator in Shenandoah Caverns, which was open so you could see the rock as you descended. Up we went as the elevator operator gave us a short intro speech to Chimney Rock. Then the door opened to reveal . . . a gift shop! Farther on was a snack bar, where I decided it was lunch time, and no way was I going to climb about on an empty stomach! I got a ham sandwich, which was on a roll of bread which was incredibly good. Then, cold water in backpack and camera in hand, we set out.

Brian had been here before, and had taken a personalized do-or-die tour of what sounded like the entire park, twice, backwards, barefoot and carrying grandma on his back. I requested a short, simplified version of just the most interesting route - Chimney Rock itself, then down to the routes with names like Subway, Needle's Eye, Rock Pile, Grotto, etc.

Such views! All over. And such paths! And such lack of safety? The top of the actual chimney rock was encircled with a metal fence, in many places the rocks were higher than the fence. Not a place to take little kids or clumsy people.

The pathways were wooden walkways with railings on each side - very sturdy, although one staircase was warped and awkward to maneuver. It snaked down along the edge of the cliff, causing you to lean and duck, and step carefully, because the stair treads were leaning and ducking, too! The railings were smooth to the touch - not a splinter among them, and trustworthy. We climbed down staircases and across bridges, rarely touching bare rock except in one or two places. We came to the 'Rock Pile' which looked exactly like it sounds. On the far side of that was a spiral staircase going straight down. At the bottom of that we encountered a wide eyed, sweating and gasping middle aged woman making her way towards us. I tried to console her that she was nearly there, but instead had to warn her to take it easy and enjoy the views before tackling all the stairs! Little did I realize that this was an excellent example of foreshadowing.

The Subway was a low hole in the ground, but wide and easy to get through. Lots of rock and crevices. Beyond that was the Grotto - a nice flat shady spot that looked rather like the Opera Box. They had put benches there so you could sit and admire the view. We went on past, down more stairs and paths, and passed, to my surprise, a food and souvenir kiosk, complete with employee and cold drinks.

Around the corner beyond that was the beginning of the Needle's Eye, staircases built into a crevice that ran up the rock. Rock climbers would consider this the easy way up, even without the stairs! Just wedge and brace your way along. Instead, we took another spiral staircase. Then it stopped, and I found myself staring up a long, narrow flight of stairs into rock and darkness. We waited for another couple to come down the stairs from above, listening to Brian gleefully whisper about the long staircase and hobbitses. Curse those hobbitses. If it weren't for them I would have been able to descend this flight instead of start an ascending reenactment. I think I took the stairs too fast, for by the time I got to the top, I had begun wheezing and gasping for breath. Before that I had been fine. (before that, it had all been downhill!) My legs were still fine, though, so I pushed on back the way we had come at a slower pace. (This had all been a circular route, we came out of the Eye near the Subway entrance.) Back past the Rock Pile, across the bridge, around and up . . . and up . . . and my legs began wheezing, too. Brian was ahead of me, taunting me with the promise of sorbet at the top of the stairs. Somehow I made it, but that was apparently the last of my energy. I wandered in a numb, fried daze the rest of the day. Sorbet ended up being ice cream, and 1 scoop was measured as 1 very tall cardboard cup. I could barely finish a quarter of it. I took two Dramamine in anticipation of the scary ride back down, and discovered that while 1 pill worked without affecting me, 2 contributed to my slumpish fog. I know we drove towards Charlotte, behind several Sunday driver motorcyclists, and that I actually spotted our turnoff sign at one point, and that Eminem was playing on the radio (and has been stuck in my head ever since, argh!), but other details are a blur. We waited in a long security line at the airport, and I struggled to get my hiking boots off, and back on. (really, they ought to just run everybody through that conveyor belt.) Then we wandered about looking for food, and also found rocking chairs.

Once on the plane, I found I just couldn't stomach the thought of eating, and held a sub in my lap the whole way home. (at one point, Brian leans over and asks me how my pet sandwich is doing.) I dozed and no longer cared, just wanting my quiet bedroom and a shower.

We began descending, and I stared out the window at all the sparkly yellow lights in the darkness below us, awed by my first nighttime flight. Then I became aware of a bright spotlight shining in from the other side of the plane. I continued staring at the tiny lights, thinking that was an awfully high spotlight, and we couldn't be that low yet, could we? So I turned and looked. It was the moon, almost full, gliding gracefully by. Oooh.

On the shuttle back to the main terminal Brian produces Biltmore chocolate from the depths of his carry-on and hands me a small piece of heaven. Other women on the shuttle stare at me in envy as I sleepily nibble on my chocolate coated rice krispy treat, chocolate so creamy I thought it was peanut butter.

We find the neglected yellow mustang and Brian drops me off at our house (at a more sedate speed), and we give my mother a random, disjointed summary of the weekend before he heads home. I finally unwrap my pet sandwich, zap it in the microwave, and managed to eat half. I gave my parents souvenirs (a thimble and a coffee mug - boring, but hey! that's them) and tried to disentangle myself from the dog, who, once Brian had left, ceased barking and instead attempted to permanently attach himself to my leg. He had his front paws wrapped around my leg and was alternately licking and bopping me with his head. Not sure if he was happy to see me again or not. I finally got upstairs and stayed up long enough to download over 200 photos. Then I crashed. And woke up the next morning grateful that I had taken an extra day off.
September 27, 2007

An unexpected side effect of traveling without family is that, when you get back, they all want to know every detail of your trip. Even relatives I rarely talk to anymore insist on seeing all the pictures! (If you were really that interested you would have gone with me when I asked!) As an appeasement, I'm posting a play by play.


Tour #1
Or, OMG, poniezz!!!11!!

Saturday we were up bright and early and out the door, reluctantly missing breakfast being served in the two dining rooms. Once again we meandered down miles of estate roads, this time to a new destination - the stables. Yup. I was going to ride a horse across estate grounds.

I think I have been on a horse once. possibly as a five year old at a church fair, sitting on a pony that was being led around in circles. I have no actual memory of this event, but I've seen pictures. I used to talk to horses and pet them when I was waiting for my mom back when I took ballet in junior high. (the dance studio was in a converted barn, with one section still functional, for rescued horses.) So, first time riding for me.

We checked in, got weighed (apparently a requirement, fortunately she didn't announce the number out loud) and went out back to where the horses were idly standing. The people who had signed up for the ride were split up into two groups of four, each with a guide. We were in the first group, and I was given the first horse - Apache, a white quarter horse, covered with tiny black specks, rather like Snoopy's coat. Rather embarrassing to have to try to mount a horse without the benefit of watching anybody else do it first, but I did just fine, under their instruction and having a mounting stand to start from. It was like sitting on a canoe in the water! I briefly worried about whether I should have taken motion sickness pills. Brian ended up on a brown quarter horse named Cowboy, which naturally prompted one or two jokes. The guide adjusted our stirrups and taught us how to use the controls. Erm. Taught us how to hold the reins and use them to control the horse. The guides were great working with beginners. We had total control of the horse, and after a few minutes I was completely comfortable in knowing that Apache was listening to me and willing to do what I wanted.

And then . . . we were off! Over gently rolling hills at a sedate pace, the horses having done it so often that they often started or stopped before we could tell them to. The guide was very personable, and spent half her time twisting backwards, talking to us. Hers was a draft horse named Pudge, who was lovingly teased the entire trip about his personality and antics.

That particular day there was a horse event of some sort taking place, so we would pass groups of women on their own horses, wearing special riding gear and helmets. Our horses were very interested in them (particularly Cowboy), as there were very few female horses on the grounds. The trip was great, with no problems, except the occasional halt to allow a horse to do its business, which appeared to be contagious among the other horses. We were able to stop at one point and take pictures of the chateau, high up on a hill. Definitely a fun tour, and one I would readily sign up for again. (as in, where's the local VA tours?)

Tour #2
Or, What's this button do? and this one? How about this one?

Once we had disentangled ourselves from the saddle and remembered how to walk again, we went to have lunch at the restaurant in the creamery, and then head out for tour number two - behind the scenes!
We soon discovered that we were supposed to have actual tickets for each of these tours, and had to go track them down before we could follow. This tour took us around all the not-elegant parts of the building. Not pretty, but impressive in their bulk and function in trying to run a house of that size. We saw boilers bigger than the living room, a marble and gold trimmed electrical switch board that looked like something out of a mad scientist movie, the impressive butler's pantry, a room where they made ice using ammonia, a cabinet that stood 10 feet high and held nothing but the leaves of the big dining table in the gallery, the servant's elevator, which ran 6 stories up, the kitchen courtyard, and so forth.

Brian pounded the guide with questions about functionality, materials, statistics, and the inner workings of all and sundry. She readily answered every one, or for a few, admitted that they had never found information regarding the query. We learned about water pressure, the various ways the house had been heated over the years, servant routines, seemingly random holes in the floor, the cost of installing a six floor elevator that functions perfectly over 100 years later, electrical production, and stuff I can no longer remember because my brain couldn't hold it all. (We also learned that Anthony Hopkins couldn't get into the building without a pass when they were filming Hannibal there.) I ended that tour with a sense of awe about how much it took to run one house, and the examples of changing technology over time. (one of the amusing parts of the tour was seeing the modern wires and CAT5 cable - or possibly T1 - strung everywhere.)

Tour #3
or, I can't see ANYONE's house from up here!

The rooftop tour. Awesome. This was my first chance to take pictures of the house, since photography wasn't allowed inside, but was allowed and encouraged outside. The tour included unfinished parts of the house, where we learned about the time consuming efforts of period restoration, and some the innovative designs that were incorporated in the building. Seeing the rooms unfinished was just as great to me as seeing them pristine. So big and bright on the upper floors! We got to go out on various balconies and rooftops, where I snapped madly with my camera, taking closeups of the many, many architectural details on the building, or shots of the horizon, where you saw nothing but trees, soft rolling hills (I've been using that phrase a lot, but really, it's what they were!) and, well, more trees and a tourist or two. The guide pointed to a mountain peak way, way off in the foggy distance and said that Vanderbilt owned land all the way to there. It was hard to comprehend having that much space; so very much space that it dwarfed the huge building that one easily got lost in.

By the time the third tour finished, it was late in the afternoon. We grabbed more ice cream, and wandered around the shops in the stableyard, trying to see what we could learn about its original workings. I wandered around a gift shop while Brian sampled wines, weaving my way among cheerful Red Hat Society ladies - most of which looked too young to belong. I bought a book of old Vanderbilt photos and a miniature rug that would fit perfectly in my archaeologist's study. Then we headed to the far side of the building to admire the arbor and the bowling green, and continued to wander down towards the gardens. By this time, we were pretty worn out, and there were still more stairs. I took some garden photos, but never made it as far as the beautiful brick greenhouse. I shouldn't have looked behind me at all the stairs I needed to climb back up!

An unexpected side effect of traveling without family is that, when you get back, they all want to know every detail of your trip. Even relatives I rarely talk to anymore insist on seeing all the pictures! (If you were really that interested you would have gone with me when I asked!) As an appeasement, I'm posting a play by play.

Friday, part 2

I nearly forgot about the wine and chocolate tour! We went on Friday evening. I was expecting to see how wine was made, how chocolate was made, or at a least a tour of the wine facilities, etc . . .

What we got was a short trip into the bowels of the old creamery, a big stone room with gothic decorations and a lot of chairs. We were seated and given sample glasses of two different Biltmore produced wines, and a brief talk on how to admire the wine with all the senses, not just taste buds. For each wine we were given a small handful of chocolate drops, and told to sample each wine again, with the chocolate in our mouths, and sense how the chocolate changed the effect of the wine in your mouth. It was a bit disappointing, really, and did nothing but encourage my opinion of wine as a pretentious art form. It's meant to stimulate thought and conversation; it's not actually functional on its own, and, in fact, should not be drunk by itself.
September 26, 2007

An unexpected side effect of traveling without family is that, when you get back, they all want to know every detail of your trip. Even relatives I rarely talk to anymore insist on seeing all the pictures! (If you were really that interested you would have gone with me when I asked!) As an appeasement, I'm posting a play by play.


Someone (not me) was running behind, and showed up after 8 am, requiring a mad rush to the airport. Apologies to anyone on Dulles access road or the Parkway who got cut off by a yellow mustang. I was not driving. I, in fact, had my eyes shut the whole 10 minute ride.

Dashed from valet parking to United check in, envying children who could wear those wheely shoes. Fortunately no one was in line. The airport, in fact, looked deserted. Checked in and checked luggage with about 2 minutes to spare.

On the plane. Shocked by its lack of size. Felt like walking into a cave. (It was better once seated.) Wished I could understand what the pilot and stewardess were saying. Compared the takeoff to Brian's driving (very similar). Made a fool of myself by leaning over to the window and exclaiming "It looks just like Google maps!" (my last flight was, unfortunately, long before Google or online satellite maps were around.) We tried to guess what roads/buildings we were looking at before we got too high up to see. Entertained myself with Sudoku puzzles and the sky mall catalogs. Up in the air for less than an hour, apparently, and then we were in Charlotte. The stewardess excitedly announces that we had a 'perfect landing.' Wander off to grab our luggage, and then to get a rental car. Oddly enough . . . it's a mustang that's been reserved! Terry behind the counter proceeds to inform us that since I'm an insignificant other, I can't drive the car without paying them more money. (ok, so different wording, but still!) Go outside, admire bizarre floating woman holding a crown, and hop on the shuttle. Find bright red mustang. Argue about driving. Win shotgun. Sit down and realize I can't see over the bare, square, flat dashboard.

We stop in a town named Shelby for lunch, at a Cleveland Mall. (boy, do I feel lost.) Bought the proper cable for the MP3 player hookup, and set off again, this time with me at the wheel. Yes. I'm a bad girl. MP3 player has lots of European techno. After a while I comment on this and the fact that I can't sing along. Apparently the music choice was intentional. *grumble* The ride is fairly easy, once I get my seat in the right position (it was awkward, the headrest was in the way most of the time). I also realize that this car has more power than mine and I can pass people. Or not. It's a fair, calm drive, beautiful weather, not too many hills or curves or big trucks, except at one point where three of them decided to pass me.
Eventually we leave the interstate, I get a quick refresher course in left vs right, and then somehow manage to get to the inn.

The inn is located in a shady lot in a quiet section of town. Beautiful stonework with a lovely front porch and round windows in the attic. I drooled a bit. Inside was wonderfully decorated with antiques and bright colors. A wonderful staircase that split in four different directions. And the ceilings! A good 12 feet high. Such open space! The house felt bigger on the inside than outside. The guest room was full of antique quilts. Strangely, there were no light switches.

After turning off all the lamps, we headed back out and went up to Biltmore. Crept through a construction zone that later turned out to be Biltmore Village. (bah.) Drove through the entrance gate. Kept driving. and driving. and driving. Pretty fields, elegant woods, a babbling brook or two. Oh, a vistor's center? Show our tickets. Drive some more. You're sure there's a really big house here, right? I mean, c'mon . . . really big house must be visible from far away, right?

And then we come to . . . a parking lot. Ok. Park. Follow a footpath. Glance up, and wow, there's a chateau! It DOES exist!

We took the self guided tour, sans earphones. I was surprised at how dark it was in the downstairs rooms, although it was well past 3 pm by that time. We wandered in and out among people standing still, staring dumbly ahead, earphones on their ears. I gaped at chairs and windows and floors and fireplaces and walls. I was also amazed at the friendly, intelligent attendants in each room, able to answer almost any question Brian could put to them, and providing even more information, or joking with us. The tour flow was well planned; the house seemed to go on forever, right up to the observatory, which was the only place where we had to turn back and start heading back down . . . through a completely different section of the house. At one point we were in the basement (or somewhere near it) where I completely didn't see the bowling alley. Sure, I looked that direction, but my mind said: "no way is there a bowling alley there." We rounded a corner and came across a group of girls, softly singing "Spanish Ladies." I started laughing, and Brian promptly started singing the next lines. (strangely, the girls seemed to think the song came from the Master and Commander movie.) We wandered down towards the pool room, Brian still singing merrily, with their laughter (and mine) echoing after us.
hmm, other highlights from the first tour? I had read and drooled over the pictures in the Biltmore book I owned, so everything looked familiar to me. I accidentally pulled a Marylin Monroe in front of an oversized fan (darn those skirts!) I got to see an actual, functioning gargoyle (granted, it was at the end of a drain pipe.) I wished I had brought a pedometer to see how much ground we covered going up and down and around the building. We paused to get ice cream and peer into the stable cafe, before heading out to dinner.

Dinner was at a german restaurant, where I finally got to meet the waiter Brian had been going on about for months, to the point of becoming a running joke. He had the most beautiful blue eyes, and was completely himself, cynical and (flamboyantly) expressive. Poor guy had been having a rough time the past month. I enjoyed talking with him. Pity we didn't get time to meet up with him again.

To be continued . . .
September 21, 2007

I'm going to Asheville, NC for a few days. This is my first vacation in five years. My first vacation without a relative along. My first time on a plane in over 8 years. The first time I ever got to PICK where I wanted to go. (I know. I am SO far behind everyone else.)

Now that I realize that yes, this is actually happening, I'm excited. The only proper way to express my excitement is in squealy girl L33t speak, and I shall spare you that.

time to stop goofing off and go!
September 10, 2007

Random doll I will someday get around to making a page for . . .

I bought this little boy a few years ago from a lady's web site. He'd been there a while, and I felt rather sorry for him, so he came home with me. He still moped a bit, even after I gave him a haircut. Possibly the scar across his face made him self conscious? He was rather flamboyantly dressed in bright gypsy fabrics and a sash, and I could tell it just wasn't him. A few weeks ago I came across this lovely striped cotton and immediately thought of him. Without any remorse, I ripped off his costume and redressed him. Do you know how hard it is to find pictures of desert clothing? I finally just improvised, and named him after the little boy at the beginning of the movie the Fifth Element. (I probably should have watched that scene BEFORE making the outfit, but oh well.) I see from my new camera that it's crooked and the iron did not do any good, so I may have to redo. Fortunately you can't see the gash across his eye and nose in this shot!

Also check out my Knight - I finally got his surcoat made!
September 1, 2007

Captain George Robinson House

I like authentic reproductions!