Well, 12 days on the road with spouse Lillian, approaching 3,000 miles on the odometer, and we find ourselves in the lap of luxury at the Inn at The Biltmore in Asheville, NC, built and managed by the descendants of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who endowed Vanderbilt University, where Lillian did her graduate work. It hasn’t always been so.
While Lillian has dreamed of spending time here since her days at Vanderbilt, and touring the 250-room Vanderbilt mansion, she paid her dues by spending the last two nights in a tent in the Great Smoky Mountains in sub-freezing weather. A well-designed bed consisting of four air mattresses and a number of down-filled coverings kept us warm and comfortable—until we had to emerge into the frigid morning air. But it could’ve been worse, and we dearly love the outdoor experience, partly because we always know that down the road we get to eat and sleep like our wealthier relatives and friends once in a while. That’s tonight. She’s blissfully watching the season premiere of “Downton Abbey” while I catch up on reading and writing. We’re both happy.
Here’s the tally. We’ve visited ten states, slept in seven of them, and checked in at 13 sites administered by the National Park Service, if you count three “trails” they maintain and on which we have spent minimal time: The Appalachian Trail, the Trail of Tears, and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Highlights: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, which is NOT an NPS site; an Avett Brothers New Year’s Eve extravaganza which ended with them still playing at 12:45 a.m., one of the better rock concerts I’ve been to, and certainly one of the most high-energy performances I’ve ever seen; Thomas Jefferson’s plantation retreat in western Virginia, Poplar Forest; and the historically complete interpretation of the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse. And two days on mountain roads and trails in the Great Smokies.
We’re grateful to a couple of rich families for great experiences so far: The
Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts. There was a time in America when the rich did great things for their country. John D. Rockefeller put up half the money for the purchase of the land which is now Great Smoky Mountains National Park, now the most-visited national park in America, with more than 9 million visitors per year. Rockefeller, of course also was the patron of Grand Teton National Park. The Vanderbilts gave us this majestic 8,000 acre estate in which we are staying tonight. It’s not hard to think of Harold Schafer as I write this, who gave us Medora, at the gateway of another of our great parks, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota’s Bad Lands. There was a time in our history when the wealthy did great things for our country, instead of spending millions trying to influence politicians to pass legislation to make them even richer. They remembered the words of Luke, and of JFK, about those to whom much is given, much is to be expected. Times, and rich people, are different now.
Tomorrow, for the first time, we are going to a place where the first number in the temperature will be 5, as we head to South Carolina. It will keep going up from there. From now on we will do as we please. We have no hotel reservations until February 18 at Big Bend National Park in Texas. From now on, we will decide from day to day whether to stay where we are or move on. We have another dozen national parks to visit. We have some more dead presidents’ memorials to observe. We’ve promised to visit a bunch of Lillian’s cousins, aunts and uncles in several southern states. We’ll see Slim and Mavis Williamson and David Strauss in Florida. Whooping cranes are waiting for us at Corpus Christie. Paul Ohm has his doors open near Tuscon. We’ll head for home when we approach our personal fiscal cliff.
I’ll report back in from the ocean, whenever that happens. Until then, we’re posting updates on Facebook. Stay tuned.