The Biltmore Estate's fantasy of Southern gentility contrasts sharply with the gritty urban reality of downtown Asheville.
George Vanderbilit's gargantuan gilded-age palace, completed in 1895, crowns rolling pastures and walking trails leading to a commercial center of two hotels, a winery, restaurants and museums trumpeting the brief, dilettantish life of Cornelius Vanderbilt's grandson.
The Biltmore baron died in 1914 from complications of an appendectomy, leaving his widow and descendants to visualize his estate as a lucrative tourist venture.
The big house was the crowning achievement of now forgotten architect Richard Morris Hunt, who designed many of the long demolished Fifth Avenue mansions of New York City's robber barons.
Biltmore's lavish gardens were the final masterpiece of Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed designer of Central Park, who also wrote perceptive accounts of his tours through the antebellum, slave-owning South.
Vanderbilt's fine art collection displayed at the house include two marvelous portraits of Hunt and Olmsted by John Singer Sargent, along with several other works by the artist. Three Belgian tapestries from the 16th century are also captivating.
The house, visited by Henry James, Edith Wharton and others, entertained guests with a billiards room, bowling alley, library and conversation enclaves. Roaring fireplaces heated the sumptuous parlors.
A short drive away, downtown Asheville presents a raucous scene of young hipsters, aging art tourists, young families and Jesus cheerleaders. Reclaimed buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries house music clubs, restaurants, craft shops and the excellent Malaprop's bookstore.
On the other side of downtown lies the sumptuous Grove Park Inn, another landmark of Southern elegance.
The municipal plaza at the center of downtown is a popular gathering spot close to the memorial angel sculpture honoring native son Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe, author of the once-lauded "Look Homeward Angel" and "You Can't Go Home Again," grew up in his family's boarding house, now a tourist attraction.
As we traveled down the estate's winding road leading to the exit for downtown Asheville, I heard the voice of F. Scott Fitzgerald whispering "I left my capacity for hoping on the little roads that led to Zelda's sanatorium."
Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of Wolfe's fellow Scribner's author Fitzgerald, died in a fire at an Asheville hospital. At Malaprop's Bookstore, I paid silent homage to the doomed couple.
Visiting my filmmaker sister, who was completing a Hallmark Christmas movie shot at the big house, we stayed at the Biltmore Estate's charming Village Hotel amid a younger generation of wine-lovers and gilded age voyeurs.
On a walk, I passed meadow lands where goats and cattle grazed. Once the estate ran a dairy, but now the cows are beef cattle, raised to produce steaks and hamburgers for the estate's restaurants. The cattle are humanely raised, the estate assures visitors. Nearing the banks of the French Broad River, I heard volleys of gunfire from skeet shooters.
At the estate's Antler Hill Village Deerpark theater, a high-tech audiovisual show and exhibit explored Leonardo da Vinci's brilliant, erratic career.The exhibit features models of Leonardo's futuristic inventions and copies of some of his famous paintings.
The dramatic video show gave flashing psychedelic images of his work. For some reason, galloping horses were a recurrent motif, perhaps signifying the frequent wars of Leonardo's era.
Driving from Atlanta to Asheville along the booming I-85 corridor also revealed striking contrasts. Greenville, home of Furman and Bob Jones universities, and nearby Spartanburg flourish from the sprawling BMW plant between them. Signs announce nearby Clemson University's various automotive-engineering ventures.
After we passed through these successes of the new international economy, Donald Trump was launching his presidential campaign with a speech at Columbia, South Carolina's capital and home of the University of South Carolina. The anti-globalist Trump appeared with the unctuous Lindsay Graham, the state's long-serving senator, once a fairly progressive ally of the late Sen. John McCain but now a Trump sycophant.
Seeing the young middle-class families at Biltmore, I wondered about their political leanings. They packed the Biltmore wine store, with its rows of vintage whites and reds, and the pretentious shops and restaurants. Republicans, I assumed. But perhaps not.
Beyond a few patches of undeveloped forest, the I-85 corridor from Atlanta to Greenville and beyond is now one metro area. Too bad America turned to automobile transportation rather than the high-speed trains of other developed nations. Electric vehicles might take over one day, but the gasoline-powered SUVs, trucks and sedans will rule for the next several decades at least. Or until climate change brings societal collapse and the new dark ages.
Gilded age scions like George Vanderbilt have been overtaken by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Vanderbilt's heirs claim he possessed a sense of noblesse oblige lacking today, but his monstrous house proves America's wealthy have always yearned for an American feudalism.