As a monument to living well, the Biltmore stands alone. But for a glimpse of what doing good can lead to, drive north and east for about 20 minutes to Asheville's Folk Art Center.
The center, which is on the city outskirts at Milepost 382 along the Blue Ridge Parkway, is run by the Southern Highland Craft Guild, a long-standing nonprofit with a membership of more than 700 weavers, potters and other artisans in the nine states that touch Appalachia. The enterprise includes four retail operations in three cities, along with various cultural programs.
It began the same year the Biltmore Estate was completed, when a Yale-educated missionary named Frances Goodrich, who had come to teach in the mountain communities, persuaded Appalachian women to contribute their craft work for sale. In 1902 she opened the Allanstand retail shop 30 miles northwest of Asheville, and as national attention turned to rural poverty and Appalachian folklore and crafts in the years that followed, the guild's programs grew. (The recent film "Songcatcher," most of which was filmed in Buncombe County, dramatizes that era.)
The guild's bright and bustling Asheville-adjacent retail site, open since 1980, draws more than 300,000 visitors yearly. An expansion is planned, but already the art center resembles Goodrich's original log-cabin shop in the way that an electric guitar resembles a 14th century lute.
Browsing, I admired a chair exhibit--some looked so spare and sleek and uncomfortable that they could have been imported from avant-garde showrooms in Italy or Japan--and baskets priced from $75 to $1,425. The priciest was woven of cotton archival paper, with acrylic paint and metallic threads.
In the wake of the missionaries and the craft lovers and the Vanderbilts, more out-of-towners began coming here to seek their place in the hills, including bohemians such as painters Willem de Kooning and Jacob Lawrence, composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller, who were among the parade of creative types to pass through nearby Black Mountain College in the 1940s. (The campus is a boys' camp now, and the main streets of tiny Black Mountain are crowded with gift shops too sugary for my taste.)
Half a century after Cage and company, Asheville's population is 68,000, 3,100 at the University of North Carolina, Asheville campus. In the city's alternative weekly, the Mountain Xpress, you find ads for Nina the aura guide ("for all your business decisions"); "intuitive readings" by somebody named Galaya; and, my favorite, a medical experiment in which participants get paid $2,680 to smoke marijuana.
In Asheville these days, "you can't swing a cat without hitting a massage therapist," fiddle player Laurie Fisher (formerly of New Jersey) told me one night as she packed up after a gig.
On old-time music night at Jack of the Wood microbrewery (every Tuesday), I took a spot at the bar next to 27-year-old Connecticut exile Bonnie Rose ("a lot of art, a lot of music--there's always something to do here," she said), and together we listened as fiddler Sumio Seo started off the evening's songs.
Soon the stage was crowded with guitarists, mandolin players and a stand-up bassist, ages 20 to 50.
After about an hour, a whole new team of players stepped up to take their place, and I sidled over to Seo.
He has played the violin for 16 years and has been playing in these Asheville old-time jams for about four years. He nodded to the dozen musicians onstage.
"At least half of them have CDs out," Seo said. "All in the old-time style."
Practitioners draw a firm distinction between old-time music--which is driven by banjo and fiddle and evolved from European origins in 18th and 19th century Appalachia--and bluegrass, which uses similar instrumentation, usually at faster tempos, drawing on African influences. Bluegrass was popularized by mandolin player Bill Monroe in the 1940s.
If the folk music isn't to your liking, two dozen art and craft galleries may be your siren song. You can bed down in any of the 40 bed-and-breakfasts and about 70 hotels. (Many of the cheapest motels are crowded along the unattractive, franchise-ridden North Carolina Highway 70 between downtown and the Blue Ridge Parkway.) The leading bookshop, on trendy Haywood Street, is Malaprop's, and my favorite meal of the trip was served just half a block away in the Market Place, which stands on Wall Street and specializes in local ingredients such as mountain trout.
The grandest lodging in town is the Grove Park Inn, a handsome but much-amended landmark of Craftsman design that dates to 1913. In the beginning, the hotel had 150 rooms within its stone walls. In 1935 and '36, when F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife, Zelda, was getting extended psychiatric treatment at an Asheville hospital (where she later died in a fire), the author lived in the Grove Park Inn's Room 441 and acquired a local reputation for heavy drinking and womanizing.