A Candlelight Tour at the Biltmore House

Last week we drove to the Smokey Mountains and wandered to Asheville, North Carolina. We visited the Biltmore Estate, a historic house museum and a popular tourist attraction. Biltmore House, the main residence, is a Chateauesque-style mansion, built between 1889 and 1895 for George Washington Vanderbilt II. It is currently the largest privately owned house in the United States with a floor space of 178,926 square feet. Let’s just say it is too big for me to clean.

George Vanderbilt opened his opulent estate on Christmas Eve of 1895 to invited family and friends from across the country. There were notable guests to the estate over the years including famed novelists, ambassadors, and U.S. presidents. Today it continues to attract tourists from all over the world to tour this beautiful mansion.

For Christmas season, they have a special evening tour called Candlelight Christmas Tour to view the mansion that is fully decorated for the holidays, and that’s what we did.

Above photo is the 35-foot tall Christmas tree in the Banquet Hall which is the estate’s grand holiday centerpiece. It took a lot of planning and real work to place this tree in this grand hall. Note that there’s even a pipe organ in this Banquet Hall.

They have more Christmas trees though all over the house, like this one below.

Here’s another dining area decked for Christmas.

Below is the Tapestry Gallery, again with several smaller Christmas trees.

Here is the grand staircase. That’s my wife in the yellow(ish) coat going down the stairs.

There are many rooms, in fact too many, to entertain guests in this house. Below is the piano lounge.

There were live musicians playing Christmas carols during the Candlelight Tour. Below are videos of a violinist in the library and another musician playing dulcimer in a large hall.

Photo below is Mr. Vanderbilt’s bedroom. In vogue during those times are canopy beds. Though many Filipinos also sleep under a canopy – of mosquito net.

Across the hall is Mrs. Vanderbilt’s bedroom, photo below. Why do they not sleep in the same bedroom? My thoughts exactly.

There are lots of activities to entertain their guests in this house. Here is the Billiard room.

Yes, that’s a bowling alley inside the house (photo below).

There is also a gym.

And an indoor swimming pool. Though there was no water as it now leaks. Too bad nobody can swim anymore in this large swimming pool.

The tour even took us to the basement to showcase the very solid foundation of this enormous mansion, see photo below. Were you expecting some kind of a Batcave at the basement of this large mansion? This is not Bruce Wayne’s house.

The biggest Christmas tree though was not inside the mansion but it was outside at the front lawn. That is one giant Christmas tree. However, there’s no gift for me under the tree.

From the Biltmore Estate,

Pinoytransplant.

(*photos and videos taken with an iPhone)

Overdrive

Noong nakaraang linggo ay nag-drive kami patungo sa Tennessee na may layo na 1400 kilometro mula sa aming bahay dito sa Iowa. Labing-dalawang (12) oras ang aming drive one way, at salitan kaming mag-asawa sa pagmamaneho. Oo, matiyaga kaming mag-drive, lalo na’t panahon ng COVID, at mapanganib lumipad dahil mahirap mag-social distancing sa eroplano at sa mga airports.

Kami ay pumasyal sa Smoky Mountains na isang kilalang lugar na magandang bakasyunan dito sa Amerika. Alam kong meron ding Smoky Mountains sa Pilipinas, pero hindi ito pasyalan at bakasyunan maliban na lang kung ang trip mo ay suminghot ng mabantot na hangin, dahil ito ay bundok ng basura (land fill) sa Tondo, Manila.

Makulimlim at magkahalong ulan at snow ang pumapatak mula sa kulay abo na mga ulap habang kami ay nagbibiyahe. Kahit mukhang pang-dayuhan at pang-Amerika ang tanawin, ang aking namang musikang pinakikinggan ay katutubong Pilipino. Ako’y nakatutok sa Eraserheads Radio mula sa Spotify.

Sumalang ang kantang Overdrive ng Eraserheads:

Magda-drive ako hanggang Baguio,
Magda-drive ako hanggang Bicol.

Biglang sumagi sa aking isipan ang alaala ng mahigit dalawampung taon na ang nakalilipas. Kasikatan pa noon ng Eraserheads at matunog pa ang kanta nilang Overdrive. Pinakikingan namin ang Cutterpillow cassette tape album nila habang kami ay nagda-drive dito sa Amerika mula New Jersey hanggang Ohio na may layo na 700 kilometro.

Alam n’yo ba na ang Baguio hanggang Bicol ay may layo din na halos 700 kilometro, at kaya itong i-drive ng sampung oras lang, pero aabot sa tatlong araw dahil sa trapik!

Isasama ko ang girlfriend ko,
Isasama ko kahit sinong may gusto.

Kasama ko noon sa pagda-drive ang aking dating girlfriend na naging misis ko na. Isang taon pa lang kaming kasal nang panahong iyon, at wala pang mga anak. Maingay naming sinasabayan ang kanta ng Eraserheads habang kami’y naglalakbay. Patungo kami sa Cleveland para sa isang application interview ko para sa aking medical training. Simula pa lang noon ng paghahabol ko sa aking mga pangarap. Matagal pa ang biyahe at malayo pa sa gustong patunguhan.

Maliit at compact car ang aming dina-drive noon. Simple lang ang aming kotse at ito ay lease lamang. Ibig sabihin pahiram o inuupahan lang namin, at hindi pa namin tunay na pag-aari.

Magda-drive ako buong taon,
Magda-drive ako habambuhay.

Pagkalipas ng mahigit dalampung taon, heto pa rin kami ngayon patuloy na nagda-drive. Pero natibag na ang grupo ng Eraserheads. Paso na rin ang mga cassette tapes, at kahit nga CD ay hindi na rin uso. At ang kantang Overdrive ay consider na classic oldies na ngayon.

Maluwag-luwag at SUV na ang aming sinasakyan ngayon. Marami rin itong amenities, tulad ng satellite GPS, kaya’t hindi na ako maliligaw. Sariling akin na rin ang kotseng aming dina-drive.

Magda-drive nga yata kami habambuhay. Subalit tapos na ako sa paghangos at pag-tugis sa aking mga pangarap. Maaring sabihing narating ko na ang nais kong marating at inaani na namin ang mga bunga ng aming pinaghirapan at ipinundar na panahon. Malalaki na rin ang aming mga supling, at tapos na nga ng kolehiyo ang aming panganay. Sila naman ngayon ang naghahabol ng kanilang mga pangarap, habang kami naman ay padrive-drive na lang para mamasyal at mag-relax.

Magda-drive ako hanggang buwan.

Pare, nakarating na rin ako kahit sa buwan.

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Additional feature: Here’s a short clip of our drive the next day after we reached the Smoky Mountains. Of note, it’s not Eraserheads playing in the background anymore, but rather it’s Simon and Garfunkel with their song “America.”

Snowy Smoky Mountains

We recently traveled to the Great Smoky Mountains, a mountain range rising along the Tennessee-North Carolina border. The Smoky Mountains got its name as the native Cherokee people traditionally called the mountain range Shaconage, which translates to “place of the blue smoke.”

If you want a nerdy explanation, here it is – the “smoke” is actually an optical result of a natural photochemical process. The trees, shrubs, and other plants of the dense and diverse southern Appalachian forests emit natural hydrocarbons which then react with the ozone particles. When moisture condenses on these aerosols, this scatter the light in the blue-violet spectrum producing the signature haziness.

However, when we visited the Smokies it was not smoky at all. Instead, it was snowy. Here are sample photos of the snowy Smoky Mountains.

From the Smokies,

Pinoytransplant

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(*photos taken somewhere in Tennessee)

Turkeys on the Run

Thanksgiving is around the corner and we will again stuff ourselves with turkeys. According to the National Turkey Federation, they estimate that 45 to 46 million turkeys are killed each year for the Thanksgiving feast.

During our recent long drive, we spotted some turkeys on the move. They are even causing traffic to stop.

These birds are leaving town. They are on the run (or walk) as they don’t want to end up on your dinner plate this coming holiday. I suggest they move faster or else the carving knife and fork will overtake them.

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Question: Why did the turkeys cross the road?

Answer: To prove that they weren’t chicken.

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(*photos of roaming wild turkeys taken at a small town somewhere in Wyoming)

Imposing Landmark

For about 10 years of my life I was looking at this imposing mountain everyday as a source of motivation. Except that this landmark was on a poster, plastered with a clear tape at the cement wall of my room in Sampaloc, Manila. But that was many many years ago. Today, I am staring at it from its bottom, and it is surreal.

When I was in high school and was still living in the Philippines, I placed posters in my room, not much for decoration but more for inspiration. They are not pictures of famous movie stars or sports personalities. Instead, my posters are photos of beautiful nature landscapes with motivational messages in them.

One poster is a photo of a hang glider sailing in the vastness of the Grand Canyon. In that poster are these words: “You are only limited by the boundaries of your mind.” I had the chance to visit the Grand Canyon a few years ago, which in itself was a fulfillment of a dream (see previous post/link here).

Now, I am standing underneath another monumental landmark that was also in one of my posters. It took me all these years to finally visit it close and personal. What I am referring to is the Devils Tower.

This elevation is a butte, composed of igneous rock, that towers over the plain in Crook County Wyoming. It rises 1267 feet above the surrounding grassland. One of its most striking feature is that it has columnar striations, as if a giant bear clawed on it. This site is considered sacred to some tribes of Native Americans.

The name Devil’s Tower originated in 1875 during an expedition led by Colonel Richard Irving Dodge, when his interpreter reportedly misinterpreted a native name to mean “Bad God’s Tower.” When registering the name, the apostrophe was dropped from the “Devil’s,” so it became officially known as the “Devils Tower.”

On my poster, written underneath this rock mountain are these words: “Faith moves mountains.”

During the times of my life when my dreams seems to be getting out of my reach, this landmark with it’s message kept my hope and faith alive. For faith really moves mountains.

I was only entering medical school when my father died. He was barely 50 years old. He was the sole bread winner of our family and I thought I had to stop my studies for there was no way we could afford it then. Not too long after that our family experienced another big blow. We lost whatever little we have, including our good name. The problem was too sensitive, that I am not going to divulge it here. Yet, I kept my sight on my ambitions and clung to my faith in God, for there is no mountain big enough that the devil can throw in our path that our God cannot move.

The rest is now history, and I have gone farther than what I could even dream of.

Today is cold and blustery. The gusting winds are strong enough to blow away my thoughts. Perhaps not a perfect day to tour this national natural landmark. But still a perfect time, which is about 30 years in the making to finally see this geologic wonder. It was actually my wife who urged us to take a long drive to visit it after she heard my inspirational message that I recently gave to my aunt’s virtual church service in California (see previous post/link here). As I have not been to this place in real life, so the time has come to see it.

And as the wind is blowing wildly, I’m waiting here for this mountain to move.

(*photos taken with an iPhone)

Canyon Drive

I had a few days off. So just to have a breather from dealing with this daily hysteria from COVID-19 at the hospital, my wife and I went for a long drive. Our plans were hastily devised, as we only decided where to go a couple of days before the trip, and we booked our accommodations just a day before we ventured out. Of course with some places having travel restrictions and with somes states requiring mandatory quarantines when you arrive there, so that limit the places we can visit.

The trip was a butt-hurting 10-hour drive. But it was well worth it, and we were pleasantly surprised at the place we stayed in. Actually we were going to visit a national natural landmark (I’ll write a separate post on this) and we just searched for a housing that may be close to it.

The lodge is nestled inside a canyon, deep in the heart of the Black Hills National Forest. Near the lodge is a flowing stream, and if you follow it upstream and hike for about a mile, you would end up on this waterfall (photos below).

Inside the lodge was warm and cozy. If you look closely at the photos below, that was snow falling outside the window, for it rained and it snowed during our brief stay there, making our visit more interesting.

But the best part of this place was the drive going to this lodge. As there is a saying that goes – it’s the journey, not the destination.

Below is a short clip of our drive on this scenic canyon road.

(*photos and video taken with an iPhone at Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota)

Walking Sunflowers

This past weekend we visited the sunflower field in Belle Plaine, Iowa. We also went here last year but at that time the condition of the sunflowers were past their peak. So this year we made sure we see them in their prime.

We were not disappointed. They’re so beautiful.

Sunflowers are heliotropic plants. A hell…. what?

Heliotropism is an ability to move or turn in response to light. So sunflowers slowly track the motion of the sun across the sky during the day to face it and then drift back during the nighttime. Though mature sunflowers may lose this ability as their stalk gets stiff.

However, during our last visit I saw a different movement in some sunflowers. They were walking!

Or so I thought. It was just my wife harvesting some sunflowers.

(*photo and video taken with an iPhone)

Exploring North Shore

We’re supposed to attend a wedding in Canada this summer. Besides seeing relatives and friends we’ve planned to explore some places there as well. But COVID-19 changed our plans. US residents are not allowed to cross the border. Well, the wedding still happened, albeit without us in attendance.

Though I did not cancel my vacation altogether, for I needed to get away. The stress of this pandemic to us, healthcare workers, is wearing me down. I needed a break.

So my family and I drove up North.

View from our lodge

Since Canada is still close to visitors, we stayed within the US border for our vacation. Yet we ventured really close to the northern border. We explored Minnesota’s North Shore Scenic Drive, which is Lake Superior’s rugged westside coastline through Highway 61.

Highway 61 stretches from Duluth, Minnesota up to the Canadian border. Photo below is the aerial lift bridge at the Canal Park in Duluth.

We passed some lighthouses along the scenic drive and went down to check them out. Lighthouses nowadays don’t serve the same importance as it used to, as ships and boats usually navigate now with the GPS instead of just relying on visual cues. Yet lighthouses are still of iconic beauty.

Since we don’t have a tight schedule we had time to stop at a beach on a whim and just enjoy the scenery. Or also skip some rocks.

Skipping rocks requires both skill and knowledge of basic physics. Having the right spin, speed, shape and angle is needed in order for the stone to “skip” on top of the water. It may seem impossible at first to have a stone jump on water, but it can be done. Maybe life is like skipping rocks. We need to have the right elements in order for us to have our heads stay above water.

Here’s my son skipping rocks: (How many skips did you count? It was about 10.)

Although we were near the water, we spent much of our time in the mountains. The mountain resort where we stayed is a known ski destination but it has a different appeal during the summer months.

We rode the gondola up to the mountain peak. The view on the top was something to die for.

Then we rode down the mountain via the Alpine slide. This was half a mile of exhilarating ride.

This was a first-time experience for us. You can control your speed with a brake as you slide down the track. You can go slow (if you’re cautious) and enjoy the view, or go really fast and everything is a blur. My wife was so slow that it spoiled the fun of the kid behind her on the slide. I overheard the dad asking the boy if he had fun after the ride and he vehemently said no. Poor kid.

We like it so much that we did a second run. I thought of offering that poor kid a free ride but I couldn’t find them anymore. My wife did much faster on her second run. Maybe we should try bobsledding for our next adventure.

We also did some not-so-serious 2-mile hike up the mountain. Most of our activities were staying away from crowds as we practiced social distancing. We chased water falls while we also chased our breaths.

We followed up the river where it has less turbulent rapids and rested there. We ate our pack lunch while watching the river flow.

The morning we did the hike I received a phone call from our office informing me that one of my partners died. It was sudden and unexpected. Our life is in such a precarious balance that it could topple any moment. We should always be thankful for every precious time we have. (I’ll write a tribute for him later.)

We drove further up towards the Canadian border which was a little more than an hour drive from where we were staying. Again stopping along the way to enjoy the road-side view.

There was a last rest stop just before the border. Since it was in a state park, there were hiking trails in that area. So we hiked again.

We followed the trail that leads to the Canadian border, where at the end of that specific trail, we found this marker stating, “International Boundary Commission.”

We can’t get any further so we headed back. While we were hiking to this international boundary marker, we were interrogated not by Customs agents but by insects. And all we took back as souvenirs from the border were bug bites from friendly Canadian insects. At least they were duty-free.

From the North Shore,

Pinoytransplant (with my signature jump shot).

(*photos taken with an iPhone)

A Room with a View

Our planned trip to Canada this summer went kaput. Because of this COVID-19 pandemic, the northern border is still not open for tourists. Instead of giving back the vacation days that I already took, we scrambled to look for an alternate local getaway.

As we were booking for a hotel or a lodge, we were looking to have a room with a view. I for one is really particular of having a view. Even if I spend the whole day doing nothing, as long as I enjoy looking outside the window, that’s more than enough for me. Thus on many of our trips we hunt for a room with a view. And if we checked in to the hotel and we’re given a room that was different than what we imagined, we would request to be moved and not settle until we get the room that we wanted.

Who wouldn’t like a room with a view?

I don’t know if this can be applied when being hospitalized. First of all you cannot really pick your hospital room. Second, most hospitals don’t have a view. And lastly, if you do have a beautiful hospital window view then you may not want to leave at all, which is counterproductive.

I am not saying that hospitals should not have a good view if they can provide it. After all I believe a serene setting or view could be in itself therapeutic to patients. In our hospital we have a central garden with pretty flowers and some rooms overlook this garden. While a few of the rooms have a view of our city’s skyline. While many rooms in our hospital have brick walls for their view.

Recently, one patient of ours told me that he was surely glad that he was referred to our hospital. He was transferred from a small regional hospital to our tertiary medical center for further management of worsening respiratory status from COVID-19. He told me that besides the advance medical care we can provide in our facility, the view from his window at the regional hospital where he came from was not “reassuring.” In fact he said it was downright depressing.

A couple of years back, we started going to that regional hospital once a month, which is an hour and 45 minutes drive from our main office, as part of our outreach clinic, so I fully understand the comments of that patient. Across the street of the regional hospital is a very “serene” park, though it is probably not what you want to see when you are sick. The said hospital, believe it or not, is overlooking the town’s cemetery. That could be depressing. Though it could be an incentive to get better too, or else you end up across the street.

I remember a story* I read years ago about two hospitalized men who were sharing a hospital room. Both of them were suffering from serious illnesses. One patient was by the window and the other one was across the room. The one far from the window was unable to get out of bed, so everyday he would ask his room mate what he sees in the window. Every time the patient who was lying by the window would tell the other one the beautiful view outside. Like how the sun was shining in the sky, or the children playing at the park, or the pretty flowers blooming in the garden, or the ducks swimming at the pond. This lifted the spirit of the other patient and gave him encouragement to get well so he could go outside and see for himself the beautiful view.

Then one day the patient who was by the window died. The one across the room felt very sad for his room mate, yet he felt good at the prospect that he could transfer to the bed by the window.

When he finally got transferred to the bed by the window, he was terribly disappointed. Why? The window of their hospital room was facing a brick wall. No view of a park, nor of a beautiful garden, nor a pond.

He realized that his former room mate made it all up to inspire him and to keep his hopes alive. That hope that sustained him through his illness and pain.

The next day, there came a new patient who was laid in the bed far from the window. This new room mate ask him what he sees outside their window. To this he replied, “Oh, there were children merrily picking flowers……”

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(*Original short story is by Harry Buschman, “The Man by the Window.” I added the last twist.)