When I was young, my family had a book on one of our shelves. It was about the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.
As a child, my sisters and I pored through that book. In it were sumptuous color images of the largest privately owned country estate in the U.S. Rather than reading the words, the history of the place—which was built by George Vanderbilt over a hundred years ago, nearly breaking him of his vast family fortune, but providing a final crowning achievement for the architect and landscape designer—we treated it as a picture book.
We memorized every page, every detail, every room. We allowed each other to take turns, choosing favorites (mine was the Louis XVI Bedroom, although I was also quite partial to the Winter Garden). The home actually has 255 rooms altogether, including an indoor bowling alley, a swimming pool and gymnasium. It has a rotisserie kitchen, servant’s dining hall, and trophy room. It has a carriage house and stables, an Italian garden, a walled rose garden (3,000 roses), and a conservatory.
My childhood visions of what wealth and elegance looked like were shaped by the Biltmore.
They built the estate for people to enjoy, the book said. They built it to have guests. As a girl, I imagined them pulling up the front drive in a carriage, or in some kind of early motorcar. They’d have servants with them, servants to press their lace-crusted dresses and to carry their guns and picnic baskets out into the forest for the hunt. These guests would all be rich themselves, and used to living like little kings and queens. But even so, their first view of the Biltmore, as they came up the front drive, would probably take their breath away.
Twenty years later, you can imagine my excitement when I ended up with a couple of discounted tickets to this estate. Justin and I did a few quick calculations and decided that, at only 4.5 hours away, it would make a very nice weekend trip. We would go in the spring, we decided. Or early summer, before it gets too hot, and while the gardens are still in bloom.
This last weekend, we made our getaway.
And what a getaway it was! We packed up a few changes of clothes and some picnic fare for the road, drove through the mountains, and came into the beautiful Asheville at about 3 pm on a Friday. We were ready for good architecture, good weather, good books, good beer, and good food. We had a bit of all those things, with the bonus of enjoying each other’s company immensely.
Justin gladly fell in with helping me enjoy the fulfillment of a small but lifelong dream. I gladly fell in with helping him hunt through every used bookstore in the city for the ‘jackpot’ (this is Justin-speak for ‘five or more truly good books for under fifteen dollars’).
Something else new happened on this trip, though. I ordered an iPhone, my very first iPhone, and it came in the mail the night before we left. I was very excited that I’d be able to chronicle the trip in cool filtered pictures, like all the cool kids are doing these days. Justin, in the meantime, was nervous that I’d lose my head and get caught up, playing with my phone for the whole weekend.
In the end, we were both a little bit right. I took some pictures and Instagrammed them like a pro; I selfied the two of us at every major destination and got some nice filtered images of the front facade of Biltmore. There were literally hundreds of things I saw and heard on the trip that I had an urge to take snapshots of. I attempted self-control, and took only a small percentage of these pictures. Really I think that I balanced the taking and leaving of pictures pretty well.
But I also noticed something significant: The things that I now remember from this trip with the most warmth and the most genuine enjoyment were the things that I enjoyed with my phone safely stowed away out of sight.
I’m not the first person to have noticed this correlation: the more you try to capture a thing for later, the less able you are to actually see it and experience it in real time.
On the drive there, I was reading aloud to Justin from a book of poems, and came across one by Wendell Berry which I think sums up this case pretty well. It’s called “The Vacation.”
“Once there was a man who filmed his vacation,” the poem begins. “He went flying down the river in his boat with his video camera to his eye…” Then the poem describes the sights and sounds, and talks about the fact that his vacation was forever preserved, so that it would be there always with the flick of a switch. “But,” the poem finishes, “he would not be in it. He would never be in it.”
This seemed important to me when I read it, especially since my iPhone had just been activated and was waiting hopefully in my purse. But with that said, I have to admit something else. I am glad that I was able to get that one image of the front façade of the Biltmore.
Because, you see, it looks just like a picture that I have in that book at home.