Saturday, April 07, 2007

Abner continues to be very spoiled by everyone in town. At the top, Regina, the woman who owns the salon where I go to get my hair cut is lavishing her attention on him. He gets his treats directly from the mouth in this case. In the third photo, Butch, one of the Public Safety guys at the Arboretum is crazy about Abner. Butch and Terrell are both guilty of giving him way too many dog treats but he loves them for it. Notice the smile. In general, as you can see from the other two shots, Abner's life here is pretty good. Mine too.
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Abner and Spencer are still pretty much each other's best bud, but occasionally Abner and I encounter someone else who turns out to be interesting. Two days after the boy rolled around and played together in dense ivy near the Winery at Biltmore, Abner and I encountered Zeke, this very handsome Red and Tan Doberman. I guess Zeke was unaccustomed to a dog who was taller than he is, but they seemed to enjoy each other.
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Weekend before last, Matt, his two friends named Eric, Abner, Bear, one of the Eric's dogs, and I hiked the Laurel River gorge down to where it meets the French Broad. It is a wonderful day hike of about 7-1/2 miles round trip but all along the river. Near the farthest point on the hike you encounter this wonderful stretch of railroad track and a bridge across the Laurel. It has a wonderful romantic quality that makes you wonder where the tracks disappear to. In all the times I have done this hike, only once did I ever see a train here.
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Almost blinding color is visible everywhere already. At the top, a portion of the Amblers' Trail is greening up. In the middle two shots, you can see that the tulips in front of the Winery entrance are almost causing retinal burns, and the forsythia, azaleas and other shrubs I cannot identify are blooming voluptuously in the Spring Garden.
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The azaleas at the top are native deciduous ones that bloom from the center out. I guess they start where the buds are warmer, protected by the leaves of the outer branches and then work their way out. These seem odd to people like me who only knew the Japanese Azaleas common in California. As you can see, tulips and other flowers mixed in with them in the Walled Garden are coming in with a vengeance.
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The final gasps of winter are giving way to early spring. Oddly we are in the middle of what is supposed to be a 4-day cold snap that appears to be causing some trauma to the early blooming flowers.
This is a beautifully restored 18th century house that was on the estate when Vanderbilt acquired the property. It now serves as the residence for the winemaker for Biltmore Estate Wines. Nice gig.

Some of the trees are blooming wildly already. This one is particularly resplendent with blossoms and new growth.
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If I were to guess, I would have to say that there are more than 100 of these bridges scattered around the existing estate. In addition, when you hike in the Pisgah National Forest or the North Carolina Arboretum, both of which are on land that used to be part of the Biltmore Estate, you see some of the same bridges still in use more than 100 years after they were built.
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Fabulous Biltmore bridges. . .
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The bridges at Biltmore were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead as part of the overall design of the estate and are incredibly well executed. The brick ones, although they vary considerably in size, are all detailed the same and are built of brick made on premises and from clay harvested from the French Broad River. The stone bridges tend to be less refined and are located, in general, farther from the house on roads that were part of the estate circulation plan. They are appropriately rural in nature and are built primarily of native granite. In the Azalea Garen, there are small wood bridges and very simple stone ones that are all scaled to pedestrian use. The attention to approriate detail is wonderful throughout.
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Much has happened in the month since I last posted. The card group’s trip to Puerto Vallarta was cancelled due to Jean Ann’s illness, as yet undetermined after almost 7 weeks. We have rescheduled for December on the assumption that whatever the medical community decides is wrong with her will have been dealt with by then. We will certainly deserve the trip.

As it turned out, the weather here in March was spectacular. It was warm almost the entire month, and by the end of it, daffodils, tulips, and even some of the azaleas had all begun blooming. We were having typical low 70s to low 80s daytime high temps and I had begun putting my winter clothes away. Judy Carver warned me though, that there would be one last gasp of winter, and she certainly was right. Yesterday the high didn’t even hit 50 and when I woke up this morning and went downstairs for coffee and the paper, it was 29 out and the ground and trees were covered in a light dusting of snow. Who, besides Judy, woulda thunkit?

The real estate saga continues. Warm weather seems to have produced a lot of interest in real estate, the result being that I have had a positive swarm of people coming to see my house. Some, like some crazy woman named Isabel, really were just out looking because they like snooping in other people’s houses and really have no intention of buying mine or any other. Others fall into the category of what I would characterize as the “wishers”. They with they could afford the house. They wish it had another bathroom. They wish it had a family room. It always amazes me that people will schedule and show up for an appointment knowing full well that the house is inadequate for their needs or that they can’t possibly afford it. All this gives me more sympathy for what people in the real estate industry go through.

Still, there actually have been a few who seem genuinely interested and have been considering buying. As a result, I started getting more serious about my hunt for a place to move to in case I get a buyer. The day Matt and I had taken the dogs up to Craggy Gardens, pictures of which I posted in the March update, we had driven up Elk Mountain Scenic Highway for a different approach to the Parkway than we usually take, and I noticed a lot for sale that appeared to have potential. The following week I connected with the listing agent, got some basic information, and decided to pay a visit to the site. I went first with Jason Marshall, who in all likelihood will end up building whatever I decide to do, and he didn’t see any inherent problems but said it would be a good idea to get an idea about the water and septic situations up there since there is no city water or sewer.

A few days later, Jason’s brother Brian who was my first friend in Asheville, accompanied me to the site to check out whether or not a view could be carved out of the woods with careful removal and pruning of some of the trees. The issue on this site is that while quite a steep slope down from the street, its depth is considerably less than its width, and it is possible that to get a really unobstructed view, one would have to get an agreement out of the people with the property behind and below this one. Brian and I decided that the only way to figure it out was to take a tape measure to the site and see how far back it really went.
As soon as we arrived at the property, I began the arduous process of lacing up and tying my old hiking boots for the occasion of climbing through poison ivy and brambles of various types to get down this hillside. Brian, as is his wont, fielded still another call on his cell phone (although I guess to be precise, it is his Blackberry). In the midst of all this, the two dogs who reside at the house across the street from the lot in question came to the gate to talk. I chatted with them and soon their owner came out and asked if there was something she could help me with.

I decided that she would be a good person to ask about the water and septic situation. Once I broached the subject, the floodgates were open. Her name is Dorothy and I got an earful of detailed stories of wells running dry, septic systems in ground that won’t perk, attempts to piggyback onto water from a neighboring water district, and the ultimate crapshoot she thinks it is to build up there. Sobering stuff. Nonetheless, Brian and I made our way down the hill to determine the desirability of the lot we had come to see. It was rough going but ultimately, I concluded that there was a possibility of getting a view, but probably not a great one. Between that observation and the doubts Dorothy had planted, I decided that if I made an offer at all on this lot it would be considerably lower than the asking price.

When we returned to the car, Dorothy reappeared with a new thought. She told me about a piece of property down the hill from her that had Asheville City Sewer and Water service. She had intended to buy it for the sole purpose of getting access to water and sewers through a small useless wedge of land she had purchased across the street from her house. It seems that her useless parcel had a common boundary with the property she intended to buy and she figured if she bought it, she could eventually get water and sewer up to her place by extending the city’s lines.

She had apparently decided, after months of negotiations on this parcel, to back out at the last minute but she said that if I would grant her an easement from it to her land, she would give me all the information she had on the deal she was doing including contact information for the guy who owned it. We came to a verbal agreement and made arrangements to get together later to go over what she had.

The following week, I drove up to her house and took possession of a packet of plats and letters about her deal, and in exchange, signed a letter of intent that said that if I bought the property, I would grant her the easements she was requesting provided she picked up the cost of creating the two easements. No problem.

A few days later I connected with the owner of the land. His name is Tom (no last names for now) and is one of three brothers descended from the family that developed the Asheville Mall, and much of the hill property on the North side of town. He has an interesting business doing high-end auto restorations (I got to see some gorgeous old cars he has restored or is in the process of restoring for clients all over the country) but he and his brothers will, from time to time, develop some of the family’s land. The parcel he had agreed to sell to Dorothy until she bailed, is composed of the last three lots in a small 14-lot subdivision that the brothers created 16 years ago. All the houses are expensive and a few of them are even reasonably good looking. If I build up there, I will certainly be the poor boy of the neighborhood. . .there is nothing there now that has sold for less than $1.2 million. He wants to see all three lots as a single parcel and his thinking is interesting. The price for the first lot would be the same as what they charged for the neighboring ones years ago, the second would be a 15% discount from that, and third, which he considers unbuildable, would be free. He doesn’t want to continue to have title to it and pay property taxes for something he never intends to sell.

Buying the whole thing is a bit of a financial stretch for me and I never thought I would want over 3 acres of land, but it is very tempting. I am at the point where I am going to schedule a meeting with him on the site to get his nominal approval of where I would build and what trees I would ask to have removed to open up a distant view. If we can agree on that, and hopefully, the eventual right to split off one of the lots that I could either sell or spec build on, I am going to enter an agreement to buy.

I try not to get too excited about things like this, but I have been looking for some time and this is probably the best situation I have found. I have already started doing a tentative design but that is, of course, subject to considerable revision, particularly after I get a topographic survey.

Last weekend, Jim, Jean Ann and Judy invited Abner and me down to their newly purchased lake house at Hartwell Lake in Northwestern South Carolina. It is about an hour and 50-minute drive to get there through some very pretty Carolina countryside. Hartwell is at considerably lower elevation than Asheville so when Abner and I left and it was supposed to be 74 in Asheville that day, I decided that shorts were appropriate. Good thing. We got to the lake and it was in the low 80s. Judy and the Rogers have bought a good-sized and very comfortable pontoon boat on which we all went cruising for a couple hours. Abner was in heaven. With 8 humans on the boat, all he did was walk from one person to the next getting petted, scratched, kissed and generally loved. When he had enough attention from all of us, he would take a break and stand at the bow with his face into the wind and lips flapping. Sometimes he just sat down right in the center of the boat and stuck his nose up into the air to take in all the smells of the lake. I can’t remember ever seeing him so content.

We cruised around a small portion of the lake (it has, according to Jim who used to get into trouble here in his ill-spent youth, more than 1,000 miles of shoreline in South Carolina and Georgia.) and then headed back to the house for a game of hand and foot followed by burgers and cole slaw for dinner. What a great day.

During this past month of absurdly warm weather, Abner and I have been doing a lot of hiking again. It is almost getting too warm for him although today’s cold snap has been a pleasant respite. The flowers at Biltmore seem to me to be blooming at least a month earlier this year. When Jonathan and Shaghig scheduled their visit her for the end of April, I though surely they would be here for the full onslaught of tulips and maybe the beginning of azaleas. As it turns out, the tulips probably will be almost completely gone by then and who knows how much of a season the azaleas will have. Pictures from last week will accompany this update, so you can see how things are progressing this year.

The Outdoor Center at Biltmore has purchased a bunch of the new model Segways for touring the estate. The new ones really look like fun because the steering and propulsion control stalk now flexes from side to side so you can steer pretty much by leaning in the direction in which you wish to turn. I have watched several of the employees try these things out and they really look like a riot. It would be ridiculous of me to sign up for a tour since they cover routes Abner and I have hiked so many times, but I may take a lesson just to get to ride on one. I know the guy who has organized this program for the Arboretum, Biltmore, and for a series of Downtown Segway tours as well, so I may end up asking him for some instruction and see if I can ride around on one of his downtown adventures.

The guest list for this spring is lighter than the past two but still is pretty densely packed from the end of April to May 24th. If, in the next couple of weeks, I can tie up a deal to buy the land I want, and to sell my place, my plan is to close on everything at the end of June when the lease on one of my rentals is set to expire. I can then move into it (in about half the space I currently occupy and with no garage, basement, or storage building) while I build a house up on Elk Mountain. If I do that, I will have no place for guests until the new house is done, so the remainder of 2007 and probably the first 3 or 4 months of 2008 will have to be without houseguests. There are dozens of B and Bs and hotels and motels in Asheville for those of you who still want to come, but my ability to personally houseguests will be, to say the least, considerably compromised.

I am still hoping to pull off a long trip to CA this summer although that might have to be adjusted if I start building a house. I will probably pretty much be broke for some time if I do this. More news on this will follow as it comes.

Abner continues to be recognized and addressed by name everywhere we go. Yesterday we were hiking on one of our longer routes in the Arboretum when we came upon a large and beautiful Red and Tan Doberman named Zeke. When we stopped to get acquainted and chat with the couple walking him, a couple guys came up who had been walking on the same trail. When they got to us, one said, “Is this Abner?” I had to laugh and told him that it was indeed. For once, this was someone I had never met. I guess he walks his dog around my neighborhood and has gotten in the habit of coming over to the fence and chatting with Abner when he goes by my house. I didn’t ask him how he got Abner’s name but it is really kind of funny that this keeps happening.

So aside from uncertainty about my real estate future and Jean Ann’s liver, things are pretty good as we head into deep spring. I am looking forward to visits from Jonathan and Shaghig, Mary Anne Payne and a friend of hers who is considering Asheville as a retirement destination, and in between, a quick visit from John Febbo, one of my old buddies from Design Review. Reports on all these visits will follow in succeeding posts.

I trust you are all well. I hear from comparatively few of you, but I like to think that this is one of those “no news is good news” things.

Abner sends his love.