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Look Homeward, Y'all 

A Western NC Literary Road Trip

Despite what some folks' reaction to the recent Creative Loafing Carolina Writers Night might lead you to believe, North Carolina is a literary state. With real writers. Who have written real books, even some which are considered classics. Some were born here. Other writers, drawn by the scenery and down-home ambience, or looking for a cheap place to stay, have summered or relocated here at various points in their writing careers. Carson McCullers is one, as are Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Randall Jarrell, O. Henry, and Carl Sandburg (go to http://archive.cln.com/charlotte/newsstand/c102100/book.htm/ for more on McCullers' time in Charlotte).

North Carolina lit lovers can take a rather action-packed literary road trip with a little advance planning and a minimum of cash (even if one doesn't have the carte blanche of writing for a swanky weekly newspaper). Indeed, it's perhaps more fun to do it on a shoestring, imagining yourself setting off on a journey that one of our Carolina-centric authors might have made: in a car, fortified with fried chicken and cold cuts, a good book, a good friend, and little else. Imagine it: barreling across our great state, soaking up the land and the people, and then turning it into crystalline prose.

Well, one can hope, right?

One relatively easy arc for the prospective literary traveler is the Charlotte to Asheville jaunt. Within the space of a couple of hours (and if there were a way to subtract Shelby from the equation, an hour-and-a-half), one may walk the same ground as Thomas Wolfe, Carl Sandburg, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and O. Henry. For those who get into such things, you can even see the ground Henry and Wolfe are now buried in.

Leaving Charlotte, take I-85 to Highway 74, so you can drive through the birthplace of Earl Scruggs -- Shelby, NC -- and eat at Bridges Barbecue, an unquestioned state cultural and culinary treasure.

Keep driving, and about 45 minutes (and a little heartburn) later, you should see exit signs for historic Flat Rock, NC.

Twenty-four miles south of Asheville (and about five miles off the freeway) stands a 22-room white mansion, nested on an estate of 245 rolling acres of pristine farmland. The homestead is called Connemara, and it was the longtime home of Carl Sandburg, America's Poet of the People and famed Lincoln biographer. Sold to the government after his death, Connemara is maintained as a National Historic Site by the US Park Service. The house itself, tiny from the road but gargantuan up close, sits at the absolute top of a large hill, and the driveway is roughly a quarter of a mile long. If one falls into the elderly, handicapped, or "just plain lazy" category, there are handy white courtesy phones and restrooms, lest you don't think you can wait.

Sandburg moved to the hills of North Carolina in 1945 at the age of 67 with his goat-crazy wife Lillian, his three daughters and his two grandchildren. Mr. Sandburg loved the mountain air and intense privacy, and Lillian liked the acreage, crucial as it was to continue her obsession with raising goats (by the 1950s, she had over 200 and had a good little business selling goat products by mail order). Indeed, some of the goats that remain at Connemara are related to the original goats. No word if they've been officially deemed historic.

The house has remained fundamentally unchanged from the days when the Sandburgs lived in it. Books and magazines are strewn about, and many still have Sandburg's address affixed to them. However, many of the bookshelves are now covered by Plexiglas, the better to keep away well-read scalawags who are looking for a souvenir. Damn it.

Just around the corner in quaint old Hendersonville, you can find "Wolfe's Angel," you can find "Wolfe's Angel." The statue, one of 15 or so sold by Wolfe's father W.O. at his Asheville shop, bears the closest resemblance to the one described in Thomas Wolfe's landmark Look Homeward, Angel, and now stands in Oakdale Cemetery. A handy road sign alerts passersby to the tranquil boneyard, where the weathered angel still maintains much of its disturbing, cab-hailing beauty.

Speaking of Thomas Wolfe (and cemeteries), the man himself is buried close by, in Asheville's Riverside cemetery, near downtown. His burial plot is a simple one, with a small headstone reading "Tom" (Those who read the "other" Wolfe's Man In Full can only dream...), along with quotes from a few of his books. Traveling in the Pacific Northwest, Wolfe told his hapless doctors that he became sick while sharing a drink of whiskey with a shivering man on a ferry (always a bad idea, to my way of thinking). The sickness soon became pneumonia, which led to TB, which led to a coma, which led Wolfe to look homeward one last time: "Tom" died September 15, 1938, just short of his 38th birthday.

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