Photo by Donna Campbell

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Of Navigation and Place

In 2004, when I began research for a guidebook series called Literary Trails of North Carolina, there were no Androids or iPhones or an app known as Google Maps. Photographer Donna Campbell and I set out in the state’s western mountains with nothing more than a back seat full of novels, poetry, essays, and short story collections. The books were festooned with the confetti of dozens of colored sticky notes jutting from their pages. I had already marked passages that were associated with places we planned to explore. Later I’d string these excerpts together with driving directions and a narrative about the authors, their works, and their contributions to our cultural understanding of this wide place we call North Carolina.

Of course, place is critical in Southern writing and in all writing for that matter. As Eudora Welty put it: “I think the sense of place is as essential to good and honest writing as a logical mind; surely they are somewhere related. It is by knowing where you stand that you grow able to judge where you are.”

I aimed in Literary Trails to draw attention to those especially descriptive passages about place in North Carolina that would help newcomers and natives know more about the sites and scenery that had inspired four centuries of extraordinary literature, both from writers born here and writers who came to the state for inspiration and sometimes escape.

Photo by Donna Campbell

Photo by Donna Campbell

Naturally we would visit Thomas Wolfe’s mother’s boarding house in Asheville and the antebellum home in Flat Rock where poet Carl Sandburg spent the last two decades of his life. But we also found a number of less well-known literary sites: the house in the village of Norwood in Stanly County where poet Eleanor Ross Taylor was born and the houses in Hillsborough and Greensboro where she lived with her husband, the short story master Peter Taylor.

We found the grave of Alex Haley’s enslaved kinsman who had been related to Chicken George and who proved to be the last link in the author’s Roots research to his family line. We visited the pleasant hillside where a cabin once stood beneath monumental maple trees in Banner Elk. Here Florida writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings holed up one autumn to draft her masterpiece, The Yearling. Down in Gastonia, near the South Carolina line, we marveled at the hulking textile mill where a workers’ strike turned deadly in 1929 and inspired no fewer than four novels in a decade by different authors.

We also searched for much more obscure sites—a grassy bank in the Smoky Mountains, now under the waters of Fontana Lake, where wild strawberries once grew and evoked a brilliant story by playwright, social activist, and fiction writer Olive Tilford Dargan. Often the destinations required that we imagine what once had been. No there there, as Gertrude Stein would say. Only in literature had these places prevailed.

By 2004 some drivers had begun navigating road trips with portable GPS devices mounted on their dashboards. Donna and I did not rely on GPS for Literary Trails. I’d traveled with such devices on occasion, but even if I’d had such a tool, I’m afraid it would not have functioned when I needed it most. Who can forget that feeling after turning onto a narrow country road, when suddenly the GPS image is showing that you are traveling with no markings whatsoever, no road illustrated ahead or behind, only that cartoon blue sedan meandering across the small screen, alone in beige landscape.

For guidance, Donna and I instead carried DeLorme’s North Carolina Atlas and Gazetteer. At fifteen inches tall, this ample collection of seventy-eight maps, which are still being updated and published today, offers incredible topographic details, including icons that mark fishing locations, hiking trails, deep forests, and camping sites. The atlas was as low tech as the library books it sat among in the back seat of my truck.

We began in Black Mountain, at the revered site where an eclectic and bohemian group of artists and thinkers—many writers among them—launched a progressive experiment in liberal arts education. Black Mountain College began in 1933. Faculty and students prepared meals together and shared living quarters. Their curriculum was cross disciplinary and wide ranging. Albert Einstein served on the board of the college, and Buckminster Fuller built his first geodesic dome on the grounds. The list of literary luminaries who visited or taught at Black Mountain is long—Thornton Wilder, Henry Miller, Francine du Plessix Gray, and Robert Creeley, among others. Dancer Merce Cunningham, painters Willem de Kooning and Jacob Lawrence, and composer John Cage were also part of the Black Mountain community. The Studies Building, a Bauhaus edifice that looks oddly modern against the ancient Black Mountains, still remains. Worn stone stairs set in a steep hill recall the footsteps of those who must have climbed them time and again, coming and going to classes and guest lectures.

* * *

It would take ten years, more than 50,000 miles, and two vehicles before we completed our tour of the 100 counties that comprise North Carolina. We finished our journey at the site of the Lost Colony in Manteo on the Outer Banks, ending, as it were, at the beginning of the colonization of North Carolina and the diminishment of the indigenous tribes that had been stewards of the region for thousands of years.

The story of the Lost Colony has puzzled scholars for centuries. What happened to that hardy band of English settlers—men, women, and children—most notably the infant Virginia Dare, the first English child born in what would become the United States? The souls who occupied Fort Raleigh on Roanoke Island had already disappeared when their leader, John White, finally returned with provisions. His trip back from England had taken three years due to the vicissitudes of war and the ill-tempered queen.

The colony’s disappearance eventually inspired the creation of a new theatrical form—the symphonic drama—devised by the distinguished North Carolina playwright Paul Green. The Lost Colony opened on July 4, 1937, and except for the blackouts of World War II, has run continuously in summer for more than seventy-five years in an amphitheater built on the Fort Raleigh site. The production also bolstered the careers of innumerable actors, including North Carolina’s own Andy Griffith. Even Betty Smith, the author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, took a turn playing an Indian maiden in the production after launching her literary career at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill under Paul Green’s tutelage.

* * *

Commissioned by the North Carolina Arts Council and organized by region, the three volumes of Literary Trails are embroidered with beautiful full-page maps, one for each of the fifty-four tours, created by Michael Southern, an architectural historian and cartographer. The maps are stunningly compact, efficient, and detailed. They were obviously challenging to create; some tours cover great stretches of geography. Particularly in eastern North Carolina, it is often necessary to meander a long way around our state’s enormous sounds—some 12,000 miles of estuarine coastline.

As it turns out, readers, especially older folks, have used the three books as much for armchair travel as for actual road trips. I suppose, if we were starting the project now, however, a clever coder could take the coordinates for each destination and translate the tours into a downloadable app that would follow along with the narrative. Or the book itself could simply give latitude and longitude for each destination, and travelers could plug these numbers into their handheld devices.

But looking back, I must ask, what are we missing now with such new convenience in navigation?

* * *

It is bittersweet to remember the frustration I had as a child trying to fold an enormous road map, as big as the hood of our vehicle, back into its proper nesting sections so that it would fit into the glove box of the family station wagon. Glove box and station wagon—quaint terms associated with what was once called motoring in the Esso gas stations where we stopped. “Happy motoring,” was the brand slogan than adorned the rack of free maps inside Esso gas stations where we stopped.  The rack was usually placed next to a squat Coca-Cola machine that dispensed eight-ounce glass bottles of the brown elixir that we favored along with peanuts for a snack when we traveled.

The blue veins and red arteries that crisscrossed the countryside on those big maps were always of unfolding amazement to me as I was first learning to read them. And every year for our family vacation we’d get a crisp, new map smelling of fresh ink and snapping like a flag as we flung it open to check our progress along the route.

This was still the era before long stretches of the interstate highways commissioned by President Eisenhower were completed in the South, roads slowly carved out of the countryside to spare us the variable speed limits, stop signs, and traffic lights of small, rural towns. The summer before my fourth grade school year, we drove straight up U.S. Highway 1 to New York City—two lanes most of the way—to deliver my brother to his lowly cabin on the Queen Elizabeth I. He was a college sophomore headed to Europe for a year’s study in Vienna. I was only nine years old and much more taken with the fact that the ship had an elevator than any speculation about his romantic destination.

My mother had already fanned my enthusiasm for the new forms of conveyance I would experience on this trip. We rode in the subway, a taxicab, a train, and even on a moving walk that passed alongside Michelangelo’s Pietá, on loan from the Vatican for an exhibition at the 1964 World’s Fair. One day we ate in an automat and rode to the top of the Empire State Building. That night I was transfixed by the view out the window of our room in the Hotel Astor, where a billboard displayed the head of a handsome man whose open lips sent perfectly round smoke rings into the chill night air while he held a Camel cigarette in his elegant fingers as if he’d just taken a deep drag.

The world seemed so big and full of remarkable sites. To my child’s eyes, the size of our road maps suggested great distance and complexity, especially compared to the amount of real estate that can be meaningfully captured on a hand-held screen today. But more significantly, because we can now plug in an address and follow every turn on the little screen, never bothering to look up at what we are passing, we don’t have to know how to get anywhere. We don’t have to navigate the bigger picture. Wanting to see and know more, however, is innate in a child.

Before I was old enough to go to school, I spent many days and nights with my grandparents while both of my parents were at work. My grandfather taught me “to tell time” before I went to kindergarten. My grandmother taught me to identify birds. And on my own, somehow, I began to study the flagstones that my grandfather had laid out along the paths through their gardens. To me, the stones looked like maps.

I followed these paths every day, my stride barely long enough to get me from one stone island to the next, for they were laid out with gaps for adult legs. In them I saw the distinctive outlines of Georgia, Tennessee, Montana, and Florida. Two smaller stones set side by side looked like Vermont and New Hampshire.

Back at home with my parents, I studied my box of “Flash Cards of the Fifty States.” I loved this collection so much that my parents followed it with a set of global flash cards. I can still remember that Brazil was green and Peru was yellow. The colors imprinted on my mind as indelibly as the shapes. Chile was a bold orange.

My brother, already in high school then, owned a globe that spun on its axis. I envied this treasure, and he occasionally let me touch and spin it, though he told me with authority and a hint of boredom that it was already out of date, because Germany and Korea had split in two after the wars, and now Vietnam was doing the same thing. Though I didn’t know it, that globe was also teaching me something about the affairs of humans.

* * *

Some years later, when a friend’s mother finished raising her children, she decided to join President Carter’s Friendship Force and travel the world. The first thing she did in preparation was to order a wall-sized world map from National Geographic. The map was so large, it came in sections that had to be carefully overlapped and mounted, floor to ceiling. Her daughters installed the map. It took up the entire wall of one recently empty bedroom in their house. Sara Helen wanted to study this image of the world well in advance of her trip so that she could picture in her mind exactly where she was going. Her daughters only made one error in the installation, at a seam where the map did not overlap properly. Forever thereafter the family joked about BoBolivia, as it read on the bedroom wall.

The point is we don’t even need to study maps anymore before we leave on a journey. We are not required to cultivate a sense of direction. I am grateful to have grown up in a time when maps were essential tools that came in a size and form that resembled something closer to the true scale of grand distances. The maps of my childhood provided context—the relationship of one place nestled up against another, county by county, state by state, mountain by mountain, land reaching water. They showed the boundaries of our human making and the shapes from God’s hand.

Much has already been made about our current preoccupation with staring into cell phones, the hazards of texting while driving, and the sad isolation of couples in restaurants who seldom, if ever, look at their dinner companions or acknowledge their meal only when preparing to hoist a fork to their lips, still focused on the device in the other hand.

Consider the hazards to young people of never having a larger perspective and sense of scale, the context that large, printed maps once offered us. If all we ever know of going somewhere is writ smaller than the size of one hand, the road pictured as running only as far as the next turn ahead, we have lost something essential.

Eudora Welty never had a cell phone, but she understood how to navigate the human heart: “There may come to be new places in our lives that are second spiritual homes closer to us in some ways, perhaps, than our original homes. But the home tie is the blood tie. And had it meant nothing to us, any other place thereafter would have meant less, and we would carry no compass inside ourselves to find home ever, anywhere at all. We would not even guess what we had missed.”