When I got home six days later, the odometer said I had driven 940 miles, with a graduation foray to Raleigh thrown in as well. I first made a solo journey, a Sunday drive that lasted two pleasant days, rolling up a good many of those miles driving down North Carolina’s mountainous Highway 64.
I was retracing the route I’d traveled with my parents long ago. We take off early on a Sunday and head north to the hills. Get back well after dark. All these year later, I followed them. Loaded down with camera gear, water, coffee, luggage, and an old-fashioned paper map, I struck out. Up around Dillard, Ga., I took Highway 23 into North Carolina and soon ran into Highway 64. East I turned into the land of memory.
Down Highway 64, you’ll run into an agreeable string of towns: Highlands, Cashiers (pronounced cashers), Brevard, Hendersonville, Bat Cave, Chimney Rock, and Lake Lure. Mom always talked about Highlands and Cashiers, and she and Dad spent their honeymoon at Chimney Rock, a fact not lost on me when I checked into the Esmeralda Inn. “Esmeralda.” Is there a prettier word in the English language? (Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote the play Esmerelda (with an extra “e”) in 1881 while staying at an inn near Lake Lure, N.C.)
Emerald green hills and white cascades accompanied me on this nostalgic, literary journey. And so did rocks. Lots of rocks. Massive boulders and sheer rock faces glistened here and there thanks to seeps, rivulets, and waterfalls. I love it up here, so let me get this out of the way now. If you haven’t been to this region in a long time, you’re in for a shock. Development is ruining it. Places I recall tucked into woods and forests now stand exposed and surrounded by multitudes of businesses. This world could use a plague. Yeah, I said it.
I’ve written before that the mountains serve up more surprises than the coast. It’s true. The green crumpled hills often confine your vision to what’s in front of the windshield. Round a bend and the earth drops away thousands of feet. Round another curve and a waterfall thunders away. Climb a serpentine, switchback highway and you drift in and out of clouds. Stand on a beach and you see, well, lots more beach and too many people.
Two places, in particular, intrigued me on this journey. I wanted to see again Carl Sandburg’s writing studio and I wanted to stay at the Esmeralda Inn.
Sandburg’s home, Connemara, makes for a good experience, but even here development has squeezed in as close as it can. You drive through an urban area to reach the parking lot. Wasn’t that way 16 years or so ago, and it sure wasn’t like that when Sandburg’s wife tended her beloved goats there. And what about that name, Connemara? That’s a mouthful isn’t it. William Faulkner called his home Rowan Oak. Big shot writers name their homes. Well, I have a name for mine too. I call it home.
I don’t know that Mom and Dad honeymooned at the old Esmeralda Inn (it burned in 1997), but I like to think that they did. In the early 1900s, Hollywood fell in love with this region. The Esmeralda Inn served as a setting for many silent films. Maybe that’s what attracted my parents to this place. Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Douglas Fairbanks, and Clark Gable stayed at the old inn to escape the crowds. Lew Wallace finished the script for Ben Hur in Room 9 of the old inn. Many years later Hollywood re-discovered the Esmeralda Inn filming Last of the Mohicans, Firestarter, and Dirty Dancing here.
Do you ladies recall the scene where Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Gray danced? I’m sure you do. Well, you walk that very floor now when you check into the Esmeralda Inn. I checked in and found it to be a beautiful, luxurious and quiet escape from the harassment of daily life. I stared at that floor recalling Otis Redding’s voice, the “Mashed Potato,” and other songs from Dirty Dancing. You can, too.
Across Highway 64, the Broad River purls and, beyond it, a massive cliff skyrockets up bringing to mind Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it is a sheer and dangerous face that looks down on the Broad River and nearby Lake Lure.
Highway 64. For me it was a chance to hit the road. A chance to relive old memories, and a chance to see where the man worked who wrote all that poetry and Abraham Lincoln, The Prairie Years. Best of all, it gave me a chance to say that beautiful word, “Esmeralda,” upon my return to the flatlands.