Climbing Cold Mountain

“Dig a hole
Dig a hole in the meadow
Dig a hole in the cold, cold ground.” (from “Darling Corey”)

I find myself humming this traditional tune while sitting on a ledge overlooking a dense stand of spruce, fir and hemlock.

I heard it on the radio earlier in the day while negotiating the meandering back roads of rugged Haywood County. Now the song strikes an immediate chord as I glance up from the ridge and spot a scraggly peak poking up among the other 6,000 foot mountains clustered in and around the Shining Rock Wilderness: Sam’s Knob, Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain. Even Mount Hardy, the shadowy one I climbed earlier, tops out nearly 200 feet taller than the forested mountain where I sit.

But elevation isn’t everything. And this lower peak — Cold Mountain — is the only one in my viewfinder that’s making international news today. Cold Mountain the movie, based on Charles Frazier’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, hits the big screen on Christmas Day.

The film version features an A-list cast including Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger and Jude Law. Joining those megastars are director Anthony Minghella and his Academy Award-winning production crew from The English Patient.

Earlier this month, I spent a day walking along Fork Ridge in the sometimes-temperamental Middle Prong Wilderness, which conjured up thoughts about both book and movie. During a midday hiking break, I started thinking about the incredible aerial photography throughout The English Patient. Glancing north over the undulating topography surrounding Cold Mountain, I recalled a comment I’d heard Minghella make last month during a nationally televised interview.

When the veteran director was challenged about his choice of filming locales — Cold Mountain was shot mostly in Transylvania, Romania — Minghella acted casual.

“If you go in the air and look down on America,” he said, “it’s got all of the tattoos of the 21st century. … But in Transylvania there are … miles of this completely virgin landscape.”

Looking south toward our Transylvania (County, that is) on this cloudless, crisp December morning, I survey the land and instantly notice long, linear swaths of power lines, protruding water towers, checkerboarded towns and farms beyond the multilayered ridgelines. Through my binoculars, I can make out the skyline of Greenville, S.C., 70 miles away.

The ultimate guidebook

The truth is, our Southern Highlands have borne the blemishes of civilization for centuries. More than 200 years ago, early-American naturalist William Bartram described the 18th-century WNC landscape north and west of Cold Mountain as exhibiting “open, cultivated valleys with well-worn paths and roads, and native villages visible in the distance perched on the hillsides.”

From 1773-77, Bartram traveled through the Southeast, including the mountainous regions of the Carolinas and Georgia now managed as national forest in the Pisgah, Oconee, Nantahala and Chattahoochee districts. Through his observations, drawings and recordings, Bartram documented American anthropology, geography and natural history in his classic book The Travels of William Bartram.

Bartram’s writing and illustration set an American standard for depicting nature, influencing later American writers such as Emerson, as well as visual artists like Thomas Cole of the Hudson River School.

In 1997, Bartram’s vivid images were once again resurrected in Frazier’s wildly successful novel. The Western North Carolina native, who’s now based in Raleigh, frequently used his protagonist, Inman (inspired by Frazier’s great-great uncle, W.P. Inman), to introduce excerpts from Bartram’s historic narrative.

Despite the 90-year gap between the time of Bartram and the Civil War, Frazier’s use of this material works well, notes local historian Dan Pierce.

Pierce, an assistant professor of history at UNCA, explains: “Bartram’s Travels reveal[s] a significant insight into the way things probably [still] looked [in the 19th century], especially how Native Americans [had] shaped the landscape.”

Pierce commends Frazier’s accurate depiction of open balds (mountaintops where nothing grows), the herding economy of Appalachia, and the culture of the Cherokee.

“He does a good job recounting the intense isolation experienced by mountain communities, and describing the emotional perspectives of Civil War deserters who increasingly viewed the conflict not so much as a ‘rich man’s war but as a poor man’s fight,'” adds Pierce (see sidebar for more).

A delicate balance

Unfolding more like a piece of oral history than a book, Cold Mountain recounts the Homeric homeward journey of a wounded Confederate soldier. Disgusted with the horrifying experience of war and nearly hallucinating with memories of home, Inman walks away from his bed in a coastal Confederate hospital.

Setting his sights on his Cold Mountain community, the weary soldier hopes to reunite with Ada Monroe, his prewar sweetheart.

And so begins this extraordinary adventure — interwoven with the parallel journey of the cultured, Charleston-bred Ada, who’s been left alone in wild mountain terrain to survive on her own. (Her eccentric preacher father, now dead of tuberculosis, had earlier moved the two of them from the coast to the Cold Mountain region.)

Frazier spotlights the desolate wartime conditions when Ada walks into town one day: “Women and children and old men worked the crops, since every man of age to fight was off warring.”

But Inman finds intermittent relief from the countless misfortunes and hardships he encounters along the way by reading Bartram’s poetic accounts. From the very beginning, Frazier tells us, “the book he was reading had the effect of settling his mind.”

Wandering westerly for nearly a month, Inman struggles through an unrelenting stretch of wet, lonely days and nights as he nears the mountains. He eventually stumbles on a speck of dry ground beneath a vacant chicken house. During the night, he unfurls his scroll of Travels and reads a passage that reminds him of his homeland: “To Inman’s mind the land stood not as he’d seen it and known it for all of his life, but as Bartram had summed it up,” writes Frazier.

Throughout the story, the author introduces a cast of colorful secondary characters (both friendly and antagonistic) who kindle readers’ interest and entice them to weather the storm with Inman.

Unlike the 2 million readers who apparently devoured Frazier’s debut novel, I admit I had a difficult time hanging on to his slowly developing story.

What finally held me was Frazier’s comfortable integration of historical fiction with an accurate portrayal of natural and cultural history. Like the descriptions of other mountain residents I’ve interviewed, the author’s lyrical prose keenly reminded me of the WNC landscape. My own years wandering the Cold Mountain region have yielded a number of rich experiences — including finding a bobcat wandering aimlessly along the Flat Laurel Trail, rock-hopping on Shining Creek, and admiring peregrine falcons stooping beyond the Blue Ridge escarpment.

Today is no exception. Soon as I hit the trail, on a saddle a mile high, nine turkeys flush from the thicket and instantly fly over the ridge; they are quickly out of sight.

The song remains the same

Music typically plays a role in any Appalachian tale. Frazier cleverly weaves this indispensable thread throughout his book, especially through the animated character of Stobrod, an “outlier” (deserter) who reconnects with life through his fiddle.

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