Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains: A Guidebook (University of North Carolina Press, 2007) by Georgann Eubanks is a revelation. In turns historic tome, travel guide, Southern heritage volume and trivia collection, the book is exactly the sort of thing that’s so obvious it’s a wonder no one wrote it sooner, and such an ambitious undertaking it’s remarkable the book was ever completed.
But, clocking in at around 400 information-dense pages, Literary is as complete as any book attempting to catalogue an continually evolving culture could hope to be.
The book is organized into tours rather than chapters, each representing a day’s wanderings through a couple towns with plenty of time allotted for numerous landmarks. Some stop offs are specifically literary, such as poet Carl Sandburg’s farm and Lake Eden, the former site of Black Mountain College. Other sites evoke creative inspiration (the hike favored by writer Horace Kephart and his friend photographer George Masa; Texana, the African-American settlement mentioned in Peter Jenkin’s A Walk Across America) or clue the traveler in to mountain culture (the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway; a produce stand in Marshall, N.C.).
Each tour begins with a list of writers associated with that particular area, followed by notes on each stop that incorporate not only current and historical information but excerpt from books and poems. Little-known facts are in abundance: The Cold Mountain driving tour includes an eight-mile bicycle loop at Sunburst Campground, named for the logging camp used at the start of Champion Paper and described in Donald Davis’s 1994 novel, Miles from Suncrest.
Despite a wealth of material culled from regional writers, Eubanks isn’t shy about adding her own poetic kernels. “Soon the daylight will be dimmed by so many overhanging trees and by the sheer rise and drop on either side of the road,” she relates of the Cold Mountain area, and, “Like the Cherohala Skyway, [‘Tail of the Dragon’] is wildly popular with motorcyclists and drivers of small sports cars who seem to enjoy pushing their luck on relentless curves,” of another route.
Readers from Asheville and the surrounding area will gravitate to Literary‘s first ten tours, covering the area from Black Mountain to Dillsboro and Hot Springs to Hendersonville. It can’t be helped — we live here so we’re compelled, like gossip hounds, to read every word about our own stomping grounds. But even those well-trod paths, with Eubanks’ thorough treatment, turn up a few surprises. Tour 8, the Weaverville to North Asheville trek, begins with a list of area writers. Contemporary authors Richard Chess, Tommy Hays and Valerie Leff are listed along with native sons O. Henry and Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald buddy Tony Buttitta and singer Nina Simone.
There’s a faded image of teen-age Wilma Dykeman posing with Wolfe at a cabin in Oteen, N.C. among the book’s admirable collection of photos. Prime Buncombe County tips include: Weaverville’s Bess Tilson Sprinkle Memorial Library houses volumes on local history; North Asheville’s Log Cabin Motor Court was used in the filming of 1950s movie Thunder Road.
Rife with factoids (Did you know? Sylva is the home of young adult writer Sue Ellen Bridgers, who has worked on films with her son Sean whose acting credits include Nell, Sweet Home Alabama and Deadwood; Highlands poet Jonathan Williams (Tour 3) was born in Asheville the same year Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel was published and attended Black Mountain College (Tour 1); Highlands-born actress Colin Wilcox appeared in — among other films — Journey of August King based on the book by N.C. author John Ehle), Literary also offers up plenty of utilitarian travel tips. Maps are clear and plentiful, but more important are the copious asides. Note that wild strawberry picking opportunities are few and far between but springtime visitors to Robbinsville, N.C. can check out the state’s premier ramp festival.
Overall, Literary is an impressive read both for locals and WNC’s ex-pat population, but any literary buff is sure to enjoy the detailed text, well-chosen excerpts, countless film references, excellent historic and contemporary photo collection and well organized tour routes. Best of all, however, is Eubanks’ well-proven point that WNC’s literary heritage is a rich work in progress.